There are many dogs that might be perfectly friendly to other dogs when they are off leash, but put a leash on them and the constraint they feel from their owner, or the inability to get away, turns them “leash reactive” or “leash aggressive.”
Sometimes the way an owner handles both the leash and the dog can mitigate the problem. Sometimes dogs remain this way. Working with them is so worthwhile.
The goal is to get the dog to automatically look up at the owner whenever approaching another dog.
This begins with a “Focus” command. Take a treat and put at the dog’s nose, then bring to your nose, not blocking your eyes. They are literally following the treat to your eyes, i.e. paying POSITIVE attention.
Practice under non-distracting circumstances first, and then ratchet it up to distracting ones. Use premium high-value treats. Make sure to add praise immediately along with petting approval. Think positive rewards.
The handling of the leash must be short and loose. As soon as the dog feels tension he is more inclined to become reactive. Stay close to your dog in order to keep from adding any leash tension. Do not yank back if the dog lunges.
Equipment is important. A Gentle Leader or Halti or Easy Walk No-Pull Harness is appropriate. An electronic collar, regular collar, choke collar or prong collar is not, sending the wrong signal to the dog – a negative one. Every time you tighten around the neck or zap him, it tells the dog he gets hurt nearing another dog.
Do not give negative physical contact because it also sends the wrong message: pain upon seeing a dog.
On the other hand, a Halti or Gentle Leader can teach the dog to look up at you. A no-pull harness, which is benign but stops the dog from lunging, is also good, but you should avoid retractable leashes.
Basically, the dog learns to remain by your side under control but comfortable. The dog should be in a position to respond to your touch and commands without feeling constrained.
When working on Focus, the dog should not look away from your eyes until you release. Reward the dog verbally or with positive touch and a treat very quickly upon release. Initially the dog might be responsive only to the treat, but that is okay.
If distance is an issue, you might have to back up to a specific spot to desensitize the dog before moving closer. Use a calm praise voice and not too startling a correction voice. Use a release command when the exercise is over, such as “all done” or “good job.”
As the dog gets better and quicker at the Focus, only then increase the level of distraction. You might have to readjust depending on the dog’s response.
Hitting the jackpot would be getting an automatic Focus without the verbal request – and that should be rewarded with several treats.
Abby Bird is owner of Alpha Dog Obedience Training. firstname.lastname@example.org