Bad Leash Behavior Explained

I would like to talk about poor behav­ior on leash, par­tic­u­larly those unde­sired behav­iors that are directed at other dogs.  What us train­ers call “leash reac­tiv­ity” or “dog-reactive on leash”.  The bulk of new train­ing con­tacts I get are about, or at least men­tion, their dogs bark­ing or lung­ing at other dogs on leash.  My Snarky Dog class for leash-reactive dogs is one of my most pop­u­lar classes. Leash reac­tiv­ity is a very com­mon prob­lem and not at all sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing how many things our dogs do on leash and how much they inter­fere with inter­ac­tions between dogs.  What does sur­prise me is how few resources there are for fam­i­lies with reac­tive dogs.  Most of the clients that come to me believe their prob­lem to be unique and that their dog is abnor­mal or dam­aged in some way.  It is as though it were a secret that leashes are awk­ward for dogs.  Well, I am here to speak to those of you whose dogs lunge, bark, snap, or gen­er­ally act-a-fool towards other dogs on leash.  You are not alone.

Dogs touching noses on leash

Leashes inter­rupt nat­ural two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion.  When given the chance, unfa­mil­iar dogs greet each other by approach­ing in a long slow arch.  They usu­ally bypass front halves entirely (or do an incred­i­bly brief face sniff if there is some ten­sion) and head right toward the bums where they will do a short inves­ti­ga­tion before invit­ing play or mov­ing on to another activ­ity.  For nor­mal well-socialized dogs this whole process takes only a few sec­onds.  Most of the inter­ac­tion is nego­ti­ated before actual con­tact is made (a body lan­guage con­ver­sa­tion takes place dur­ing approach to ensure greet­ing is con­sen­sual) and move­ments will be slowed or exag­ger­ated slightly to ensure sig­nals are heard clearly by both par­ties.  Either party has the choice to opt-out if there is ten­sion and polite dogs will respect this and abort the greet­ing.  This is all very sub­tle and hard to catch for the novice observer.

Leashes, even with expe­ri­ence han­dlers and loose-leash greet­ings, pretty much inter­fere with every­thing about this.  They inter­rupt the dogs’ tim­ing.  They force the dogs to awk­wardly pass, or even worse, stop at each oth­ers faces.  Nar­row side­walks force dogs to greet every dog they encounter.  They com­pel unsure dogs to linger in a greet­ing long past desired.  They cause frus­tra­tion, uncer­tainty, and con­fu­sion abound.

More dog play time isn’t a fix.  We do such a good job of screen­ing and select­ing safe play­mates of sim­i­lar age and play style.  Often our dogs don’t get to greet grouchy or odd dogs and learn to size up and avoid them.  For many dogs, they truly haven’t met a dog that’s not a friend.  This along with long peri­ods of unstruc­tured, unin­ter­rupted play like that fre­quently hap­pens at dog parks can leave young dogs caught off guard when their play attempts are unap­pre­ci­ated.  They have been able to greet and play with just about any dog they fancy and this makes the no-nonsense rules of the leash all the more frus­trat­ing.  At the dog park it is all friends and fun but on the leash they are expected to sto­ically pass every dog they see.

Social skills do not equal leash skills.  Fre­quently the most social dogs are the most likely to fall vic­tim to the awk­ward­ness that is “leash”.  It makes sense.  You are a polite friendly dog: you love other dogs, your human fam­ily social­ized you, you have a whole slew of dog bud­dies with whom you get along, you go to the dog park or day­care but… every time you meet a future friend on leash every­thing goes dis­as­trously.  You meet too fast.  You don’t get to prop­erly intro­duce your­self.  You get stuck with just enough leash to greet but not enough to pass the face end which is super uncom­fort­able for you.  You feel flus­tered and get tan­gled up when things go south.  It wouldn’t take much for you to develop a seri­ous com­plex about leashed greet­ings.  You may even take a pre­emp­tive approach and decide to chase dogs away before you are forced into an awk­ward leash tango.  Now you are labeled “reac­tive on leash”.

Leash issues are emo­tional.  Dogs gen­er­ally mis­be­have because they don’t under­stand that many of their nat­ural doggy behav­iors are not appro­pri­ate all the time.  Bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion and some well-placed rewards and prob­lem fixed, no hard feel­ings.  Leash reac­tiv­ity, on the other hand, is usu­ally chock full of emo­tion which is why issues can appear and esca­late very quickly.  What­ever the cause, being trapped at the end of a leash brews up frus­tra­tion, anx­i­ety, and dis­com­fort on a level akin to road rage in humans.  Noth­ing like trap­ping peo­ple in a metal box to bring out the worst; the same goes for con­strain­ing dogs to the end of a 6 foot rope.  Because of this, leash issues can’t be sim­ply fixed with a few snappy obe­di­ence moves (at least in the lat­ter stages), under­ly­ing emo­tions must be resolved before any progress is made.  We must change the way our dogs feel, not just how they behave.

Leashes are a nor­mal and nec­es­sary part of our world so what is one to do?  Well thank­fully most leash issues can be treated in the same way.  It’s a pretty sim­ple and straight­for­ward sys­tem.  The chal­lenge comes in find­ing or cre­at­ing envi­ron­ments in which to prac­tice.  It is tricky find­ing a place that ensures unfa­mil­iar dogs will not approach too close.  Set­backs hap­pen and a dog that gets ugly on leash can be super embar­rass­ing no mat­ter how harm­less they are.  Emo­tions run high and can hurt progress.  Some­times hav­ing a trainer do the ini­tial leg­work or hav­ing a helper to field approach­ing dogs helps.  But, bar­ring seri­ous aggres­sion (like the damage-doing unman­age­able kind) or severe pho­bic, fear­ful, or height­ened arousal issues, most dogs respond very well to a train­ing pro­gram and in a short period of time.  There is hope and it is not as far away as it seems.  In our next post I will detail some strate­gies to avoid, man­age, and resolve reac­tiv­ity issues on leash.

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