THE SAVVY TRAINER
The Truckee/Tahoe area is dog heaven. Where else can dogs run and play off-leash on virtually any trail? For dogs that actually like other dogs, it’s a pretty cool place to live. For those that don’t care for their own species, it can be a challenge to simply take a walk. Random dogs running free can come out of nowhere at any moment.
There are several reasons that a dog may be reactive to other dogs. Some dogs are fine when off-leash, but act like Cujo when restrained. Often this response is due to something called ‘barrier aggression,’ meaning the dog is frustrated by not being able to properly greet another dog. Another common cause of on-leash aggression is resource guarding of their owner. These dogs think it’s their job to protect you. For dogs that are dog-aggressive, whether they are on or off-leash, the most common reason is fear. When dogs are fearful of something, they act in ways to move the scary thing farther away. Barking, growling, and showing their teeth usually accomplishes this goal.
If you are ready to commit to a comprehensive training approach, there are ways to help dogs that display dog aggression. If you aren’t, here are some ways to better manage the situation before your dog explodes.
Stay Calm. Your dog senses your energy. His anxiety level will only increase more if you are nervous. Practice deep breathing during your daily dog walks starting when everything is calm. If you see a dog ahead, start breathing before the situation erupts.
Plan Ahead. Think through the various scenarios where you have had problems in the past. Is there one dog in your neighborhood that is always loose? If so, find another route. Visual barriers can be extremely helpful for many dogs. Carry a pop-up umbrella to use as a shield in situations where a dog runs up to you.
Create Distance. If you see a dog ahead of you, turn and go the other way. Dogs have a threshold distance where they can tolerate seeing another dog. Try to determine if your dog’s threshold is 20, 50, or 100 feet. By determining your dog’s threshold you will know when to calmly react.
Teach an Exit Cue. You’ll need to teach this in an environment without other dogs around. Say an exit cue, like ‘run away!’ in a loud, happy voice, then make a quick turn and run away with your dog for at least 20 to 30 feet. When you stop, give him lots of wonderful treats or play a favorite game. Once he gets used to playing this game, you can use the ‘run away’ cue before he reacts to an oncoming dog.
What should you do if an accident happens and your dog explodes? Leave as quickly as possible. At this point he is unable to process any cues you give. The emotional reaction trumps any rational thought process.
When you are ready to do the work, positive reinforcement training techniques can greatly improve a dog’s aggressive behavior. Training does take commitment, but the payoff is well worth it.
~ Carla Brown is a certified pet dog trainer and the owner of the Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. Comment on her column below.