Updated: Feb 19, 2022
If you've ever lived with a leash aggressive or reactive dog, you know it's not easy. Walks are less like walks and more like battles of lunging, pulling, snapping, barking, growling, and general mayhem. The embarrassment, possibly dealing with angry neighbors, or even being called to a vicious dog hearing. It can be overwhelming. Desperate, many owners find themselves walking at 3am to avoid other people or dogs. Many have tried multiple leashes and collars, scolding, distracting, anything in the hope that their dog will "get over it," In most cases, none of this works. Why? Well, to change something, first you have to understand it.
Your dog may lunge at anything that moves, be it humans, leaves, paper bags, or even those little garden flags (you know the ones, with the perfectly behaved Labradors, watching you, mocking you as if to say "We're so good someone painted us on a tiny flag. Your dog could never be on a tiny flag."). Many dogs react to only humans, others only to dogs. A few freak out at very specific things, like 3lb, pink, female poodles with blue eyes. So why do some dogs react to some things, and others to others? Because each dog is an individual with an individual set of genes and an individual set of experiences that have impacted feelings, emotions and behavior. The same reasons why are some humans afraid of heights while others are afraid of snakes. When it comes to behavior, there is no one size fits all explanation for why, even though we really want one. Honestly, it doesn't particularly matter, because the way to address the behavior is the same whether the dog barks at beagles or lunges at lawnmowers.
Why Dogs React
Say you're afraid of spiders (shudder). Imagine when you went for walks, there were often giant spiders. Some came up, and made strange sounds, crouched down low and reached out long, thin hairy arms to touch you You said you didn't like it, you asked them to stop, but they didn't and your partner didn't listen. You couldn't run away because you were tied to your partner. They kept telling you that you were fine and dragged you closer, but you weren't fine. After this happened several times, you noticed that if you growled at them, they went away. Now, you jump forward and bark and your partner freaks out too! Clearly, they hate the spiders too. But you keep getting in trouble for doing what you thought was right, so now you're really frustrated and confused.
Alternatively, imagine a similar scenario and you're walking around with your partner, but instead of spiders there are murderers. Suddenly, one comes too close - danger! Attack, protect your person, protect yourself. The murderer goes away. I think I'll always watch for murderers and freak out even when they are far away, just in case.
Hopefully, you realize this is an over simplified explanation, and that there are other factors, but for the sake of time and clarity, you get the gist. You can see how a behavior can develop and how your behavior can help it along.
What NOT to Do
As humans, it makes sense to us that if you tell someone no, they should listen. It makes sense to humans who understand human language. Dogs aren't humans and unfortunately, they often have no clue what "no" means or why they are in trouble. They just know that strangers suck, their person gets upset, and the dog gets in trouble.
Imagine you're walking around and you step on a snake. I think that would make anyone jump. Some of us can get over it, but others will really freak. If this happens enough, or if a single event is really bad (ex: you wake up to 20 snakes in bed), really strong feelings can develop. For some, that fear may remain fear but for others that fear may turn into aggression. Now say you see a snake, you freak out, and suddenly your partner screams at you and hits you. This happens on walks every time you see a snake. How do you feel about snakes now? How do you feel about your partner?
Let's take it a step further. You see the snake, freak out, and suddenly you feel a jolting pain around your neck. If the pain is bad enough, it won't take long for you to see a snake and hold those feelings in. You've learned that if you freak out, you'll feel pain. You feel the same way inside, but you no longer communicate your feelings on the outside and you certainly don't trust your partner. Now fast forward days, months, years. You're at a barbeque, minding your own business, when suddenly a stranger holds a rubber snake in your face. The feelings all come flooding out at once - the fear, the anticipation of pain - and you slap the guy on the face. You didn't warn him because you'd already been trained that warnings get punished. See where I'm going with this?
Now, you may not agree and you may insist that pain can decrease aggression. I agree, it certainly can. However, the timing has to be perfect and the experience has to be so unpleasant that the dog doesn't ever want to experience it again. With timing is that good, I would urge you to consider reward training. Hey, if it works for gorillas it can work for dogs! If you are ok with intentionally causing or paying someone else to cause severe pain to your dog, we are not only not on the same page - we're not in the same library. Here's the thing: your approach is entirely your choice, and we all have the freedom to do what we want with our dogs. I would just caution you as to the risk of your relationship with your dog as well as future, unknown fall out.However, if you're interested in another option that seeks to change the dog's feelings and increase trust and communication, there's professionals who can help.
If you want to learn even more about this, check out my upcoming seminar series Freak on a Leash that will look at understanding, handling, and dealing with leash reactivity. Content is appropriate for dog owners, dog walkers, shelters and rescue, foster homes, or anyone who loves dogs. Reactivity toward strangers and toward other dogs will be covered.