Does your otherwise friendly dog lunge at the end of the leash and bark at other dogs?
When you brought your dog home, I’m sure you visualized long, leisurely walks at the park, or hopping into the car and taking your dog to the dog event of the year.
But when you first started to walk your dog, he was a bit of a puller on the leash and now, it’s a nightmare even to try to walk him around the block.
So, instead of daily walks, you’re limiting your dog to his own yard, or short potty breaks at odd times of the day.
What went wrong? And more importantly, what can you do to fix the problem?
When a dog is lunging at the end of the leash, there is a big emotional component to that action. This emotion is usually rooted in anxiety and over-arousal.
So your focus will be on teaching your dog a new emotion when going on a walk or passing dogs.
You’ll be teaching your dog how to feel, rather than what not to do.
Once his baggage is gone, his behavior will improve.
More on that later.
These six steps will help get you and your dog on the right path to an enjoyable walk.
The first rule when you want to teach your dog a new behavior, or in this case, unteach a behavior, is to ensure that your dog can be successful.
So you first must know what “success” looks like, which in this case is “calm and relaxed.”
In order to change your dog’s behavior, he has to stop performing the unwanted behavior.
You may be ready to surf away about now, but hang with me; it’s not as hard as you may think.
As I mentioned earlier, we’ll be working toward changing your dog’s emotions from overly aroused and focused on other dogs, to comfortable and relaxed, focusing on you.
This is when we bring our old friend Pavlov into the picture. Do you remember learning about Pavlov’s dogs?
To recap, he rang a bell and immediately fed the test dogs.
Over time, the dogs learned that the bell meant food. So every time the bell rang, the dogs salivated and had a positive emotional response.
I am going to teach you how to use this in teaching your dog how to have a positive response around other dogs … and how to focus on you around other dogs.
You need to find a variety of rewards that your dog finds extremely valuable and doesn’t have access to unless you are working on his reactivity. These need to be very important to him because we are going to try our hand at the Pavlov dog routine.
I typically use 100 percent cooked or dehydrated meat. If your dog has a high toy drive, you can consider using a toy, but remember, you want it to be crazy valuable to him. Check out fleece tug toys or animal fur toys. Having both is always a good option.
The right amount of space between your dog and the oncoming dog is crucial.
If you have a pocket full of rewards your dog goes bonkers over, yet when he sees another dog he still reacts or blows you off, you are TOO CLOSE!
If your dog needs to be 50 feet away from another dog to get it right, then that’s where you need to start.
Don’t completely fret over this concept; it won’t be too long before that distance is 49 feet 🙂
By the way, my Golden Retriever needed about a football field’s worth of distance when we started working on his issues, and he had improved to a 5 foot distance by the time he passed away.
Determining the right location to walk your dog ties right into the space issue.
If your dog needs 20 feet between him and another dog and you are at a park trying to walk over a bridge that only is 10 feet wide, you’re setting your dog up to fail. Or if you re walking your dog on a path through dense woods with nowhere to retreat … again, you’re setting him up for failure.
Look for parks and other locations that are open with maybe a few scattered trees or buildings to step behind when needed.
As I mentioned earlier, anxiety is a common reason why dogs start to exhibit dog reactivity and lunging. So, we’ll leave any kind of punishment in the hands of outdated TV programs.
I personally prefer to work with humane and effective training tools such as front-clipping harnesses and occasionally head collars, along with a 6 foot nylon or leather leash, and motivating treats and toys.
It’s important to know that your dog is always learning, so that means you must be ready during every walk or potty break. Even if you step out into your front yard, have great rewards, and keep an eye out for oncoming dogs.
Now that you have all your ducks in a row, it’s time to tackle the walk.
If you have everything in place, it won’t be as hard as you think. If it feels hard and unsuccessful, it’s likely you need more space and/or higher rewards.
So, let’s get started in changing your dog’s emotions and get the focus back on you.
As you and your dog start out on your walk, take the time to use some of your dog’s known behavior cues such as his name, sit, down, and hand target.
Reward him for these behaviors, big time!, even if it’s easy for him.
You want to build a bond and relationship with your dog outside, even when there aren’t any dogs around.
The more behaviors he knows how to do, the better your chances at keeping his attention and focus on you.
If this step is challenging, practice in your yard until the foundation work is laid.
Once your dog has his foundation work, it’s time to hit the sidewalk with Fido!
Continue randomly practicing his behavior cues (sit, wait, come, etc.) for short bursts (15 seconds) then continue to walk.
Make sure you look out for other dogs, keeping in mind that all-important space your dog needs to be successful.
Once you see a dog entering your dog’s line of sight, allow him to see that dog. As soon as he sees the dog, mark this behavior with your reward marker (what you use to confirm this is the wanted behaviour, “GOOD”, “YES” or CLICK), then immediately pay him with his treat as you and your dog change directions, increasing the distance between the two dogs.
Repeat this process once again, by turning back toward the other dog, allowing your dog to see, YES, treat, move.
Continue this as long as your dog is happy and the amount of space is right.
When the distance starts to become too close (when your dog starts paying more attention to the other dog than to you), happily walk in another direction with your dog.
That’s it. Simple, right?
Yes, it really is.
It won’t feel easy at first, because just like your dog, YOU have emotional baggage with this situation.
But, just like your dog, the more you practice, the better you‘ll feel, especially as you see your dog responding well and becoming happy and relaxed.
You’re working towards the Pavlov theory. Other dogs mean treats and fun for your dog!
This means your dog will see the other dog and look toward you for his reinforcement.
Nice, isn’t it?
You really can have a dog who will walk well on a leash without lunging at other dogs, but that doesn’t mean it will happen overnight.
Do you remember my Golden? Well, his response took him eight years. However, our football field went to about 15 feet pretty quickly. It was the 15 to 5 feet stage that was hard. He had a lot of baggage to deal with, and it wasn’t all about dogs.
One Final Tip
You should learn about the emergency U-turn. This will help you out on the rare occasions you’re surprised by another dog and maybe a little too close for comfort.
During a walk, when there are no other dogs around, take a few steps together, then say your dog’s name and “this way” in an upbeat tone as you simultaneously tap your leg closest to your dog and make a U-turn.
Mark (YES/CLICK) this behavior and immediately give your dog an amazing reward!
It would look something like this: “Dexter, this way!” in a happy, fun tone, tap leg and move.
Practice this at various times when working with your dog on or off leash so that he understands what to do and is happy.
By practicing this on your walks when you don’t need it, you and your dog will be able to do it easily when you’re too close or surprised by another dog. It’s an invaluable tool.
Now get outside and start enjoying those walks!