Help my dog is dog reactive to other dogs!
One common behavior that frustrates dog owners is reactivity and/or aggression toward other dogs. This can be a very challenging and time consuming behavior to work through to gain control and to get your dog exercising self-control at least in your presence.
This behavior can generally be placed in one of 3 categories.
Nervous reactivity/aggression (Fear)
Bullying & Intimidation
Nervous reactivity/aggression (Fear)
There are numerous reasons this behavior develops. Behavior problems can/do often start at the breeders (or wherever the puppies are raised) from 5-8 weeks, or the groundwork for this behavior can get its start at “puppy class” before 16-weeks of age. To understand how breeders or early puppy raisers can contribute to this behavior read “How to buy a puppy”.
The common way this behavior develops is a lack of proper dog socialization before 16-weeks of age during the critical primary socialization period. A proper socialization program is not as simple as giving a puppy the opportunity to play with other puppies or dogs. To better understand early socialization and puppy classes visit the socialization page. Socialization prior to 16-weeks presents a challenge since this is the period of time when the puppy is susceptible to disease. More veterinarians today are now recommending early socialization for puppies as long as appropriate precautions are taken. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has stated “that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.” (Socialization) Unfortunately there are still veterinarians today advising owners basically to quarantine their puppy until they completes their full set of vaccinations.
A puppy can learn reactive behavior from its mother or other dogs in the home either at the breeders or at their new home. If the puppy’s mother or another dog is reactive towards other dogs and the puppy witnesses this behavior then the puppy in the early weeks of life can learn to be frightened of other dogs and how to be reactive because they had an early role model(s) for the behavior.
Another way this behavior can develop is if the puppy has been attacked by an older dog. Timid dogs “socialized” at the dog park are more likely to be bullied, and now we have possibly laid the foundation for fear aggression to develop. What is bullying behavior or an attack is determined by the puppy. It could be full on aggression toward the puppy or it could be rough inappropriate play or being bowled over for a timid puppy. This could result in the puppy being reactive toward dogs similar to the one that attacked them, or it could make the puppy insecure and reactive in the same environment. (e.g. park, building, exiting vehicle, confined space, vet’s office, etc…) Repeated traumatic events can cause the puppy to generalize the fear and anxiety to all areas or all dogs.
If you have a young reactive/fearful dog don’t look for opportunities to “socialize” them without a proper plan. Your dog does not need to be around other dogs straining at the leash (or off leash) to get to your dog no matter how well-intention the other dog is.
Group dog training classes should also be avoided for most fearful dogs. Imagine it from your dog’s perspective. You are restrained by a leash (flight is not possible) and without your consent you are forced into a group with other dogs some rude, others barking, and still others straining on the leash to get to you. The reactive behavior is likely to intensify after the first few classes.
Over a short period of time the dog learns that when restrained on a leash reactive behavior will usually accomplish what it desires which is distance from other dogs. When they have an outburst it will generally cause the other dog’s owner to pull the other day away, and their owner will pull them away creating distance quickly from the other dog. Behavior that creates a desirable outcome will be repeated.
If a dog will run over 50’ to get to another dog not on its property I think you can rule out fear as the cause of the reactivity/aggression. Frustration is an all too common way dogs become reactive or aggressive toward other dogs. Reactive dogs are often motivated out of excitement (high arousal), and/or frustration. Many times humans have unintentionally created this behavior because dogs were never taught how to be appropriately social around other dogs in an appropriate social manner that is not play. If a dog's life experience around other dogs is excited over-arousal play it is much easier to create frustration in the dog when we place them on a leash. This can be a problem with many dogs in daycare/boarding, dog parks, etc… Too many times the lesson dogs learn is that when you see another dog, run to the other dog to play. Patterns create habits which can lead to inappropriate behavior.
Confident dogs that were “socialized” at the dog park can become overly aroused and out of control around other dogs. Some confident dogs that practice high arousal play with other dogs will often come to enjoy bullying type “games” that involve jumping and bumping, chasing, biting the heels, and neck although it’s just “play”. Almost without exception when these dogs are out of your reach they are out of your control. When I hear an owner yelling out “he’s friendly” in response to another dog owner loudly telling them to call their dog that is running their way, what I see and hear is the owner of the “he’s friendly” dog has no control and no verbal control over their dog. For this reason their dog should not be permitted off leash in an area where the owner has no control.
What to do?
First understand none of these “tools” are necessary to train or work with dogs. Choke chains, prong collars, e-collars, and restrictive front clip harnesses like the Freedom Harness, and Easy Walk Harness, etc. To avoid inflicting damage avoid thin collars and do not place the collar high, right behind the ears.
With any behavior we wish to change the first to place to start is by removing the opportunities for the dog to practice the unwanted behavior. Meaning no dog parks, no daycare, no playing with other dogs, period. For at least the next 5-weeks there is to be no play, excitement/arousal around other dogs, nor any unsupervised time with another dog. So if a dog plays with another dog 40min each day, now the owners need to fulfill the play needs of their dog. The goal is to make the owners more desirable and fun. I want to see dogs that will leave another dog to return and play a game with their owners. Sometimes it can be that simple.
The number one rule in my book is that I never permit dogs to put their mouths on another dog even in “play”. They are not permitted to do anything with dogs they know that would be inappropriate if they ran up to another dog they did not know. e.g. jumping on another dog, biting even in play, etc… Dogs should only put their teeth on a toy and not another dog or human.
With every dog it is important to evaluate whether the dog is getting all their needs met (attention, social interaction, exercise, mental stimulation) and making their life more interesting. Variety can be the key to an enriching life for dogs. Engage all five of the dogs' senses, to make their days more interesting. Anything that is unchanging is no longer unique and loses its value quickly. Dogs engaged in enrichment activities are less likely to develop the inappropriate behaviors that are the result of boredom, stress, and frustration. Making your dog’s life more interesting.
One of the first places to start is to evaluate the relationship between the dog and owner. How much control and cooperation do the owners have overall; in the home, feeding, at the door, play, etc…? I first determine the level of restraint/management being used vs cooperation in every facet. Many times owners must learn how to achieve control and cooperation in other areas to lay the foundation for resolving the reactive issues. If you do not have full control over your dog start with this short guide; Finding A Balance, by Suzanne Clothier
One primary goal is to teach dogs to ignore other dogs and to be socially pleasant and confident around strange dogs. It starts with the dog over-learning how to walk properly on a leash. Teaching loose leash walking skills.
“What equipment do I use for a reactive dog?” I use a properly fitted martingale collar. When working with reactive dogs any “tool” can have risks. My first choice is a martingale collar fitted properly (just snug enough so the dog cannot escape and no more) so I can be sure the dog cannot get free. I use the widest collar that is reasonable for each dog. I use a very soft nylon or hemp martingale collar as wide as practical for each dog. For larger dogs I often use a 1 ½” - 2” wide soft martingale. For reactive dogs I minimize the amount of leash they have to minimize unintended corrections. A dog hitting the end of a 6’ leash will get a large correction so I work with the leash shorten to minimize unintended corrections. I will also use a bungee leash many times to lessen any unintended impact. Any equipment we place on our dogs should be done with care. On rare occasions I will use a head halter device for large dogs that are out of control. These are restraint tools that I consider a last resort and restrict their use to short-term and only with large dogs who are out of control. Whatever tools you use, look to make it as pleasant as possible for the dog while still maintaining control until you get your dog’s cooperation. We ultimately want dogs to desire to be with us, not find us punishing.
The importance of teaching good leash walking skills is that a dog cannot be both walking nicely on a leash and be aware of the location and pace of the person walking them, and be pulling, lunging, or barking, etc… at another dog. Reactive dogs need the least distracting environments to start so it may require finding a controlled environment to start. There is no way to completely control the environment unless you have access to a private location. “Life happens” so I choose places where I can create distance if needed. I choose the best environment possible for each dog I work with. Sometimes I start; in their own neighborhood, a quieter neighborhood, a park that I have several options to create distance from others if needed, and with some at a place where it was very unlikely we would ever see a dog.
I highly recommend you go to the leash walking skills page to learn the most successful method for teaching a dog to walk on a loose leash. Leash Walking Skills
Once the dog has basically over-learned how to walk on a loose leash, practice the leash walking at a distance from other dogs making sure to stay outside the reactivity distance. This is especially important with highly excitable/aroused dogs. Many owners have told me their dog walks nicely but there is always a caveat; unless he sees another dog, cat, rabbit, or squirrel, etc… My definition of a dog that walks nicely on a leash is a dog will stay connected to its owner and under control "even if" another dog, cat, squirrel, etc… Once the dog has basically over-learned how to walk on a loose leash then I incorporate parallel walking at a distance. That distance can be 20’ or 400’. If the dog is reactive at 400’, we work at 410’ to start. Then we keep moving closer over the days in small steps as long as we stay outside the reactivity distance. We then work toward passing other dogs at whatever distance is required to stay below reactivity. All with the goal to have the dogs appropriately social with other dogs, so they are not reacting or struggling against the leash to get to every dog they see. The goal is to teach self-control in the presence of other dogs and people.
When working with dogs timing is of absolute importance. Dogs just like us cannot be both cognitive functioning and emotional/reactive at the same time. (Although they can quickly bounce back and forth) A dog cannot be both walking nicely on a leash and be aware of my location, and be pulling, barking, etc… at the same time. So “before” I see unproductive arousal from the dog I immediately change directions. (be unpredictable) If we wait until the dog pulls the collar pressure is now on the front of the dog’s neck which is what we want to avoid. So by turning around before there is tension in the leash and lowering the leash below the dog’s base of the neck, the tension will be on the side of the neck stopping any forward movement and now turning him around. With the hand lowered as the dog turns around now in a following position the immediate pressure will be on the top of the neck as we gently pull/lead him forward to the appropriate position. If we have built “good” loose leash walking skills the dog will be patterned to refocus on the person holding the leash (without a word said) and will avoid placing any tension in the leash.
Another important point is to not let the dog move forward unless they are exercising self-control. Meaning they will not exit the house, gate, or car unless completely under control and given them permission. Be careful not to move so fast that you are rewarding them for persistent. For example, as soon as you exit request they sit while you calmly shut and lock the door. If the dog is not a wild child I may not ask for a sit as long as they wait patiently for me. If this means it takes 10-minutes for them to exercise self-control I take the time because soon the dog will realize that his persistence gains nothing. Consistency will result in a dog cooperating in a shorter amount of time as you continue to practice.
I’m big on “permission” when working with dogs. Meaning I want them to sniff and have opportunities to explore. But it must be with permission. Many owners get this wrong. The dog will be distracted and pulling and just as soon as the owner pulls/guides the dog back to where they should be they give the dog “permission” to move away, sniff, explore, etc… What they get wrong is there was not a 10-second disassociation time between guiding them back and the dog exercising self-control before releasing them to sniff. Dogs are often rewarded for persistent, not being under control or cooperating.
For the majority of dogs we can resolve dog reactivity by strengthening the relationship between owner and dog, and the dog learning to walking nicely on a leash without pulling. It’s a simple straightforward process but it will take work, and consistency to see change. There are a small percentage of dogs that we need to set up specific situations for an individual dog to resolve the problem. But this comes after a solid foundation has been built between dog and owner, and the dog has learned proper leash walking skills. How we work with these dogs is dependent on what is motivating the behavior and the context in which it occurs. For more guidance on working with reactive/aggressive dogs please read these 32 pages (pages 303-335) in John Rogerson’s book “The Dog Vinci Code". (Chapters 52-55, 32 pages in total) You would be well-served after reading these specific pages to start at the first chapter and read the whole book.
Below are additional resources.