Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Walking a dog that is aggressive towards other dogs can feel like an enormous task, something that may lead to anxiety and discouragement in the handler. This sense of helplessness is not unusual. Countless dog owners dread walking their aggressive/reactive dogs as they feel deep embarrassment from their behavior. This often causes them to feel worn-out, to the point of seriously considering no longer walking their dogs, or even worse, giving up on them.
We live in an era where dogs are considered a big liability, where there are strict leash laws and where society is very intolerant of dogs of certain breeds or dogs who show concerning behaviors suggestive of aggression. Short of relegating the dog to the yard or walking the dog in the wee hours of the night, what are dog owners left to do? Are dog owners destined to leading a life of avoidance for the rest of the dog’s life?
Sure, avoidance means that we can have at least some level of control and it may prevent rehearsal of the dog’s problematic behavior up to a certain extent, but in the long term, as tempting as it may feel, using long-term avoidance strategies does nothing to help an anxious dog learn how to cope with his triggers (in this case, the presence of other dogs).
Actually, it is often those owners who make the difficult choice of relegating Reactive Rover to the yard that still see those same aggressive behaviors just as before when their dog detects other dogs being walked by the window or behind a fence. The problem still remains and ends ups establishing more and more since practice makes perfect.
Fortunately, as difficult and desperate as some situations may seem, there are several steps dog owners can take to help their dogs. It’s important to realize that there is no one-solution for all, rather, a multi-tiered support system is often needed tackling the problem from different angles. Equally important is recognizing that many cases of dogs who are reactive towards other dogs do so because of the combination of fear-based anxiety and learned responses more than a true desire to fight.
Below are a list of tips for walking a dog who is aggressive towards other dogs. However, these exercises should be carried out with the help of an experienced force-free trainer and behavior consultant considering that behavior modification comes with risks and an expert can raise the chances for correct implementation.
1. Invest in Dog-Friendly Gear
One of the biggest obstacles owners of aggressive dogs face is the excessive pulling on the leash. This can put a big dent in a dog owner’s confidence levels when walking a reactive dog because it may cause a sensation of loss of control. It may be tempting to invest in training tools that are often advertised as providing “power steering” (like prong collars) or fixing dog behavior problems through corrections (prong, choke collars, shock collars).
As promising as these tools may sound, they are meant for delivering corrections but may have negative repercussions in the long run. The use of aversive tools and techniques are therefore not recommended. Reputable professionals and organizations oppose to their use.
For sake of an example, imagine having a phobia of mice. Every time you see one, you start stomping your feet and screaming. Since your foot stomping and screaming helps vent your fear, and on top of that, works to send mice away (which rodent would not freak out by this?), you are likely to repeat this behavior every single time you spot a mouse.
You are, therefore, taken to a therapist who tells you he will stop your phobia once and for all. So he exposes you to a mouse and you start screaming and stomping your feet. Your therapist slaps you in the face to stop you. Day after day, the scene repeats. Sure, you stop screaming and stomping, but now, not only are you still afraid of mice, but you are scared of your therapist too!
This is what is likely to happen to dogs. If every time they lunge, bark ,and growl, they are corrected with a collar correction (either by tightening/applying pressure into/around the dog’s neck as it happens with choke collars/prongs or delivering a shock as it happens with shock collars), dogs risk associating the sight of other dogs (or anything else around them) with the correction, and possibly, even the owner too!
On top of negative emotional repercussions, these training tools have also been associated with injuries such as to the neck and thyroid gland. Fortunately, there are friendlier training tools. My favorite is a no-pull harness with the leash that attaches to a front ring. There are several models of these harnesses. Examples include the Walk Your Dog with Love harness, the Positively No-Pull Harness, and the Sensible harness.
One of My Favorite Harnesses
Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human-animal bond, problem-solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. Aversive techniques are especially injurious to fearful and aggressive patients and often suppress signals of impending aggression, rendering any aggressive dog more dangerous.
— 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines
2. Muzzle-Train Your Dog
If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs and you fear he may bite, safety is paramount. On top of investing in walking gear that allows you better control, it’s important to muzzle train your dog. This is especially important if your dog has a history of biting. Even if your dog has never bitten before, muzzle training is important considering that any dog can bite when put in a stressful situation. It can happen that one day, an off-leash dog or a dog who pulls an owner causes a too-close encounter which may evoke biting.
The use of a muzzle may also allow owners to relax a bit knowing that at least the worse case scenario they may be played in their mind (the dog biting) is unlikely to happen. However, this doesn’t mean putting the dog in risky situations. Used improperly, a muzzle can exacerbate aggression because it gives dog owners a false sense of security causing them to expose their dogs to situations that normally they wouldn’t be exposed to.
If your dog is aggressive, using a muzzle is fine if you are concerned about your dog potentially biting. However, you should commit to working on changing the underlying emotional state that potentially causes your dog to act aggressively in the first place. I have been telling my clients to treat dogs with muzzles as if they aren’t wearing one.
A basket muzzle is often preferred considering that it allows dogs to still breathe effectively and treats can be fed. Make sure to properly condition your dog to wearing one, considering that any stress associated with improper conditioning can reduce a dog’s threshold for aggression. Here you can find a guide on how to muzzle train your dog.
3. Prevent the Rehearsal of the Problem Behavior
Yes, that’s behavioral management. In other words, prevent the rehearsal of the problem behavior. Don’t put your dog in situations that evoke his lunging, barking and growling. No, management won’t solve your dog’s behavioral problems, but it’s a milestone, a small step in the right direction. Management will pave the path for a good behavior modification program. Its goal is to protect distressed dogs from exposure to triggers that will make them worse.
Contrary to what well-meaning dog owners may believe, repeated attempts to “socialize” a dog to other dogs often ends up increasing rather than decreasing the reactive behavior. These negative encounters only end up feeding the anxiety and increasing the dog’s hyper-vigilant behaviors. In the picture above, you can almost feel the “tension” as these two dogs meet with tight leashes.
Management should, therefore, be used before implementing behavior modification and at those times when, for one reason or another, you cannot proactively work on behavior modification. Here are some tips for the implementation of a good management program.
- Prevent rehearsal of the problem behavior, starting at home. If your dog barks at other dogs from the window, close the blinds, apply window film or relegate your dog to the back of the house so to reduce the barking response. If your dog barks at other dogs passing by, by rushing at the fence-line, keep your dog on leash for his outings at a distance from the fence.
- Scan your environment. Keep an eye on your walks for any upcoming dogs.
- Have a helper come along. He or she may help you feel more secure and can help you identify triggers. As the saying goes, four eyes are better than two.
- Have your helper walk on the opposite side of you so that your dog is in the middle. This helps provide a bit of a barrier and can make some dogs feel a little more safe and secure.
- Walk your dog at a time when there aren’t too many dogs being walked. If your dog must go out to potty, make sure to arrange these outings at times when there are fewer dogs around.
- Have a plan. Make sure you have a plan in place in case you encounter dogs. Below you will find a variety of plans/options should you encounter dogs on your walks.
4. Draw Up a Plan If You Encounter Other Dogs
The below plans provide ideas on what to do if your dog encounters other dogs despite trying your best to avoid them. They can be used in the initial stages of behavior modification when your dog isn’t ready to learn new behaviors. It can be used as well in the more advanced stages, when a dog happens to come too close for comfort and you haven’t had an opportunity to work on such close encounters yet.
- Upon encountering other dogs, if space permits, walk the opposite side of the road.
- Train your dog to do an “about face” quite fluently at home, and then, once fluent, apply that if you see an upcoming dog on a tight road. You can also train “schutzhund turns” as shown in the video below.
- Have your helper (the one walking on the opposite side) carry a large item such as a bag or opened umbrella to block some view of the other dog.
- Take advantage of objects around you that can be used as visual barriers such as such as cars, bushes, trees, benches and dumpsters. Choose routes that have an abundance of them.
- Have a plan to distract any potential off leash dogs coming your way. For example, your helper can distract the upcoming dog by tossing treats his way.
- Have supplies to stop an eventual fight. The intention of using these supplies is to do as little harm as possible. They should be used only in the event of a fight and not in normal training situations. Should a fight erupt, it may therefore help to use noise in hopes of disengaging the dogs. You can shake a small metal shaker can with coins inside or a small air horn from a marine supply store (don’t use it right next to the dog’s ears). Both these items may fit in the helper’s pocket.
- Never get in between two fighting dogs. Doing so can put you at risk for a redirected bite.
Emergency Exits for Triggers
5. Arm Yourself With High-Value Treats/Food
When it comes to behavior modification, you want to invest in super high-value treats/foods so to help your dog form positive associations and then make good choices. Make sure these high-value foods are provided during behavior modification sessions but are withheld at other times.
This is not a time to be stingy, so skip those stale cookies you have been keeping on the shelf for a long time and definitely skip using kibble since most likely your dog gets that every day.
Look for treats/foods that make your dog drool, foods that are at the very top of your dog’s hierarchy of favorite things to eat. This can be people’s food, too, as long as they are suitable for dogs (not on the toxic-to-dogs list) and don’t cause trouble to your dog (digestive upset, allergies, etc.).
Examples of treats/ foods used for behavior modification may include the following: (of course, use these on your own discretion based on what agrees with your dog, ask your vet if you have any concerns)
- Organic, low-sodium hot dogs cut in thin slices
- Small morsels of chicken breast
- Small pieces of baked calf liver
- Freeze-dried liver treats for dogs
- Freeze-dried tripe treats for dogs
- Salmon training treats for dogs
There are of course many more options, so this is not an extensive list. Your dog will tell you what he likes best. How can you know? Just watch his reaction after you give one small piece. Is he looking up adoringly wanting more? Does he seem enthusiastic about it? Has he given you his “bark of approval?”
Consider though that while your dog may enjoy treats in the comfort of the home, things may change when you are out and about in a distracting area where other dogs are around.
It is not unusual for dogs to lose interest in treats/food and even refuse it at times. This brings us to the next step which is making sure your dog is not overwhelmed, so that he is in a calmer state, and relaxed enough to take treats.
6. Keep Your Dog Under-Threshold
Your dog’s threshold is that imaginary line where your dog is in a calmer state of mind and not distressed. It is often the distance from which your dog is able to look at other dogs and take treats, although treat-taking can’t be said to be a totally accurate gauge for your dog’s threshold, considering that, some dogs can take treats even when overwhelmed (they often do so nervously, eating quickly and roughly from your hands).
You can read more about a dog’s threshold by reading this article on a dog’s threshold levels. Make sure to come back here though as there is much more to be aware about when it comes to behavior modification.
Often, the best way to keep your dog under the threshold is by providing distance. The more distant your dog is from other dogs, the more likely he is to be calmer. Back to the fear of rats, you are likely less fearful of rats several feet away from you (or even better, rats shown on TV) rather than rats right besides you. Your therapist may therefore expose you gradually to rats from a distance at first and gradually closer and closer. The process of such gradual exposure in behavior terms is known as desensitization.
Now, of course, things aren’t always cut and dried when it comes to behavior modification. Your dog may do well at a distance with certain dogs, but perhaps the sight of a younger dog who moves a lot, walks at a certain speed, or a dog who barks at that same distance your dog was previously comfortable with, may create a setback.
So it’s not just about distance, there are also other subtleties to be aware of such as movements, sounds, intensity, past associations, and personal preferences. It may just be that your dog may dislike certain types of dogs (like black dogs) more than others or he may have had a negative experience with one in the past.
So when you are on walks, make sure you keep your dog under the threshold as much as you can. This may be difficult based on location, and sometimes it may be worthy driving to better areas where your dog can see other dogs in a calmer, more structured manner. Here are some tips ideas, but these need to be coupled with counterconditioning as explained in the next section.
- Practice at home. Have your dog on leash at a distance from a window and find the distance where he can see dogs walking by without getting overly upset.
- Have a helper. This would be ideal. Have a helper walk a calm dog on leash by your home so that you can do some rehearsals.
- Find calm dogs behind fences. Sometimes, you may be lucky to find calm dogs who won’t bark much at other dogs walking by their yard. These provide a good opportunity to practice with your dog.
- Drive your dog. Drive your dog to an area where dogs are walked by and your dog doesn’t get over threshold and practice having your dog watching them calmly in the car
Once you have found a place/distance where your dog is under threshold, it’s important to add powerful behavior modifications techniques that aim to change your dog’s underlying emotions as outlined below.
7. Form Positive Associations
Now that you have found the distance from which your dog is under threshold, you can start working on forming positive associations.
There are several methods to create positive associations and every dog professional may have their preference. My three favorite ones are:
- Leslie McDevitt’s Look at That Dog
- Jean Donaldson’s Open Bar/Closed Bar
- Alice Tong’s Engage Disengage Game
There are, of course, several more.
For dogs reactive towards dogs for example, prior to starting the Look at That exercises, I like to first work on getting them used to just hearing jingling tags and dogs barking using some foundation work such as what I call the “Hear That Method,” which I personally crafted after working with some reactive dogs who weren’t ready for visual exposures with the added auditory noise.
What’s the goal of all these methods? The goal of these methods is to create positive associations by feeding reactive dogs high-value treats every time they hear/see another dog. Treat, after treat, the dog starts anticipating seeing dogs rather than dreading their presence.
Back to the fear of rats, it’s as if you would get $10 dollar bills every time you saw a rat crossing the road. Rat after rat, you would likely want to see more and more as you build up your piggy bank!
As positive associations are formed, then the dog is gradually exposed to closer encounters, up until they are relaxed enough to be capable of being walked at normal distances expected on walks. However, as much as progress is made, it’s imperative to protect the dog from encounters that may cause considerable setbacks. One of the biggest obstacles to behavior modification are indeed too close encounters and progressing in the process too fast.
Some dogs will never like dogs who come close to their faces especially once they reach social maturity, a time when dogs tend to become more discriminative of who to “befriend.” It’s a good idea to respect these dogs’ desires rather than forcing them in interactions they aren’t comfortable with. It’s, therefore, important to protect any progress made and take all the steps needed to prevent too close encounters, especially with off-leash dogs which can easily undo days, weeks or months of hard work.
8. Train a Replacement Behavior
Many owners of problematic dogs wish to stop a behavior. They want their dogs to stop misbehaving once and for all. Until a magical wand is invented, here are the hard cold facts: you can’t just wipe a behavior problem from the face of the earth once and for all without leaving a vacuum, and that vacuum might fill with other negative behaviors, which may be even worse than the original one!
This is often the case with using methods based on harsh, punishment-based techniques. Punishment may seem to stop unwanted behavior, but that’s just temporary because a dog’s aggressive display (the lunging, barking growling) is ultimately a manifestation of an internal turmoil. If you fail to address the dog’s internal (emotional state) you’re just putting a bandage on top of an infected wound.
Teaching the dog alternate, replacement behaviors resolves the problem without the need for punishment ultimately because, it is not the stopping of the unwanted behavior that brings long-term results, rather, it’s the encouragement of the alternate, desirable ones that does.
Now, if you ask your dog to perform a behavior when he is over threshold and stressed, this won’t likely work because the dog is likely in a fight or flight situation. With his body bombarded by stress hormones, his cognitive functions have likely shut down. This is not surprising. If you are terrorized by mice, try to solve a math problem while you see a rodent walking nearby.
So once your dog is calmer, and positive associations have been formed, then you can start asking your dog to perform an alternate, replacement behavior which will take the place of the barking, growling and lunging. Make sure you praise lavishly and generously reinforce the alternate behavior.
This replacement behavior should be first taught fluently at home, starting in a quiet area, and then, distractions should be gradually added. One of may favorite replacement behaviors is having the dog learn to make eye contact with me. Here is a simple guide on the process: How to train a dog to make eye contact.
Once your dog performs the behavior fluently, you can then even move onto asking your dog to do several steps of attention heeling upon spotting a dog which is where your dog walks looking up into your eyes as you can see in the picture above.
9. Enlist the Aid of a Professional
Tackling dog aggression is not an easy task. It requires patience, knowledge, and the ability to read a dog’s stress signals, not to mention determination and time. Enlisting the help of a behavior professional is important for correct implementation of behavior modification, troubleshooting and safety.
Safety is important because behavior modification for dog aggression also comes with risk. Dogs who are highly stressed can bite and the victims can be other dogs, but even humans can become targets at times, unfortunately. Enlisting the right type of professional is important. Avoid any trainers/behavior consultants who used aversive and outdated training methods.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals recommends that “veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it.”
Did you know? A board-certified veterinary behaviorist can screen your dog for medical conditions and even prescribe medications such anxiety-reducing drugs for the most severe cases.
10. Consider Setups With a Calm Dog
The outdoor world can be quite an unpredictable place for dogs, so if feasible, it would be ideal to create organized set-ups in a quiet area for systematic implementation of desensitization and counterconditioning. For instance, a friend may walk a calm dog back and forth while your dog watches from a window at distance he doesn’t react. As your dog glances at the other dog, you feed high-value treats every time the other dog is within your dog’s peripheral view. Once out of sight, no more treats.
However, once practicing outdoors this could mean going back to an unpredictable environment where other random dogs may pop up from nowhere and there are always risks that the friend’s dog may react or she may come too close with her dog and things can get ugly. A better option may be to, once again, enlist the help of a dog behavior consultant who owns a calm, rather bomb-proof stimulus dog who doesn’t react should your reactive dog bark, growl or lunge and who is good in sending calming signals.
Alternatively, there are special classes set up by dog trainers called “Reactive Rover” classes where dogs uncomfortable with other dogs meet, however, since these are group classes, sometimes they may be too stressful considering that a bunch of nervous dogs may be forced to stay at distances they aren’t yet comfortable with. Of course, all classes may be run differently, so there may be some invested more in taking precautions (like using barriers or having enough space).
As seen, walking a dog who is aggressive towards other dogs is certainly a huge undertaking, requiring time, dedication and persistence. Often though, those who are committed to helping their dogs and fortunate to have the right settings will be rewarded with shimmers of improvements sooner than later.
Behavior Modification for a Dog That Is Reactive on Walks
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 24, 2019:
Happy to see you again! You are so right, protecting the owner is something that dogs are expected to do in the case of a real threat where the owner is peril, and not just randomly lunging and threatening dogs or people who are just innocently walking by.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 24, 2019:
I hear you Sam Shepherds!
When we walked our Rottie we were often attacked by a pack of Chihuahuas who were always trying to bite our dogs’ ankles. The damage off-leash dogs can do is not to be underestimated.
I know of service dogs with impeccable training who were ruined by off-leash dogs, not from physical battle scars, but emotionally. Took quite some time for them to recover. I am glad your dog recovered and you need to pat yourself on the back for that because it’s not easy!
Sam Shepards from Europe on November 24, 2019:
One of my German Shepherds was attacked 3 times by small dogs in his youth (6-9 months range), people who didn’t put their dogs on a leash in the woods etc. There was no visible damage, because yes my dog was already a lot bigger even then. The problem was that it got him anxious when seeing other dogs that were barking or pulling. Now he started pulling and showing off. The problem is when a big dog does this it looks menacing when small dogs do that it looks, well you know… It took me months to neutralize this behavior. He was used to living with another dog (his older friend, my more dominant and strong/stable dog), also German Shepherd, so it’s not that he wasn’t socialized that way.
A very nice article!
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 23, 2019:
Informative about aggressive dogs when walking your dog. I find that dogs protect their owners best but when they become aggressive toward other dogs something is not right with the aggressive dog. You summed up in detail.