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Ask a Trainer: How Do I Stop My Dog From Lunging at Other Dogs on Walks?

Dogster resident trainer Annie Phenix gives a reader actionable advice on how to help her dog with leash reactivity, which is caused by fear, not by aggression.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Sep 3rd 2015


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our April/May issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

Here’s a question I recently received from a reader:

Help! I am too embarrassed to walk my dog outside except at really odd times. Whenever he sees another dog, he lunges and barks and acts hysterical. It makes me never want to go out in public because people give me dirty looks.

— Embarrassed in New Jersey

Dear Embarrassed,

As a dog trainer, I get this question every week and in every class. The reason you are embarrassed is a simple one: You need new force-free tools to help your dog. Knowledge of how to fix the problem removes the embarrassment, as does understanding that you are dealing with the No. 1 concern dog owners struggle with.

Teach your dog that seeing another dog means he’ll get a treat. Soon, he’ll stay calm and look to you for a treat when he sees another dog. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Teach your dog that seeing another dog means he’ll get a treat. Soon, he’ll stay calm and look to you for a treat when he sees another dog. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Your dog needs to learn new behaviors to quell his fear. First we reduce his fear around new dogs, and then we begin adding cues such as “watch me” or “sit.”

Research tells us that most leash reactivity is caused by fear, not by aggression. Dogs bark and lunge at other dogs to warn, “Go away! Go away!” Dogs fear other dogs because of genetic reasons, fights when they were puppies, or any scary (to the dog) interaction with other dogs. Sometimes having low thyroid levels contributes to unwanted canine behavior.

The best way to stop a dog from becoming aggressive to other dogs is prevention. Introduce your new puppy to safe dogs before the age of 20 weeks. If you didn’t socialize your puppy properly or you got your dog when he was older than 20 weeks, you are playing catch-up, but we can still help him.

I never punish a dog for his reactivity, and you shouldn’t either. Doing so will make his concerns even bigger. Dogs learn by making associations, and you want your dog to associate other dogs with pleasant things — never punishment.

High-value treats can work wonders during training. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

High-value treats can work wonders during training. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

The first step is to reframe what an oncoming dog means to your dog. From a safe distance — your dog determines the distance, not you — have your leashed dog view another dog. As the new dog comes into view, drop a lot of enticing meat treats just in front of your dog’s nose.

Ignore any hysterics for now, but back up and create more space if your dog is unwilling to eat. This part is hard for humans — I understand. It helps to see your dog’s behavior for what it most likely is: fear vs. disobedience.

The training reinforcer MUST be a great one, such as real meat. It is critical that the appearance of the new dog causes meat to fall from the sky. When the other dog is out of your dog’s view, all treats stop. We want your dog to predict that other dogs near him means that YUMMY FOOD will appear!

As you are reframing your dog’s opinion of seeing other leashed dogs, be careful where you take your dog, and be protective of what he is exposed to. One fight can create a reactive dog.

Consider not walking your dog for 30 days as you reprogram his opinions of other dogs. Instead, sit on your front porch or in your garage with your dog on leash, and practice treating every time another dog comes into your dog’s line of sight. During this time, engage your dog’s mind with mind puzzles, obedience work, and fun stuff like games in the house or yard.

Fun in the backyard

Fun in the backyard with longtime dog friends helps during training. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

You know you have made great progress when your dog sees another dog, and he turns his head away from the once-threatening dog and looks into your eyes, expecting a treat.

Once your dog is looking at his (former) trigger and then looking expectantly up at you for a treat, you can begin to put this skill on cue. Tell the dog, “Look at that!” and point. This incredible skill was developed by trainer Leslie McDevitt of controlunleashed.net.

Remember to go slowly! Ask yourself how long it would take you to get over something you feared greatly. I am terrified of spiders, and I can think of nothing you can afford that would get me past my fear.

If you don’t make quick progress over a month’s time, call in a certified, force-free dog trainer or behaviorist. You can find such a professional at the Pet Professional Guild.

Be a life guide for your dog — he is counting on your leadership skills (and not your domination), which should begin with knowledge and end in compassion for a sentient being.

Read more by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, on Dogster:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.