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.
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.