Ask the Trainer? - My dog's on leash barking...

April 25, 2018

Ask the Trainer......

Our dog is pretty good on the lead during walks, but if she sees another dog she starts barking like crazy and wants to get to the other dog as fast as she can. 

I feel like it’s getting a bit worse every week. She doesn’t have much interaction with other dogs as we live in a caravan park so that might have something to do with it? I started clicking when she looks at a dog and doesn't bark but as soon as the dog comes closer she will bark. 

 

What is the best way to deal with this/ train her so we can go for a “quiet” walk?

 

Sadly, this is not an uncommon complaint from dogs owners. A fair majority of the work I do in private sessions is with clients who are struggling with this or very similar issues. I also see a lot of dogs in classes who struggle with this as well. 

Often referred to as 'leash reactivity' or just reactivity. This particular behaviour issue can be due to a variety of underlying reasons.  

The two most common reasons are:

 

Frustration / Over Arousal - the dog wants to go and interact with the other dog. This can sometimes occur because the dog has learnt from a young age that they get to meet other dogs when out and about and/or from too much free for all play at parks. It becomes an expectation for the dog that seeing other dogs = play time and when this doesn't happen because they are restricted by the leash they become frustrated and start barking and pulling. 

Fear / Anxiety - the dog wants the other dog to go away and uses 'distance increasing signals' to try and make the other dog go away. Often this works as far as the dog is concerned because either the other dog is removed or the dog barking is removed. There can be a multitude of reasons why a dog may be fearful or anxious of other dogs, anything from poor early experiences, a lack of socialisation, being attacked or even genetics. In many cases well meaning owners have tried to 'socialise' their anxious or nervous dog with other dogs to help them overcome the issue but instead the dog has learnt to resort to this behaviour to get away from the other dogs. 

This is most certainly an overly simplified breakdown of this problem. There is often a little more to it than this, but entire books have been written on the subject. A blog is definitely not the place to go into the nitty gritty. 

Whether your dog is the first or second kind of reactive, much of the management and training is the same. Although for the dog the reinforcers and function are very different and our long term goals should reflect that. 

Due to the potential complexity of the issue, the need to be able to ascertain the function of the behaviour, the need to read dog body language fluently, public safety and other factors it is often best if you address this issue with the assistance of a qualified behaviour consultant. It is much better to ensure you are on the right track early, then to try things and potentially make it worse before you seek professional help. 
If you know very little about an engine, you wouldn't attempt to pull one apart to repair a major fault, doing so will likely lead to further problems and a much bigger bill when you finally take it to the mechanic. The same is true for working on complex behavioural issues with dogs. 

In the meantime, one of the most important things you can do to help your dog is managing their environment. 

  • Choose to walk in locations where you are less likely to see other dogs (ie: don't walk along residential streets where dogs are likely to run at fences and bark at you!). 

  • When you see another dog coming, stay calm, click and reinforce your dog for looking at it (like you are) but also create distance, don't stand and allow the other dog to come closer, move your dog further away. She needs this space to cope with the presence of the other dog. 

  • If you know your dog is friendly with other dogs, socialising at parks is great but you need to ensure your dog is also learning appropriate behaviour in order to access other dogs and that they are taking breaks and learning to respond to you even mid play! We have a blog on dog / dog play available here.

  • If you are unsure whether your dog is friendly with other dogs, then keep them on a leash when in areas where other dogs may be present. We love 'long leads' to ensure these dogs still get plenty of room to run around. We purchase ours from Oakford Stock Feeds in Port Hedland. 

  • And of course, ensure your dog is getting adequate (but not excessive) physical exercise and mental enrichment. Both physical and mental exercise should promote natural dog behaviours and relaxation. If your dog becomes over aroused or obsessed with a game this is likely to make their behaviour worse not better. We like this article on understanding canine arousal to explain why this is important: http://www.bbvs.com.au/canine-arousal/understanding-canine-arousal/

 

One last piece of advice before I finish up. Please avoid resorting to punishment / aversives in order to stop this behaviour from happening. Inappropriately or ineffectively applied punishment is likely to heighten a nervous dogs sense of anxiety/fear or for the dog who is friendly but frustrated teach them that other dogs are unsafe. Additionally punishment does not address WHY your dog is engaging in the behaviour but rather suppresses that particular behaviour - leading to either an eruption down the track or displacement of emotions leading to other problem behaviours arising. It is critical we address the underlying emotions involved in a behaviour in order to effectively change behaviour in the long term. 

One of my favourite sayings with regards to Reactive Dogs is - "Your dog is not giving you a hard time, s/he is having a hard time". 

Here are just a couple of our favourite resources on reactivity (there are many, many more):

Behaviour Adjustment Training: http://grishastewart.com/bat-overview/

Click to Calm: http://emmaparsons.com/

Control Unleashed: http://www.controlunleashed.net/book.html
 

 

Have a question you would like to ask a professional trainer? Email your question to: askthetrainer@dogtagdogtraining.com.au 

 

 

 

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