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Reminiscent of a Robert Louis Stevenson Novel...

By Kathy Santo | Updated: Mar 12 2019

If you’ve ever taken your dog for a walk, chances are you’ve encountered the leash aggressive dog. Typically, they lunge, bark, snap and act in an extremely aggressive and antisocial manner when they glimpse a fellow canine.

Similar to Jekyll and Hyde, the leash reactive/aggressive dog is calm, cool and downright polite when walking among people.

But once he catches sight of a dog, it’s: “Goodbye Jekyll and Hello Hyde.” Although leash aggressive dogs rarely follow through with a bite, the experience is frightening and embarrassing enough to make their owners decide to limit or eliminate walks altogether.

So, imagine that you own a leash-aggressive dog, and are told that you need to exercise your dog 30-60 minutes every day because that will help him become calmer and more able to focus on the obedience training that you’re doing  at home. What then? 4am walks in the neighborhood before anyone wakes up? Midnight walks in the dark? Mapping out routes where you know there aren‘t any dogs?

Not if you understand the causes and solutions for this type of behavior.

A combination of frustration and tension, many leash aggressive dogs crave interaction with other dogs, but most likely have less-than stellar social skills to create a successful meet and greet.

Much like a child who runs onto a playground and puts another child in a headlock and gives him a noogie as a way of saying “Hey, let’s be friends!”, a dog lacking social skills may lunge and bark at a passing dog instead of using subtle signs to signal their desire to form a relationship. When their owners witness this behavior, they (understandably) pull their dogs away and avoid exposing them to social interactions with other canines. By doing that, they insure that their dog will never learn how to correctly interact with other dogs, and doom themselves and their dog to a life devoid of canine friendships.

While it sounds counter intuitive, the road to fixing this issue is actually off leash interactions with dogs. This is not to be done without seeking the help of a professional dog trainer (and if you’re in NJ, we have a school and we can help!), because before you take this step, you must learn how to correctly read the native language of dogs: body language!

If you don’t know what your dog or the other dog is saying with their body signals, you may interpret ‘play’ when it’s really tension, and ‘tension’ when it’s really play.

In addition, if you’re local, we can help you evaluate your dog to see if this is a typical case of leash aggression, or if there’s something else happening. Whenever I’m handling this type of behavior problem, I always make sure that the dog has had a complete veterinary exam to rule out any medical causes for the behavior.

Punch Buggy!

In the meantime, start decreasing your dog’s frustration when he’s on leash and spies another dog by removing the tension from your leash. To do that, you’re going to teach your dog that when he sees another dog, you’re going to reward him for looking at you. Reminiscent of the childhood game “Punch Buggy!” (without the punch), the “Cookie Dog!” game starts with you and your dog sitting on a park bench in an area where there are a small number of dogs out and about. Do your research in advance and scout out a few places without your dog. Your dog should be very hungry (playing this before mealtimes is ideal) and you should have a large amount of super high value types of treats (steak, chicken, tortellini!) with you. Keep in mind that the treats you always use when you’re training your dog at home will be less than exciting when you’re outside and there are lots of distractions to grab his attention. And you already know how rewarding he finds other dogs, so be prepared to break out the anchovy treats!

So you’ve arrived at the bench with your on-leash, hungry dog, plus your fabulous treats, and you see a dog in the distance. The minute you see your dog notice him, say “Cookie Dog!”, put the treat in front of his nose and start feeding him treat after treat until the dog has gone by. At that point, the proverbial “bar” is closed, and there will be no more reinforcement….until the next “cookie dog” shows up. This is going to quickly teach your dog that the arrival of another dog means that you’re going to start paying out treats like a hot slot machine in Vegas. The resulting behavior will be that your dog sees the other dog, turns to you, and expects a reward. Great!  

Feed him and then – after a week or so of successful Cookie Dog experiences – ask your calm and focused dog to “Sit” and “Wait”.

After a few weeks of playing the Cookie Dog game on a bench, you can start playing it on the move. It’s crucial that YOU are super focused on your dog and the presence of other dogs while on the walk. That means that during this phase, keep your mind in the game and not on texting, talking on the phone, or listening to music! Besides, you’ll be meeting so many new people and their dogs, you won’t have time to do anything else.

Kathy Santo has spent her entire career as a dog trainer and handler, training dogs and winning over 500 obedience, agility and Canine Good Citizenship titles. Working with her own dogs, she has achieved every competitive obedience title the American Kennel Club (AKC) has offered and earned the prestigious AKC “Obedience Trial Champion” title (OTCh) multiple times.

In Ramsey, Kathy teaches classes, private lessons, and oversees the training of her student’s dogs using her extensive knowledge, experience and intuition to handle problems from the benign to the serious. Her engaging personality has won her the respect and friendship of her many students, who now consider themselves part of her extended family.