Hey, dog walkers: How to curb the K-9 lunge

Coco

Coco (No. A415080) is a calm, well-mannered doggy, 8 years young and will be thrilled to hang out with you—whether that’s cuddling next to you on the couch, going for a walk or a run, or playing fetch with her favorite toys.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been going for a lot of walks around my neighborhood to get a break from being stuck inside and staring at a computer screen for hours on end. As it turns out, everyone else in my neighborhood had the same idea.

So all day long, I see people outside my window taking a stroll with their dogs, enjoying our beautiful Southern California weather. It’s nice.

But with more dog walkers out and about comes more stress when encountering dogs who struggle with leash aggression. I’ll be honest, this has been a big issue for me lately because my dog Madeline has some serious issues with manners when on a leash. I mean, I guess if we’re being honest, she has some serious issues with manners when she’s not on a leash too. Because, well, she’s a neurotic lunatic with the self awareness of a reality show celebrity turned president. I’m just saying.

She’s an almost 19-year-old, 12-pound Dachshund who only has four teeth left in her mouth. But apparently she never got the memo that she’s no spring chicken and isn’t the size of a mastiff because when we go for walks, she acts like she was a stunt double in the movie “Kujo.”

So walking her lately has been particularly challenging. Because there are so many more people out, It has gotten much worse over the last couple of weeks. So I’ve been doing a lot of research on the subject. I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learned with all of you.

I first wanted to understand why dogs seem to be more reactive when they are on a leash versus not. I learned that leash lunging, leash reactivity and leash aggression are all behaviors caused by a dog feeling restrained, frustrated and uncomfortable in a social situation while attached to a leash.

Think about being tethered to a chair and being forced to watch the movie “Cats.” It’s basically the same thing.

In normal circumstances, an unleashed dog would be able to put sufficient distance between herself and a fear source. But if the same dog is leashed and unable to increase that distance, she may react or behave defensively in the hope that the fear source will go away.

If your dog’s behavior is reinforced by success (meaning distance has been increased), she is likely to react in the same manner again when faced with a similar stimulus.

Speaking from experience, walking a dog that lunges and becomes aggressive on leash is not a pleasant experience. The anticipation of a problem tends to cause human tension, which is transmitted down the leash to the dog, effectively making the lunging behavior worse. Dog and owner are then locked in a vicious cycle of tension and leash lunging that becomes hard to change.

Guilty.

So how do we break this cycle? The first step to stopping your dog lunging is first identifying the cause of his discomfort, and then working to desensitize her to the stimulus that makes her uncomfortable. At the same time, you will be conditioning her to see that the stimulus is no longer cause for concern.

If you have a dog that is social, and who lunges on a lead because she is frustrated and just wants to get to the stimulus, you have to teach her that lunging achieves nothing, while calm behavior results in her being able to greet. Simply turn and walk her away from the source until she is calm and only allow her to greet when the leash is loose.

By using positive reinforcement techniques, you can actually change the way your dog feels about a certain situation for the better and therefore change her emotional and behavioral response.

For example, when your dog sees another dog in the distance and is curious but not yet uncomfortable, bring out her favorite toy or food and play with her or give a treat.

Playing with or feeding your dog will help her to not only focus on something else when she is in the proximity of another dog, but the pleasure she gets playing or eating will hopefully change the way she perceives the outcome of that dog’s presence.

This way, she is now associating the sight of another dog with positive things happening to her that make her feel good. This is the key to changing the way your dog feels.

The reason these positive reinforcement techniques are so important is because punishment just makes the behavior worse. When you punish a dog that is already stressed out because they are on a leash, the dog begins to associate the punishment with the stimulus she fears.

This was a big “ah-ha” moment for me. Maddie does not like other dogs. Never has. So in the past when I have raised my voice to her for reacting badly every time she sees another dog, the visual of another dog will then be associated with the fear or pain of punishment.

Therefore, in Maddie’s mind, seeing another dog means unpleasant things will happen to her, which promotes a really negative association: approaching dogs equals pain or fear.

I just started employing these techniques with her, and will keep you posted on her progress. She’s a stubborn and salty old girl, but with some time and patience, I’m hoping our walks will become the much needed relaxing activity we both need it to be.

Wish me luck!