Dear Inquisitive Canine,
I have taken my dog to the dog park numerous times and he is great with other dogs. However, if he passes other dogs while walking on a leash, he tries to bound after them and acts as if he is going to attack. I know he wouldn’t actually harm another dog, but it really scares other dog owners. Why is he so bad on a leash?
–– Chief’s mom
Dear Chief’s Mom,
Ah yes, leashes: “The ties that bind.” It’s unfortunate that these innocent little safety devices can create what appears to be a Jekyll and Hyde reaction. I do appreciate you being a law-abiding responsible dog owner by using one, even though it causes you, and it seems Chief, some distress.
First I’ll address the “why.’’ Then I’ll provide some training tips and techniques for making walks more enjoyable … for both of you.
When it comes to leashes, dogs weren’t born knowing how to be walked on one, and we humans weren’t born knowing how to use them. Normal behavior for dogs includes wanting to meet, greet, and /or sniff every other dog, person or tree. It’s nice to be that excited about everything, isn’t it? Unfortunately, we aren’t able to stop and greet or sniff every other dog, person or tree.
This is where the term barrier frustration enters the picture. It’s when something, in this case the leash, prevents Chief from getting to what he wants, often resulting (inadvertently) in this disturbing reaction. This impulsive “I want it, I want it now! I must meet that other dog!” response inadvertently gets punished, because as Mick Jagger says, “you can’t always get what you want.’‘
Over time, with each on-leash walking episode, this frustration builds and builds and builds, and gets to the point where the mere sight of another dog triggers this reaction. Chief now associates other dogs with frustration. And we’re all familiar with feelings of frustration –– similar to sitting in a traffic jam when you’re late. Imagine that every time you take a drive you end up stuck in traffic. What do you think would happen over time? Can you say road rage?
Regardless of the “why,’’ the solution is the same: ask Chief to do something else. Something that’s fun, rewarding, and what will soon become the better, more desirable choice when out walking.
Two behaviors I find that work well are 1) “Watch me” –– Chief makes eye contact with you and he gets a treat; and 2) “Find it” –– where you toss a treat on the ground right in front of him, thus keeping his head focused somewhere else while having him “hunt,’’ an activity many dogs enjoy. Note: Both of these behaviors are done while you’re walking past the other dogs.
I suggest you take his meals on the road, but instead of using his regular kibble, use something he’s more likely to do back-flips for. This way Chief is more likely to pay attention to you, and not bark and lunge at the end of the leash.
You’ll only want to do this when other dogs are around. With consistency, Chief will start to associate other dogs with fun for him, turning frustration into happiness. The next thing you know, he’ll be looking at dogs and looking right at you. Or, better yet, he’ll be asking you to go for walkies in search of other dogs, and isn’t that better than what he’s doing now?
Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.