Tips for teaching your dog to be calm around other dogs
As a dog trainer, one of the most common dog behaviour problems that I help people with is leash reactivity. This is also one of the most upsetting problems that dog owners face. It’s really tough watching your normally sweet natured, smart, best friend dog react to others of his species with a lunging, snarling, aggressive, threat display. And for nearly all dog owners it’s really embarrassing to have a dog who lunges at other dogs and acts like an absolute nutbar on walks. But owners often accept it as a necessary rite of taking the dog for a walk. After all, it’s just normal behaviour for (insert breed here) dogs to be reactive to other dogs. But for most dogs of any breed that are volatile on leash, and their humans, life does not have to be like this. Most leash reactive dogs can learn to be calm around all other dogs.
The reasons some dogs react aggressively to other dogs when on leash vary, but the primary motivation is nearly always the same: this behaviour works to get rid of the disturbing dog, and this crazy behaviour has become habit. The dog often gets himself into such a high arousal state, that he can’t calm down, and any attempts to intrude on his little tantrum with corrections or misguided food rewards by the owner often add fuel to the fire. I am not going to write a detailed description for helping all dogs to calm down around other dogs here, because I believe although the primary motivation of a reactive dog is pretty common, there are many other factors at play, including, but not limited to past experience., owner interaction etc. You really need the guidance of a CCPDT certified dog trainer with an aggression issue. That being said, here are a few general tips that work:
- Stick with a reward based training and rehabilitation program! Here is why: While you can stop a dog from performing a particular behaviour using corrections (electronic shock,stim,vibe, collar checks, shake cans, spray bottles, and the like) you aren’t helping to address the underlying arousal that is causing the behaviour. In fact you are probably increasing the arousal as you suppress the threat display that the spazzy behaviour represents. Because by adding something else the dog doesn’t like to his environment, his stress level rises accordingly. This means, even though he might suppress the aggressive display when you are in control, the dog is still going to be motivated to scare the bejesus out of whatever he thinks might be a threat. So when he is not in your direct control, he is likely to still perform the aggressive/threat display. At which time you could start to use a stronger shock or leash pop or whatever you are using. And then your dog will develop some other issue, and you will still have a dog that can act crazy at times. When you use a reward based training system, you can reduce the arousal to the point where the dog no longer feels he needs to make a big threat display. In short: The dog learns to associate his own calming behaviour with a food reward, eventually even in the face of whatever creeped it out in the first place. He doesn’t spaz out like a Tazmanian Devil on a leash anymore because he feels absolutely no need to, because the self calming behaviour that you taught him, and your own calm behaviour (because he’s calm) make him more confident and less worried and creeped out by other dogs. He’s going to be calm even when not under your direct control, too. You get better results and way more bang for your buck with a positive, reward based training system.
- During the retraining period, avoid situations where the unwanted behaviour is going to get a chance to repeat. Some dogs develop new skills faster than other dogs, but generally it can be several months before the new self calming behaviour is really solid. Prevention is imperative during the retraining period.
- Attention and Focus train, so that your dog instantly looks at you with curiosity as soon as you say his name. Practice this skill just before each walk.
- Teach a hand touch in a non-distracting environment where no other dogs will creep your dog out and make him want to act like a lunatic. This will become his go-to self calming behaviour. Remember, it takes at least 100 repetitions for any behaviour to become solid.
- Teach a solid stay. And practice it every single day, using a positive, game based approach. Stay is an exercise that teaches the dog self calming, and self confidence. It really, really helps.
Get help from a CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA dog trainer who uses positive, reward based methods. Positive trainers are the ones with the clickers and front attachment to the leash type harnesses and treat pouches. Positive trainers always eschew e-collars in all their forms, and pretty much any collar with a metal chain. You won’t regret hiring a properly certified trainer.