Every day, dog owners are snapping the lead, growling in frustration, screaming “No!” as Fido barks and lunges at other dogs, bicycles, maybe even people and children on their afternoon walk.

Not a very pleasant way to spend an hour with your four-legged friend is it?  There is a better way!  I will explain why jerking and snapping Fido’s lead is not the answer in this brief article.

So, am I telling you it is wrong to punish your dog for barking and lunging? Well, yes and no.  Obviously no one wants their dog to bark and lunge.  Situations can get out of hand, if you have a strong or fast dog that catches you off guard, you may well end up face-first into the grass or nursing a sprained shoulder and bruised fingers.  I’m not telling you this is an appropriate behaviour from your dog, but I am going to tell you that Punishment is not the best way to correct this behaviour.

To get an idea of why Fido is exhibiting this behaviour we have to look at his body language.  What does Fido look like when he’s having a great time?  His face is soft and his mouth may be slightly open.  His ears are up or back, eyes look relaxed or even a little squinty.  Fido’s tail sweeps softly back and forth, or if really excited his whole bum wiggles and his tail is doing helicopter wags.

Now, what does Fido look like when he sees that mouthy little Chihuahua down the road?  His lips curl in a snarl, maybe flashing a few teeth.  He finds a deep, loud bark and his body is tight, tail tensed over his back or even tucked between his legs.
Looks like Fido is having a grand time, don’t you just want to join in?

No, you don’t.  Why? Because that furry little friend of yours is having a royal freak out.  If you were to leave Fido to his own devices, he wouldn’t settle down until the source (that pesky little Chihuahua) is far enough away.

Let’s face it, if someone put me on a leash and waved a big juicy cane toad in my face, I’d shriek and foam at the mouth until that slimey creature was gone.  Yes, you could punish me hard enough that I will stop my immediate reaction to the toad, but there is no way you could punish me into feeling good about having that toad waved in my face.

It works the same way with Fido, you can punish him enough to shut down his explosion certainly – but you can’t punish him hard enough to make him feel the world is peachy keen in close proximity to other dogs.  In fact, you’re more likely to accomplish the opposite.  Fido interprets your correction on the lead as “When dogs appear, my Person yells and tugs on my neck.”  Good lesson, huh?

So, Bark-and-Lunge explosions are stressful for both Fido and yourself. In addition, from Fido’s point of view the aggressive display seems to work pretty well (after all, he always gets his way when the other dog leaves).  That means every time Fido has a blow up, he becomes more and more likely to repeat this tactic next time. So to stop this self-reinforcing behaviour, keep Fido out of trouble as much as you can until you can get professional help and work on his Behaviour.

Now, I hear you ask – “How do I start to correct this behaviour?”  Its time to pay close attention to Fido and make note of the distance at which he starts to tense up.  Several factors can come into play at this point – the other dog’s size, appearance, and behaviour, just to name a few.  A big dog with a naturally high tail and an intense stare might as well have a target tied to his collar – in fact, that intense stare suggests he’s a little reactive himself!  How many close encounters Fido has already had that day will have him on edge and affect his stress level, and thus his propensity to blow up.  On the other hand, if Fido has exerted most of his energy with a nice long game of fetch and is generally more relaxed he may ignore a dog he’d otherwise find seriously provoking.  As you get to know your dog’s patterns and become more familiar with the subtle changes in his body language, it becomes easier to keep yourself and Fido far enough away that he can keep his cool. If you need to make a sudden U-turn, hide behind a parked car, or distract him with food tossed on the ground, then do it!  Your job as Fido’s Person is to be confident and assertive and look out for his welfare, and that means helping him out of tough spots. If, as can often happen, you’re caught unawares as a dog comes around the corner for instance, and Fido does explode, then just hold that leash until you can get out of dodge.  Walk tall, maintain your composure and don’t add to the excitement by yelling and screaming. I know it’s embarrassing, I know everyone in the park will look your way to see what the commotion is about, some people will even chime in with their advice and tell you to scold or even hurt your dog. Remember, this is damage control until you get help.

There are two scientifically sound and humane approaches to behaviour modification for reactive dogs. Desensitization and Counter-conditioning is the first. In this process, you start with the mildest version of the problem stimulus that your dog will notice.  As soon as Fido notices it, you deliver something he loves – usually, this will be a super-deluxe treat, such as roast chicken.  When desensitization and counter-conditioning is done right, Fido will soon learn that the sight of other dogs reliably predicts that roast chicken appears in front of his nose.  Over time Fido comes to tolerate or even look forward to the proximity of other dogs because they are such excellent predictors of succulent dead bird.

The second approach is called the Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT). Elements of this method have been around forever, but the behaviourists Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider are responsible for formulating it in a systematic way.  The two premises are that though aggressive displays may start in a moment of panic, dogs learn over time that aggression works.  As pointed out above, the other dog pretty much always goes away; and secondly, that most dogs are friendly in some contexts – so the trick is to teach Fido to import those friendly behaviours into the problem situation. In a CAT session, Fido is presented with a mild version of the problem stimulus – for the purposes of this article, another dog. As soon as Fido offers any non-aggressive behaviour, the other dog moves further away.  In effect, Fido learns to drive dogs away by being nice to them. Paradoxically, at some point in the procedure, Fido may even begin to like the other dog for real.

Desensitization/Counter-conditioning and the Constructional Aggression Treatment are simple in principle, subtle in practice.  How much a dog improves depends on many factors, including the trainer’s sensitivity and skill, the reactive dog’s resiliency and ability to learn, and the owner’s willingness and ability to work hard. Some reactive dogs will also benefit from appropriate behavioural medication, be it natural remedies or prescribed by a Qualified Vet.  Dogs do better and learn faster when we guide them and help them succeed. That’s the principle of modern training; all we humans need to do is apply it.

If you are struggling with a behavioural issue, help is available by booking a private consultation with Crazy K9s on 0437 892 887.

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