When my mom and I walk out dog, Zeus, and he sees another dog he goes crazy. He gets really aggressive and his hackles rise. He is a Rottweiler/ Australian Shepherd mix. We have used sprays and clickers to get his attention but nothing works. We use the gentle lead sometimes but it doesn't really work. I just want to go on a normal walk without him getting aggressive when another dog passes by. What can we do to stop this?
Thank you for your question. It can be frustrating and embarrassing when our dogs react in such a big way when they see other dogs while out walking.
More often than not, the dog's reaction is an indication of fear or frustration that the dog is experiencing. Many dogs feel trapped on a leash and unable to create the space they want when coming upon another dog, or they may want to get closer faster and feel confined by the leash. Often these desires, being in conflict with the leash keeping them close to the person, cause the dog to bark, lunge and even snap/bite. Of course, this then usually prompts the person to tighten the leash and scold the dog - which only serves to escalate the dog's behavior, rather than resolve it.
So, how can we help your boy feel more comfortable when out walking? The first thing to acknowledge is that he may never be a social butterfly - eagerly greeting all other dogs in a perfect and polite way. He may not want to greet any of them, or he may only wish to greet certain dogs. Just like humans would never be expected to shake hands with every person they pass on the street, we can't expect our dogs to want to greet every person and dog they encounter either. And, because sidewalks by their narrow and straight design make it essentially impossible for a proper canine-greeting to occur even if there were no leashes involved, it's OK to decide that your dog never greets other dogs when he's on leash. With my own dogs - who are quite social and get on well with most dogs they meet - 99% of the time I do not allow them to greet other dogs when they are on leash - it's messy and can go awry far too quickly.
But, there are things we can do to help your dog feel better when he's out walking so that you can go on your way without an explosion from your dog every time you see another dog.
There are a couple of protocols - all of which may require the assistance of a professional trainer to help you learn how to get the nuance of timing correct to make the biggest impact on your dog's learning experience.
Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) is a protocol wherein you keep your dog at a distance far enough from the trigger (other dog, stranger, whatever sets him off) so that he is aware of the presence of the trigger, but not reacting to it. In this set-up, you allow your dog to look at, watch, listen and sniff to take in information about that trigger, but from this safe distance. When your dog is ready to move on to other things, he'll disengage from the trigger - he'll look away, he might look at you, he might sniff around investigating his local environment, he might decide to move to a new location which may be about the same distance from the trigger, it may be a little bit closer or it may be further away. The key in this training is that it's up to your dog to decide where he goes next. Our role in this protocol is to keep the dog below his reaction threshold (far enough away that he's able to watch, but not become fixated or begin reacting). We praise his good choices to do other things and we allow him to engage (watch, listen, sniff) whenever he chooses and from whatever angle he wishes.
We do slow him down and prevent him going closer than he's ready for. This is important to keep note of because many dogs will charge up to the scary thing to investigate and then realize they are far closer than they are comfortable with and begin to react. Our job is to know how close is too close at that time and slow the dog's forward progress and help him stop getting closer before he's too close for comfort. We like and encourage the dog to wander around on an indirect path toward the trigger (left, right, around the side, backing up, moving toward in an arc, etc). We don't like and try to prevent direct approach and fast approach.
This takes patience and practice, but is an excellent protocol with a great success rate and many dogs will become comfortable enough that they can eventually pass by other dogs without issue and maybe even go on group walks with other polite dogs.
I strongly encourage you to explore the website http://empoweredanimals.com/
as this is the site for BAT protocol. There are handouts and explanations in greater depth than I can give here as well as videos.
The nice thing about this protocol is that you can create set-ups with friends with dogs and practice at a safe distance when you have control over the environment (for the most part), but you can also take advantage of natural occurrences so long as you can control the distance between you and the other dog. In the latter case, the other dog/owner don't know they are helping you with your dog's reactivity issue and you get to practice.
The above protocol uses real-world opportunities to engage with or disengage from, to sniff and investigate the local environment or to move on and go elsewhere as reinforcers to encourage those choices in the future. This protocol does not rely on food which can be a good thing as food can be distracting to the learning process.
Another option is classical counter conditioning. In this protocol, you are simply making a paired association for your dog: other dogs = awesome treats falling from the sky.
Again, you stay far enough away that the dog is aware of, but not reacting to the trigger. The moment your dog notices the trigger you rain tasty bits of food from above - dropping them at your dog's feet, scattering them around the ground for him to sniff out, or handing them to him one at a time in quick succession. Continue to provide bits of food until the trigger has gone out of sight. Then wait for the next trigger to come along and repeat.
In this protocol, I would take the dog perhaps to the edge of a park, or to the parking lot of a major pet store where there is likely to be a somewhat steady stream of dogs walking past, but not hanging out in the same space. You still need to keep your dog far enough away that he's not reacting to the dogs, but close enough that he is noticing their presence.
It's critical in this protocol that your dog actually sees the trigger BEFORE the food falls from the sky. We are setting up a situation where the presence of another dog reliably predicts tasty treats. The purpose of this protocol is to change your dog's emotional response from "Oh no! Another dog!!!!" to "Oh Yes!!! Another dog, yea!!!!"
He still may not wish to engage with them, and once you have seen a complete change in his behavior from reacting to eagerly looking to you for his tasty treats, you will be able to reduce how much and how often you give treats, but you will need to still provide treats in the face of other dogs at least some of the time to maintain the idea in his head that dogs reliably predict (most of the time) something great for him.
For details on this type of protocol, you can check out the website CARE for reactive dogs:
You may also find Patricia McConnell's book Feisty Fido - Help for the Leash Reactive Dog
to be helpful. This book provides a great step-by-step of how to work through the issue, and she also walks through a couple of great emergency training techniques - an emergency U-Turn so that you can quickly change direction and get you and your dog out of the area if you need to, and also an emergency Sit/Stay in which you can then step in front of your dog and protect him from an encounter with an unfamiliar dog while you try to get that other dog to go away.
As I mentioned above, both of these protocols are excellent. There is some overlap and some differences between them, but both (and sometimes a combination of the two) can work wonders to help your dog feel more comfortable when on a leash walk. But, with either of them, you may require a few in-person sessions with a professional who is well versed in leash reactivity to help you learn to read your dog's body language so you can see when he's getting overly aroused or nervous BEFORE he begins to react (this gives you a chance to intervene and prevent an explosion). A professional will also help you learn the timing of encouraging, helping to escape, when to praise and how to praise so that when you're working on your own you can feel confident you're getting it right.
One other book I highly recommend for all dog owners, but especially those with reactive dogs, is called On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals
. This book, by Turid Rugaas, walks through a slew of the more subtle body language signals your dog likely gives before he begins barking and lunging. The better you can read your dog's subtle signals, the better you'll be able to help him make better choices and avoid those outbursts.
You can search for a local force free professional through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT)
Pet Professionals Guild
the Association of Professional Dog Trainers
American College of Veterinary Behaviorist guidelines for how to choose a trainer:
(link at the bottom of this page leads to the below PDF)
Please feel free to follow up if I can be of further assistance.
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Masters of Animals and Public Policy - 2016 candidate