You’ve probably seen them. Maybe you even have one – a dog who happily plays with his canine pals in the dog park, but the instant he’s on leash and sees another dog he turns into a barking, lunging, lunatic hound-from-hell. What on earth is it that turns a canine social butterfly into Cujo, with a human hanging onto the other end of the leash for dear life?
Oh, wait. That’s it. The leash. He’s leash-reactive. But why?
Reactive behavior is defined as an abnormal level of arousal in response to a normal stimulus. In other words, the dog overreacts strongly to something that most dogs can handle calmly, offering behavior described as barking (sometimes screaming), lunging, snapping, and sometimes biting. It can refer to dogs who overreact to visitors at the door, people passing by the car window, trucks, skateboards, and a variety of other stimuli in addition to other dogs. Reactivity often involves aggressive behavior, but not always. The three types of dog-to-dog leash reactivity we commonly see are:
- Offensive Aggression Reactivity. The dog who truly wants to go attack other dogs because he really doesn’t like them and wants to get them.
- Defensive Aggression Reactivity. The fearful dog whose display is meant to keep scary dogs away.
- Frustration Reactivity. The dog who loves to engage with other dogs and is immensely frustrated when not allowed to do so.
It is the third type, frustration reactivity, that we will discuss here.
DOG-TO-DOG LEASH FRUSTRATION REACTIVITY
Frustration reactivity can be the hardest of the three for a dog’s caretakers to understand. It’s easy to grasp that some dogs just don’t like other dogs, or are afraid of them, and the resulting displays make sense.
But when your dog clearly loves other dogs, it seems counterproductive for him to put on a show of behaviors that are usually quite off-putting to humans and other dogs alike. Why is he doing something that is likely to make other dogs want to avoid him, rather than approach? Because he can’t help it!
This behavior is most often seen in dogs who have a history of being able to approach other dogs whenever they want, on-leash or off. It may be the dog who simply has never been on-leash around other dogs – he grew up in an environment where dogs were off-leash and mingling all the time. This might have been a shelter, hoarder, or rescue situation where dogs were communally housed, or a rural community where dogs were allowed to regularly run loose. It might even be a dog imported from a street-dog colony in another country.
Alternatively, it might be a dog whose human routinely encourages him to “Go say hi!” to other dogs when walking on leash, even allowing the dog to drag her up to other dogs for greetings, often to the dismay of the owner of the dog being greeted.
In any case, this reactive dog is frustrated when he is thwarted from his desired goal of greeting the other dog, and his frustration results in an emotional display that can be quite impressive. This is often described as “low tolerance for frustration” or “lack of impulse control,” and the leash-reactive dog may well demonstrate these behaviors (perhaps to a lesser degree) in other frustration-causing situations as well.
Where the solution for a defensively or offensively aggressive-reactive dog is usually to move farther away or out of sight, this often only upsets our frustrated greeter even more, increasing the intensity of his emotional display as he sees the object of his desire disappearing from view. So, what to do?
POSSIBLE TO PREVENT
Prevention is always better than modification; that’s why I have a “no on-leash greeting” policy at my Peaceable Paws training center as well as for my own dogs. To interact with other dogs, we go to a safely enclosed space where my dogs can socialize without the constraints of leashes, where we are not creating expectations of on-leash greetings.
If it’s too late for prevention, you have a variety of training and behavior modification options.
Classical conditioning involves creating associations that result in emotional and physical responses. When Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of the bell, it was because their brains had made an association between the sound of the bell and the arrival of the food. Their behavior wasn’t deliberate and it wasn’t under their control – they simply responded because their brains had come to realize that the sound of the bell reliably predicted the arrival of food.
The aggressive-reactive dog has a negative association with the presence of other dogs, and reacts accordingly – with aggression. The frustrated-reactive dog has a positive association with the presence of other dogs and reacts accordingly, with excitement.
Counter-conditioning changes an already existing association. In most cases, we are working to change a negative association to a positive one. In the case of a frustrated greeter, we are working to change an out-of-control positive association to a less exuberant but still positive association. Our goal is to have a dog who is happy to see other dogs but can still be calm and controlled about his happiness. This is a relatively simple procedure, and I have had a lot of success using it with frustrated greeters.
The easiest way to give most dogs a new association is with very high-value, really yummy treats. I like to use chicken – frozen strips, canned, baked or boiled, since most dogs love chicken and it’s a low-fat, low-calorie food. Here’s how the process works:
1 Determine the distance at which your dog can be in the presence of, alert and aware of another dog, but reasonably calm. This is called the threshold distance.
2 While holding your dog on leash, have a helper present a calm, leashed, neutral dog at your dog’s threshold distance. Or, alternatively, position yourself and your dog so that a leashed dog appear at threshold distance. The instant your dog sees the other dog, start feeding bits of chicken to your dog. Pause, let him look again, feed again. Repeat as long as the other dog is present.
3 Continue pausing and feeding until the other dog is out of sight. (Or, after several seconds, have your helper remove the other dog and stop feeding your dog.)
4 Keep repeating steps 1-3 until the presentation or appearance of a dog at that initial threshold distance consistently causes your dog to look at you with a happy smile and a “Yay! Where’s my chicken?” expression. This is a conditioned emotional response (CER) – your dog’s association with the dog at threshold distance is now about chicken instead of excitement and arousal.
5 Now, increase the intensity of the stimulus (the other dog) by decreasing the distance between the other dog and your dog. In small increments, move your dog closer to the location where the other dog(s) will appear, achieving your dog’s goal CER at each new distance, until your dog is happy to be very near to the other dog. Note: It may take a number of trials over a number of days or longer to achieve this!
6 Then return to your dog’s original threshold distance, and work on increasing the intensity of the other-dog stimulus. You can do this by having your helper encourage her dog to be more active (perhaps by jogging by, or playing fetch or tug), or by increasing the number/frequency of dogs appearing. Gradually decrease distance and attain your goal CERs along the way, until your dog is delighted to have the more active/increased number of dogs in close proximity while remaining calm.
Caution: Because your dog wants to greet the other dog(s), she may become more aroused when the other dog(s) goes farther away or out of sight. If this happens, have your helper keep the neutral dog in view. Alternatively, engage your dog in other activities that she loves (such as targeting, playing tug, or catching a ball) to take her mind off the missing dog when the other dog is out of sight.
(Adapted from Kelly Fahey’s Resource Guarding protocol, adapted from Chirag Patel’s “Drop” protocol)
Note: Be sure to repeat each step eight to 12 (or more) times, until your dog eagerly responds to the cue, before progressing to the next step. Remember, you want the dog to do a 180-degree turn and run away with you.
1 Say “Walk away!” in a cheerful tone and toss several treats on the ground about six to eight feet behind your dog. Turn and run with your dog to the treats to encourage him to move quickly.
2 Place a neutral (not valuable to the dog) object on the ground. When your dog sniffs it, say “Walk away!” and toss several treats on the ground about six to eight feet from the object, behind your dog. Turn and run away quickly with your dog. Encourage your dog vocally – make it a party! Practice this step with a variety of neutral objects.
3 Place a low-value object (something your dog is mildly interested in) on the ground. When your dog sniffs it, say “Walk away!” and toss treats as you and your dog run away from the object. Practice this step with a variety of low-value objects.
4 Place a medium-value (to your dog) object on the ground. When your dog sniffs it, say “Walk away!” and toss treats as you and your dog run away from the object. Practice with a variety of medium-value objects.
5 Place a high-value object (one of your dog’s favorite things) on the ground. When your dog sniffs it, say “Walk away!” and toss treats as you both run away from the object. Practice with a variety of high-value objects.
6 Start using “Walk away!” occasionally when you are walking your dog on a leash, when he shows interest in something. (Not every time – he still gets to be a dog!) Use your Walk Away cue when he sees a dog in the distance before he starts to get aroused. Eventually you should be able to use it to move him away even if he has started to get excited.
BEHAVIORS THAT CAN MODIFY REACTIVITY
You can also use operant conditioning – teaching deliberate behaviors – to modify reactivity using a procedure known as Reverse CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment).
The CAT procedure uses negative reinforcement (wherein the dog’s behavior makes an unpleasant thing go away). Say the dog is stressed and unhappy about seeing other dogs. The handler sets up a situation that exposes the subject dog to another dog – and moves the other dog away from the subject dog in response to any increase in the subject’s calm or relaxed behavior. The subject dog learns that behaving in a calm and relaxed manner will keep other dogs away. Once he is calm and relaxed, he no longer feels the need to keep other dogs away, and no longer displays aggressive behavior. (For more about this, see “Build Better Behavior,” WDJ May 2008.)
In contrast, a frustrated canine greeter is reinforced by any opportunity to move closer to another dog. So the Reverse CAT procedure uses positive reinforcement (wherein the dog’s calm behavior makes a good thing happen); when he’s calm, he gets to move closer to the other dog. The procedure also uses negative punishment (wherein the behavior we don’t want – his aroused behavior – moves him farther away from the dog).
Note: Don’t worry about the technical terms; they are confusing to even some very experienced trainers! I’ve included them for the sake of those who want to understand what behavioral constructs are at work here.
Start at your dog’s threshold distance (close enough to the other dog for him to notice, but not so close that he begins any frantic or excited behavior). Start walking toward the other dog. As long as your dog is calm, keep moving forward. As soon as he starts becoming aroused or excited about getting to greet the other dog, turn and walk away to whatever distance it takes until he is calm. As you repeat this multiple times, he will hopefully come to realize that the only way to get close to the other dog is to remain calm.
If your dog remains calm all the way up to the other dog, go on a nice, calm, parallel walk with the other dog. Sometimes (not every time!) at some point in the walk, find a safe, enclosed area where you can drop leashes and let the dogs play with a “Go play!” cue. (You don’t want to drop leashes and play immediately when your dog calmly walks up to the other dog, as this will again reinforce your dog’s belief that he gets to play with every dog he walks up to.)
This is not a simple procedure and is best implemented under the guidance of a behavior professional who is experienced with the protocol. When it works, it can happen amazingly quickly for a frustrated greeter. But for some dogs, the frustration of constantly being walked away is just too great, and they may only become more frustrated. In this case, the other protocols described here would be better.
BEHAVIORS THAT HELP WITH MANAGEMENT
If your dog is a frustrated greeter, you know that management is key to a low-stress existence. Often, management just means keeping your dog far away from other dogs. But there are times when some operant (trained) behaviors can help you through unexpected or unavoidable encounters. Here are two such useful behaviors:
- Find it! This is the easiest behavior you will ever teach your dog. Just drop a high-value treat between your feet and cheerfully say, “Find it!” If necessary, point to show your dog where the treat landed. Repeat many times, until when you say “Find it!” your dog runs to your feet to look for the treat. Your dog will have a very positive classical association with the “Find it!” cue, so it will put his brain in a happy place when he hears it.
Note: Always drop the treat at your feet, so when he hears the cue, he will orient to your feet, taking his attention away from the other dog.
- Walk away! This is an emergency escape cue that you will associate with a fun game: “Do a 180-degree turn and run the other way with me!” This protocol also installs a positive association with the cue, puts your dog’s brain in a happy place, and gives him something fun to do instead of reacting to the other dog.
BEHAVIORS THAT TEACH FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE
These are things you can practice with your dog to help him learn to better tolerate frustration. Teach them in the absence of other dogs so that eventually they will contribute to your dog’s ability to remain calm in the presence of other dogs.
- Wait. This is easiest to teach with a food bowl. Have your dog sit. Hold up your dog’s food bowl, say “Wait,” lower it a few inches, give a click or other marker, raise it back up, and feed a treat from the bowl. Gradually lower a little farther each time until you can set it on the floor without him getting up. You can also use it at doors and any other time you want your dog to pause and wait. (See “Wait and Stay” WDJ May 2018.)
- Leave it. Say “Leave it!” in a cheerful voice and place a durable high-value treat under your shoe. Wait for your dog to stop trying to get it; do not use corrections, and do not repeat the cue! When your dog backs away from the treat, click (or use some other marker), and feed him a different treat.
Continue to use a high rate of reinforcement (click and treat a lot!) as he continues to leave the treat under your alone. Eventually, uncover the treat, with your foot ready to cover it again if your dog dives for it. Do not correct or re-cue! Continue to click and treat until you can eventually leave the treat uncovered without him trying to get it. (See “Leaving for Good,” WDJ June 2018.)
- Sit. Yes, even a simple “Sit” can be an impulse-control exercise. We teach “Sit” as a default behavior – the thing a dog does when he doesn’t know what else to do. It becomes a default behavior because he has been so highly reinforced for it that it is his automatic behavior choice. If, in addition to using a very high rate of reinforcement for offered sits (as well as ones you have cued), you also increase duration of the sit (gradually waiting longer and longer after he sits before you mark and treat), your simple “Sit” becomes a very valuable impulse control behavior.
GET HELP IF STRUGGLING
Even though your dog’s frustrated greeting reactivity comes from a happy place, it’s still not easy to live with and not always easy to modify. If you’re struggling, don’t despair. There are ever-more qualified force-free training professionals out there waiting to help you. Find one!
Very good article and information.
Great article. I now see that my dog was not being aggressive but frustrated that she couldn’t visit the approaching dog. You gave us concrete steps to manage the behavior. Thank you.
Great article for a singleton puppy and very frustrated greeter. Too much dog park and not enough experience on leash in public places tended to make my dog think that every time was play time! I did use your techniques but not in a very organized way. He’s getting much better as he gets older, but I wish I’d had this article when he was a 130 pound teenager!
Very informative article – lots of very useful tips – thank you
Whole Dog Journal is awesome and is the BEST dog community around. I read it all the time and learn a lot. I’m also very fortunate I discovered bit.ly/2nOGdK5, it helped me train my dog and life is much better. I hope it can help other people as it helped me!
How can I teach a show dog to pee on leash?
There’s more to be said about frustration, the state of mind, beyond the behavioral manifestations, its causes and cures. Leashes, like other barriers between the dog and the world apparent to his senses, always and constantly inform the dog that he is prevented from responding to stimuli as he would choose, were he free. This has to involve inner conflict. He is not free to use all his capacities to investigate and then respond. He is tied to someone, in the case of a leash, who is not always reliable for back up, and who is often clueless to aspects of situations that are clear to the dog. (That’s all of us, even at our best, and most of us, most of the time.) Apprehension, social attraction, ability to signal his own intentions once they are formed, inability to uninhibitedly advance, halt, retreat, check in with himself and any pack members present, examine extraneous stimuli — all of the native abilities he would bring into play in all situations — all are restrained, sometimes inappropriately, sometimes even cripplingly, by the leash attached to a person. A person who may not be paying attention at all, or be distracted, or reacting to apprehensions and misinterpretations of his own.
I’m not saying the techniques for coping are wrong or ineffective — just that the ways that leashes are inherently frustrating and inhibiting ought to be acknowledged. One “cure” I’ve found helpful is to accustom a dog to equipment that in his mind is tied to specific activities: a harness or halter and a 6 foot lead for neighborhood walks ; a different harness and l leash for other activities; and when on a leash, the dog has a claim on your primary attention because you have effectively curtailed his ability to look after himself. And lots of activities, some of which require more or less of his attention to cues from you, and some which relieve him altogether of leash encumbrance, at least give a dog confidence that when he is leashed, he can rely on you for back up. Nosework and tracking are excellent partnered activities because they teach YOU that you can read and trust your dog, who has competencies you lack, and at the same time teach the dog that you are aware of that, respect his abilities and judgment.
I’m talking about frustration reactivity here, but feel that this is never simply “happy and exuberant” – it’s almost always complicated by fear (at least apprehension) and occasionally aggression (when the dog is reacting to signals we just fail to see or understand.)
Hi – we currently have the world’s most intelligent and most co-operative dog. Well, almost the most….This winter (we live in northern Maine) when we won’t be going places much, I’d like to keep his mind occupied (and mine too) by teaching him more things. He likes learning. Problem: this is the world’s least food-oriented dog. He would ’causes your dog to look at you with a happy smile and a “Yay! Where’s my chicken?” expression.’ No. That’s just not him. Playing is a reward for him, but it takes a proportionately huge amount of time. Yes, I’ll have time, but not *that* much time – I tire quickly and must rest (I’m old and have various illnesses). Any suggestions? Thanks!
Pat Meadows :Reinforcement values vary, that is, there are many potential rewards that exist naturally in the environment, or that one can introduce. Most are reinforcing until the dog has ‘had enough’ (satiation). Opening a door to go outside (or inside) can be highly valued under some circumstances and not others…….Whatever a dog will `work’ for is therefore a potential reinforcer, and the more and varied reinforcers you incorporate into your training the more flexible and interesting it will be for the dog.
For example, I think playbows are super cute, so I started ‘capturing’ my dogs natural display of playbows, which happened unexpectedly and intermittently, so the only readily available reinforcer on hand was my voice. I would enthusiastically exclaim `playbow, that’s so cute!!!’ Pretty soon he began displaying playbows whenever he wanted attention or to ask to go in or out…..and attention, for him, is very reinforcing right after we wake up, or after he hasn’t seen me for awhile, but he is pretty independent, so after about 10 minutes, he has `had enough’ attention.
I wonder if pairing a stimulus, like a word or clicker, with the play reinforcer could create a conditioned reinforcer, much as how clickers are conditioned generally with high value treats, but you condition it with play instead of treats? Then the clicker or word would become a classically conditioned secondary reinforcer, as money is to us humans.
Also, many dogs are overfed, so treats lose their value, and so treats have value mostly when a dog is hungry, and for short training sessions. If you haven’t yet read Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, it will give you lots of ideas on how to use behavior modification, or learning theory, to elegantly teach and influence.
Hi, one of my dogs has the second type : Defensive Aggression Reactivity. Recently she’s even started lunging and barking at people. When she’s off leash she will race towards other dogs almost as if she wants to ‘scare’ them but once she’s there she has no interest in interacting. She doesn’t really play with my two other dogs. The trainer thinks she may have been attacked when she was younger (I got her when she was five). She’s a handful, and once she gets going sometimes the other two will chime in, so walking in particular can be a bit of a challenge. As soon as we’re out the front door she’s in sensory overload and pulling and tugging, only to completely lose it if we approach another dog, even if it’s just barking from behind closed doors. I often walk late at night or in the woods to minimise the possible encounters but I’d prefer to fix the problem not avoid it. But so far no luck in finding the right way to get the message through. Hope you will also write about the defensive behaviour 🙂
Thanks for sharing. The whole dog journal is the best community. This article is very informative for me. It helped me to train my dog easily. According to me if your dog not comfortable and Frustrated in leash you can try dog harness.
My puppy has Offensive Aggression Reactivity and yes my dog will try to attack dogs but only if she senses that they’re bad or if she doesn’t like them. That really doesn’t happen because she’s usually very calm and fine around other dogs but some just get to her.
My rescue dog age 3 will not walk on a leash. Sometimes he will walk a block and then refuse to move. I don’t know if he was abused on leash but my 5 year old other dog wants his buddy to walk with him.