leash aggression

Leash aggression


Leash aggression has got to be the most common problem that k9 guardians deal with on a regular basis.

Leash - a chain, strap, etc., for controlling or leading a dog or other animal; lead.

Aggression - the practice of making assaults or attacks; offensive action in general.

There are many reasons for leash aggression and most are not true aggression. Leash aggression can be caused by fear, over excitement, lack of education or a misplaced leadership status. There are some cases that are truly dominant aggression but most are not. Even the friendliest of dogs can display leash aggression.

Let’s take Mr. Luke (now gone nearly 4 years) for example. He was one of the worst leash aggression cases that I worked with, yep my dog. The funny thing about Luke was that he was also one of the friendliest and most stable dogs with other we’ve ever had. He was a rock solid lover, not a fighter. Even if a dog picked a fight with him; he’d laugh it off, turn on a dime and head the other way. Many a dog were left standing alone as he chose not to fight, ever.

But the love of my life sure had a blustery case of leash aggression. So where did it come from? As soon as we strap a leash onto our dogs they change. Their ability to move and communicate freely is taken away. They are also close to us, their guardian and may have a guarding behavior kick in. Body language communications are misread as our dogs movement is restricted. Excitement can be misread as aggression when a dog strains at the end of the leash. Back and forth the dogs are misreading much of what could otherwise be a friendly greeting.

A few bad experiences can lead to leash aggression as well. A face to face greeting gone wrong can lead to going on the defense. I am not a fan of face to face on leash greetings. Dogs get tangled, get too close, send wrong communications due to the leash etc. etc.

So what do you do if your dog displays leash aggression? You find the trigger and change the association. Is it other dogs? People? Cars? Once you discover the trigger then you find what most motivates your dog; food, balls, tug toys, catching etc. Then you associate the trigger with the great stuff. Depending on how bad the leash behavior is will factor in on your time to full or partial recovery. If you really want to get rid of leash aggression; then you will implement many different things to connect a positive association to the trigger.

Along with the great “thing” you need space. Space if your friend when dealing with leash aggression. You will not achieve success if you walk right up on the trigger. You must distance yourself far enough to NOT elicit a response. So for some people that may mean 6’ away, 12’ away or 50’ feet away. Once you achieve a tiny bit of success then you can reduce the space by small increments. i

One of the biggest factors in leash aggression is us. Yes, we humans can fuel a leash aggression problem so it is imperative to get a grip and get your chill routine down to a t.

Hire a trainer to help, they will let you know what you are doing right and wrong to solve your leash issue.

More on leash aggression

Yes, I've written about leash aggression over and over again.  But after a trip to the park and witnessing two episodes of it I just have to discuss it further.  Luke, Elsa and I had just gotten out of the Xterra and were on our way to the open area of the park.  It is nice going out with both of them; but it is getting harder for Elsa as Luke slows.  She is very good at walking slowly but you can see her chomping at the bit.  As we rounded a corner I heard the jingling of dog tags behind us.  Glancing over my shoulder to see who was coming; I recognized them immediately.  A woman with her two Siberian Huskies; I see her often, running through the park with her dog.  I like that she runs with her dogs; Huskies need to run and she obviously takes the time to give them what they need.  But on this day as they ran up beside us, I could see their hair going up.  Hmmmmmmm, hadn't noticed this before; perhaps it was because she always runs down the middle of the field. 

They broke their running pace and started to grumble.  Soon it was a frenzied barking and the owner pulled the leashes to a full stop.  She tried to get them under control to go again but she only ran a few yards before they started up once more.  By this time Luke was all puffed up and grumbling himself; Elsa joined in with a bark or two.  The barking became more frenzied when I noticed the prong collar.  I wanted to tell her but there was no way to have a civil conversation among this chaos.  Luke, Elsa and I had never stopped walking; we had not changed our pace and I told them very calmly that "we don't care about this stuff," as we continued along.   She ran off and as she got distance her dogs quieted.  Association, it is all about association for dogs.  The more the dog strained at the leash the more pain he received at the fault of my dog's presence. 

We made our way around the whole park; a big walk for the old guy.  As we came to the end I watched another case of leash aggression unfold in a magnitude I had not seen in some time.  A nice woman with her tiny toy poodle was walking quietly and calmly down the path.  At the end of the path were two Chihuahuas and a small white fluffy dog.  The sound coming from the three dogs at the end of the path was that of sheer frenzied scream barking.  Each dog was held by a human so there were three dogs and three humans there in a bunch.  They stayed on the path which surprised me; moving off and giving their dogs some space would have been a good idea.  As the woman with her poodle approached they got louder and louder and displayed redirected aggression.  Snapping at one another out of frustration; it was an insane situation.  The woman with the small poodle picked up her dog and walked by and on her way. 

I had a choice at that moment, to go pass or not.  I chose to walk pass, but with a great distance between us and the frenzied pack.  They never stopped their barking once the woman had passed by them.  They were far too worked up at this point and needed a huge intervention to be able to stop.   When we got close enough for me to see what was going on, I was shocked.  Each person was hitting the dog they had on a leash.  There was yanking, hitting and yelling coming from the owners of these dogs.  When I saw the one with the fluffy dog take a magazine and hit his dog I stopped dead in my tracks.  I could not go by without saying something; but could they even hear me?  I made sure that Luke and Elsa were calm; it was a very stressful situation so I didn't want them freaked out by it.  Elsa was sniffing around and Luke was just calmly watching. 

"You are making the situation worse," I yelled to them.  "Every time you hit your dog you are creating a negative association to dogs being near you," I tried to yell at them.  One girl heard me and stopped hitting her dog.  "Don't hit your dogs," I said loud and clear.  Now all the owners were facing me, listening.  I explained further, although I'm not sure how much they could hear.  I told them if they continued like this that their problem was going to become much worse.  They seemed interested as I tried to explain how the dog's brain works.  I told them about rewarding minute moments of silence with food treats.  But with the frenzied barking ongoing it was difficult to get anything but "don't hit your dog," across. 

Leash aggression is very, very common.  The more aggression that your dog hears as they walk by other dogs the more apt they are to display themselves.  What you do with that display makes all the difference in the world.  Yanking, yelling and even hitting is a human attempt to stop the behavior.  The dog takes all of these displays from their human as a very negative situation.  The human is stressed which stresses the dog further.  The yelling, yanking and hitting creates a hugely negative association to the presence of other dogs. 

If you have a dog with leash aggression:

Don't stop walking, do not slow, just keep going.
Stay calm, even if you have to pretend.
Do not tighten up on the leash; if you have to, do it so that your dog cannot tell that you are.
Give yourself and your dog space.  Step off of the path.
If you have to change direction or turn around, do it calmly.

You can either make it worse, or better.  I opt for the "we don't care about these things," approach.

Getting cranky

                                      Off to visit people and dogs; Luke heads down the beach in CT.  Mr. Social.
                                              This image makes me smile; I remember it like it was yesterday. 

We were heading to the path; the small path that allows you no leeway for distance.  Just as we approach Luke decides to take a dump, nice.  Trying to pick it up in amongst the bushes, I did my best.  The poop bag was too messy to try to tie; you know those, I'm sure you've all had them.  So I had Elsa and Luke in one hand and the undesirable untied bag in the other.  I saw them coming, they were headed down the same path that we were on.  I also saw one of the little dogs lower his head and stare; great and I have my hands full.  I should have just dropped the bag and picked it up later but I didn't think about doing that at the moment.  I knew what was coming and it did; Luke lunged and tried his best to sound like a Grizzle bear. 

If I had not had a handful of poop that was looming to come out and touch me; I would have put Luke calmly on the other side of me.  But I didn't so he did a big bluster.  This is common for Luke and for many dogs.  Luke has slight leash aggression, it doesn't always happen but if he is feeling threatened or he considers the other dog to be offering rude behavior, yep.  It would never, and has never happened off leash.  Luke is the picture of Mr. Social.  He adores going to visit everyone, dogs and people. If someone growls at him he just  moves away; he is a lover not a fighter.   Even now as his hearing is diminishing I often have to run and gather him up as he goes on his visiting excursions. 

So why do dogs act differently on leash vs. off?  First let me tell you that it is very, very common.  Putting a leash on a dog alters their body language immediately.  Many dogs are not trying to give off a rude or aggressive display but because of their leash it looks like they are.  An all too familiar scenario is when two dogs are meeting and then one owner pulls on the leash to move away.  That is when everything changes.  The dog being pulled away can no longer speak freely and opts for aggression.   It is something that I have learned to try to avoid.   Use your voice not your leash if you can escape it. 

If you ever have doubts about another dog; err on the side of not visiting.  With each bad interaction comes a built in defense reaction from your dog.  Try to find those great dogs to meet and greet.  I was very angry the other day when a woman walking at the park let her very large Rhodesian come our way.  Luke is very frail now and I don't want him messing with anyone; it is my job to keep him safe.  I saw her coming from a distance; I also saw that her dog did not have a leash on.  I very calmly got off the path and walked across the park.  When I turned to check on the pair; her dog was heading our way.  I stopped as she yelled to me "he's friendly, gentle and older."  I called back "he does not like other males," just as her huge Rhodesian did some jump, charge play bow type things at Luke and Elsa.  Clearly he wanted to play and clearly this was not going to make Luke happy.  "Put his leash on," I called to her and she did. 

The whole humans reading humans always boggles my mind.  She saw us move off the path and go in a completely different direction; should that not be enough to let her know that I was not interested in an interaction?  Yes.  It does not take much to knock Luke on his ass these days.  Even a big bluster that he does himself can do it.  A romp around with a friendly dog can leave him very injured so I am constantly aware.  I am always scanning the area for dogs off leash with stupid people. 

If you have a dog with leash aggression; work on staying extremely calm and not giving one ounce of message to your dog.  Get some distance, that is the key.  Although of course there are those who will ignore this distance and keep moving in.  I work with dogs, people are another thing completely. 

Meet and greets


As you all know I am big on socializing; it is one of the most important factors with having dogs.    At two years old now; Elsa has a great deal of it under her belt.  But the socializing doesn't stop there; I am constantly on the look out for nice dogs to say hi to.  We don't say hi to everyone and learning to calmly walk by some dogs is just as important as saying hi.  There are always dogs at the parks, beaches and fields that you just don't want to talk to.  They either give off clear "not friendly" vibes or their owner shares this information with you.  Too many bad interactions can cause a dog to react defensively more often.  So we are very choosey who we say hi to.

At thirteen years old, Luke is beyond needing socializing.  He has a list of dislikes that has grown over the years.  I know him so well that I can tell way in advance if an oncoming dog will be a match or not.  It can be a certain breed or body language that a dog is giving off.  If it's not a match we simply take some space.  As for Elsa, she is much more flexible yet she too has had some bad interactions so I do my best to minimize these.  Picking and choosing who to say hi to takes work.  You need to read the other dog and do it quickly.  Much has to do with an owner.  The other day we walked passed a guy with an older Labrador; Luke is not a big fan of Labs.  But the biggest factor in not talking to these two was the man who was barely holding the leash.  The dog was straining at the end and it looked like it was all the owner could do to hold on.  Not good. 

Leash aggression is a very common issue with dogs.  When you put a leash on a dog; several things happen.  One you have your dog within your personal circle making the guarding reaction kick into gear.  Then we add onto that the whole tension on the leash issue.  Humans typically do much too much pulling and tugging on a leash.  This in itself gives off lots of incorrect messages via the dog.  As the owner pulls back the dog pulls forward; which implies a lunging statement from the dog.  In turn the other dog seeing this gets defensive.  Then there is the whole relaying of our own emotions to the dog via the leash.  The leash also takes away the ability to move away for a dog.  Moving freely makes things much more relaxed. 

Sometimes I will walk very close to another dog so that I can see their body language a bit more clearly before making a decision.  Lots of people say "yes, very friendly" when asked but they are often incorrect in their response.  I make the decision for myself, whether they have said that their dog is friendly or not.  If it is just Luke with me then we don't bother; when I'm out with Luke I am out for simply the outing unless we run into a friend of his.  But for Elsa I am always looking for a nice dog to perhaps makes friends with. 

The other day Elsa and Luke stopped to talk to a nice little poodle mix.  He was a bit apprehensive but not enough to give off any aggressive responses.  We made it short and sweet which is always the best way to go and continued on our way.  Up ahead I saw a Golden and Siberian interacting; even though both dogs were wagging, it was clear that there was tension.  I opted to make a big arch around these two and to the other side of the park.  As we passed by them the little dog we had been talking to stopped to chat with the Siberian and they got into a scuffle.  I'd made the right decision as far as that one had been concerned.  If you are in doubt at all, don't.  It just is not worth the work of undoing the fallout behaviors that come from negative greetings. 

Socializing is wonderful but minimizing the negative is just as important.  Pick and choose.  Best to have two great interactions than a whole handful of bad ones; negative fuels negative.