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, relaxed walks at the park, or hopping into the car and taking him to the dog event of the year. When you first started to walk him, he was a bit of a puller on the leash. And now, your dog is a nightmare to walk … even just 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 his behavior … and it’s usually rooted in anxiety and over-arousal. So, this is about how to ease dog anxiety on walks. 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 guidelines will help get you and your dog on the right path to an enjoyable walk.
Manage The Behavior
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 “nightmare” behavior. Keep reading to find out how to do that.
(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 … Pavlov 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’m going to teach you how to use this in teaching your dog to have a positive response around other dogs … and how to focus on you instead of those other dogs.
You need to find a variety of rewards that your dog finds extremely valuable. He shouldn’t get these rewards unless you’re working on his reactivity. These need to be very important to him, so you can try Pavlov’s approach with him.
I typically use 100 percent cooked, dehydrated or freeze dried meat. Most dogs love organ meats in these forms. Or, 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.
Give Him Space
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’re 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 :). My Golden Retriever needed about a football field of distance when we started working on his issues, and he’d improved to a 5 foot distance by the time he passed away.
Find The Right Location
It’s important to pick the right location to walk your dog. This ties right into the space issue.
As an example, if your dog needs 20 feet between him and another dog and you are at a park trying to cross a bridge that’s only 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.
You don’t need special training equipment. As I mentioned earlier, anxiety is a common reason why dogs start to exhibit dog reactivity and lunging. So, leave any kind of punishment in the hands of outdated TV trainers.
I personally prefer to work with humane and effective training tools. These include front-clipping harnesses or occasionally head collars (halters), along with a 6 foot nylon or leather leash, and motivating treats and toys.
Train On Every Outing
Your dog is always learning, so that means you must be ready to teach him during every walk or potty break. Even if you step out into your front yard, make sure you bring his favorite 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.
What To Do On Walks
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 to change your dog’s emotions and get the focus back on you.
Practice Behaviors He’s Good At
As you and your dog start out on your walk, take the time to use some of your dog’s known behavior cues … like 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 of 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!
On Your Walk …
Keep randomly practicing his behavior cues (sit, wait, come, etc.) for short bursts (15 seconds), then continue to walk.
Keep an eye 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 … but stay at a distance where he doesn’t react.
- As soon as he sees the dog, mark this behavior with your reward marker. The marker is what you use to confirm this is the behavior you want. It might be “GOOD”, “YES” or clicking with a clicker. Then immediately pay him with his treat, while you and your dog change directions to increase 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. In this case, you want your dog to think that other dogs mean special treats and fun for him! Soon, your dog will see another dog and look toward you for his reinforcement.
Nice, isn’t it?
You really can have a dog who’ll walk well on a leash without lunging at other dogs. Be patient … it doesn’t happen overnight.
Remember my Golden? Well, it took 8 years to get him to a 5 foot distance. But we went from a football field 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.
Learn The Emergency U-Turn
You should learn about the emergency U-turn. This will help you out on the rare occasions you’re surprised by another dog that’s 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. Then tap your 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 essential tool.
Now get outside and start enjoying those walks!