Think about a recent situation which involved you seeing another owner walking towards you and your dog. What was your reaction? Did you hold your breath for a moment? Maybe you tightened your grip on the lead? Probably, you even pulled the lead a bit or started talking to your dog. Chances are, you did all three and something else, if you were walking a dog that is reactive on lead. The behaviours are not themselves a problem. The issues arise, when your dog learns to associate them with other dogs approaching him. After that you are trapped in a vicious cycle:
In addition to your behaviour and body language, there are other possible triggers for your dog. A common trigger is a certain type of dogs. For example, your dog has been attacked by a large white dog and will display aggression towards similar looking dogs. Another possible trigger is a certain place. For example, your dog may only react to other dogs on a narrow pathway or on a certain street corner.
One of the ways to work with triggers is to turn them into cues. In other words, you need to teach your dog to perform a behaviour in response to the triggers. In case of street manners and lead-aggression it seems that looking at the owner is the most appropriate behaviour. I know I write about this all the time, but only because, in my opinion, the best thing you can teach your dog is to keep his attention on you. Follow these simple steps to turn a trigger into a cue. You might want to teach your dog the “Look at me” exercise first.
Trigger: Body Language
If your dog’s trigger is your body language, start at home. Have your clicker and plenty of treats ready. Let’s say, your dog’s trigger is you grabbing the lead tighter or pulling it.
- Put your dog on the lead.
- Pull the lead as if you see another dog approaching you.
- Immediately after make a kissy sound\tongue click to prompt your dog to look at you.
- Click & treat. Repeat 20-30 times. You may need to have a few training sessions before your dog will get it.
- Eventually, you’ll notice that your dog looks at you after you pull the lead. At this point you can drop the kissy sound\tongue click.
- Repeat the exercise another 20-30 times: pull the lead, wait for the dog to look at you, click & treat.
- Once you have a reliable response at home, you can practice it in a busier environment. Practice with the kissy sound\tongue click first, then move on to pulling the lead only.
- When you practice it with other dogs around, make sure to use higher value treats in the beginning.
If your dog’s trigger is a place, follow these steps. Again, have a clicker and plenty of high value treats ready.
- Approach the trigger place and make a kissy sound\tongue click.
- Once your dog turns to you, click & treat.
- Repeat 20-30 times during each walk.
- After a while your dog will associate this place with treats and will be focusing on you when approaching it.
- If you can arrange for someone to meet you there with another dog, you can practice going through this place, while keeping your dog’s attention on you. If that’s not an option, you will have to practice with dogs that you occasionally meet there. Make sure to use high value treats, when working with other dogs present.
Trigger: Certain Type of Dogs
If your dog’s trigger is a certain type of dogs, ideally, you would need someone with this type of dog to help you. If you don’t have access to a “trigger dog”, don’t worry. You can still work with the dogs you meet during walks. In this case, I would suggest following the routine described in Part 3 of the series. Initially, give your dog treats for every dog he spots. You can use lower value treats for “non-trigger dogs” and really good high value treats for “trigger dogs”. This way you will always be ready and will have less chances of missing a training opportunity. In addition, improving your dog’s perception of other dogs in general will help to change his attitude towards the “trigger dogs”. If you stick to this routine consistently (and I mean 99% of the time), you will see lead-related aggression and reactiveness significantly fade within one or two weeks. However, keep doing it for another 4-5 weeks, to make sure that training has a long-term effect. After that I would suggest always carrying a couple of treats to reinforce the behaviour randomly. Of course, don’t forget to praise your dog every time he sees another dog and turns to you.