What is Leash Aggression? How do you train a dog to not be leash reactive?
Leash aggression occurs when a dog becomes overly excited, aggressive, or anxious while on a leash. There are many reasons why a dog may act in reactive ways on a leash, and the environment around them can play a huge role in triggering leash aggressive behaviors. That environment being loud noises, people, cars-- you name it!
There is a difference between aggressive behavior and reactive behavior, and while they sound similar, it is important to distinguish between the two.
What are some of those reactive behaviors?
-Trying to escape
-Timid towards other dogs, people, or noises
Aggressive behavior should be worked on with a professional trainer! Some aggressive behaviors include attacking, growling, and excessive barking. Aggressive dogs are made, not born that way. It may take a variety of approaches to work with a dog that is reacting in an aggressive manner, but it is completely worth it. Training could save another dog from injury or death.
What are some of the drives for a dog to become leash reactive?
Fear can play a huge role! The dog may have anxiety caused by many external factors, like dogs, people, loud noises, or cars. Even skateboards can frighten a dog. Fearful dogs are hyper alert to their surroundings and it causes them to react more to their environment, rather than look to you for guidance. Fearful dogs may be this way because they have not been properly socialized with other people or dogs, they have had bad experiences with dogs or people, or they are naturally more anxious.
I suggest working on redirection to fearful stimuli and working on the command “look” to teach your dog to rely on you for guidance in new situations or triggers. Slowly introduce them into low-excitement areas and work your way up to high-excitement areas. Reward your dog with treats and comfort when introducing them to new environments and before they start exhibiting fearful behavior. Positive reinforcement is key!
When in a new environment and the dog is beginning to become fearful, redirect their attention with the “look” signal and then give them a treat. This will replace the fear with excitement of the treat and teach a positive association with new environments. Do not try to train with negative reinforcement, such as saying no, yelling, or yanking. Negative reinforcement will only increase fear and frustration.
If you can believe it, a dog can even react out of frustration. Dogs are usually excited or curious when they go outdoors, because there are tons of new smells and things going on. When they are restrained by the leash (for their safety) they may become frustrated because they are not able to reach their goal. Overstimulation is a huge component behind frustration, and it is important to train them to be calm on walks. One extreme behavior, like extreme excitement, can quickly turn into another extreme behavior, like extreme aggression.
Training is going to look similar to a dog that is anxious. Desensitize your dog to new stimuli by slowly introducing them to low-excitement areas and progress to high-excitement areas. The “look” command is going to be key in redirecting their attention back to you, and you can reward them with a treat, kind words, or pets in their favorite spot. I also suggest when a dog is relentlessly pulling on their harness to reach their goal, stop like a tree. When they look back at you and stop tugging, then you can start walking again. This teaches them that you are in control of their walk and they should remain calm in order to get what they want.
Prey Drive. Some of those dogs that have competitive behaviors or like chasing small animals, like rabbits or squirrels, exhibit that behavior when wearing a leash. They may see a squirrel in the distance and will try their hardest to pull and lunge towards it. Similar in the way that a frustrated or overstimulated dog may go from one extreme behavior to another, a dog with a prey drive may turn aggressive as well. Training is very necessary.
The “look” signal is helpful in redirecting their attention to you for guidance in situations where they want to chase a small animal. A method that can be used with treats is the “stalking” method, where you hold the treat below their head to make them look down and away from the “prey”. Take this treat then to the side of their body and let them eat it. After they have finished the treat, continue rotating the dog’s body by lightly tugging on the leash and walk away from the rabbit or squirrel.
Another method of training could be through a recall command. This method requires a long leash and a ball or toy that they will chase after. What this looks like is you hook on a long leash and throw a ball like you normally would away from them. The dog will start running after the toy and you call them back to you. When they come back to you, reward them with a treat or cuddles. In a real life situation where the dog is attempting to chase a small animal, they can be called back to you without any harm to another animal.
With all of these methods, I do recommend that you consult a professional for help with extreme behaviors. Extreme behaviors, regardless of fear, overstimulation, or prey drive, can be dangerous and incredibly frustrating to work through. Training cannot be rushed and desensitization can be a lengthy process. Trainors can also be someone to talk to and look to for help during the lows and highs of your work with your dog. Trained dogs also give everyone peace of mind and help your dog remain calm. A calm dog is a happy dog!