This training tip is brought to us by Brian Burton, a co-founder of Instinct Dog Behavior & Training LLC in New York City. He’s currently a master’s candidate in Animal Behavior at Hunter College (CUNY) and is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Brian’s rescue mixed-breed dog, Sammy, is a top competitor in the AKC Rally program.
You tentatively leash up your dog, put on your treat pouch and get ready to leave the house for the dreaded daily walk. You slowly open the door and stick your head out; you look both ways making sure that the coast is clear. You now have super-human hearing and can hear a collar jingle from two blocks away, but you don’t hear anything. You take a deep breath and head out to tackle the neighborhood.
The first few minutes of the walk are calm with no issues to report. About five minutes into your walk, you feel your heart race as you unconsciously tense up the leash; your dog’s neighborhood nemesis is prancing around the corner. Before you can do anything, your dog perceives the tension in the leash and starts looking around with his assassin stare and spots him! Your dog tenses and you see that his hackles are up (piloerection).
Your food and obedience skills that work so beautifully at home or in class are useless. You try to move your dog away but he’s locked in; waiting for the dog to get JUST a little bit closer and then WHAM! Your dog is lunging and barking until the dog is a good half block away. The neighbors are staring, and you’re feeling embarrassed (and maybe a little frightened). Just as your dog is starting to recover you see another dog coming around the corner on a retractable leash. and the cycle continues…
You’re not alone!
After spending nearly 10 years in the dog training world and helping thousands of owners and their dogs in New York City, I can promise you two things; you are not alone (this is a VERY common behavior issue), and the behavior is likely not your fault (though you are the path forward!). That 5-foot piece of rope can really complicate things and can get in the way of natural social and avoidance behavior that a dog is more likely to choose if they had off-leash freedom. The good news is that I’ve seen most people make things significantly better as long as they are armed with basic knowledge of canine body language, learning science, and practical handling skills.
Why is my dog lunging and barking at other dogs (or people or skateboards or…)
That’s the million dollar question. While there are many theories on this, generally good behavior consultants and trainers want to understand the function of the behavior. Lunging and barking is extremely taxing and risky behavior for an animal to engage in so it *must* serve a purpose. Generally speaking, dogs will fall into two categories:
1) Dogs who are lunging and barking to create space from the other dog. This is usually the case for dogs who are sometimes nervous or anxious around unfamiliar dogs. When they bark and lunge they perceive that the other dog is moving away *because* of their behavior (even though the other owner is just moving them by).
2) Dogs who are lunging and barking to get closer to the other dog. In this case, the dog thinks that the dog gets closer because of their lunging and barking (and it can create a lot of frustration if they can’t access the dog). This is usually seen in dogs who are friendly at the dog park or day care settings but can exhibit problematic behavior when on leash.
To complicate things, some dogs will exhibit frustration around some dogs (say smaller dogs who they like to play with) and fear-related aggression around other dogs (bigger dogs that they don’t like to interact with). The good news is that the general approach is the same; we need to change the physiological/emotional response when your dog perceives another dog AND we need to teach them what they need to do instead that performs the same function as the lunging and barking behavior.
So how do I fix this problem?
Well that depends on what you mean by fix. Completely eliminating this behavior is almost never a realistic goal. The GOOD news is that it’s almost always possible to drastically reduce the intensity and frequency of this behavior and make walks less stressful for you and your canine family member. While there are many ways to approach this problem, I’ve focused here on easy things that you can try at home. If you feel that you aren’t making progress (or you’re afraid your dog might hurt another dog or person), find a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant at the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants at http://www.iaabc.org/
Step 1: Are you using the right equipment?
While there are many opinions about which equipment is best, here’s what I generally find the most effective:
1) If your dog is lunging/barking at less than 50% of dogs, a comfortable FRONT clip harness is best. This will discourage pulling and give you more control than a back clip harness and also can eliminate the discomfort from certain collars (which can really get in the way of progress for some dogs).
2) If your dog is lunging and barking at more than 50% of dogs, I generally recommend a well-fitted head halter (especially in urban settings). This gives you much more control and will generally reduce the intensity of reactions. I also recommend head halters for large and powerful breeds if the owner is afraid of losing control or getting pulled over. Note: it will generally take 3 to 4 days for your dog to habituate to a head halter. There are many articles and YouTube videos on how to introduce your dog to a head halter properly.
Building a foundation; the one exercise to rule them all
First, I usually recommend this ONE exercise that when done properly, does three things: relaxes your dog’s emotional state when on the walk, builds a new default behavior to replace lunging and barking, AND reduces pulling.
For the first week, you only want to practice this when other dogs are not around. If you see a dog out on your walk, simply turn around and avoid if possible. If you live in an urban setting where this is difficult, you may need to structure your walks during this week at times when not as many dogs are out (also known as the 5am club).
Load up on about 50 small, pea-sized human grade meat or cheese treats. Again – human grade meat or cheese treats. The value of the food is hugely important, and your progress will be severely limited with basic dog store treats (even if your dog eats them).
On your walk, all you are going to do is the following; every time your dog checks in/looks at you (without you asking), you are going to mark (with a clicker or a verbal marker such as a “Yes” or “Good”) and THEN feed one treat about 1 second AFTER the marker. If your food is high value enough, your dog will start checking in with you more and more on the walk. At this stage, you are going to mark and (then) feed EVERY instance of the check-in behavior. The goal is that your dog is checking in with you 30 to 50 times per 15 minute walk.
Don’t worry if your dog only performs the behavior a few times and resist the urge to prompt your dog; we want to capture (reinforcing naturally occurring behavior) check-ins. We want your dog figuring this out on her own. It’s much more powerful to give your dog this control of the training and tends to make the training “stick” better in the long term.
So why are you feeding your dog so much? We are increasing the amount of time that your dog looks at you by reinforcing this behavior. This increases attention (so it’s easier to give direction if we need to), reduces pulling (which reduces frustration and anxiety that can come with a tense leash), AND we are relaxing the physiological/emotional state of your dog (therefore are less likely to perceive threat or feel frustrated).
Putting the foundation skill to work
For week 2, you are not going to try to walk past dogs. Rather you are going to find a spot where you can safely watch dogs from a distance where your dog WILL NOT lunge and bark. In New York City, this usually involves finding a quiet street where we can hang out 20 to 30 feet from a busy avenue where lots of dogs walk by or finding a quiet spot in Central Park where we can see dogs walking on a pathway about 20 to 30 feet away. This is the distance that most dogs need to start but every dog is different.
Each day during this week, you are going to find that spot and hang out for 5 to 10 minutes (set your watch). You are not moving; plant your feet and hang out (that’s why it’s important to be far enough away for your dog to be comfortable). Now, when you see a dog approaching in the distance resist every urge to cue your dog; simply wait. This is where we want distance to do the work. We want your dog to be able to watch dogs without reacting (desensitization). If you wait long enough, and you chose an appropriate distance, the exercise in the previous week will kick-in; your dog will whip his head around and check in with you! Mark and reward and resume the game. This both reinforces the new behavior and changes the physiological response that your dog has to seeing another dog (counter conditioning).
The goal of this week is to give your dog a chance to practice watching dogs from a distance AND to engage in their new default behavior (looking at you instead of lunging and barking). For dogs nervous of other dogs, this replaces the function of avoiding the oncoming dog (when they pay attention to you, the dogs go away!). For dogs who want to get closer, it can teach them that there is a new fun game to play, or for some dogs, they can be allowed to greet dogs if they are acting appropriately (if your dog is friendly, and the other owner says it’s ok).
Putting it all together
Now in this third week, you are ready to start resuming your normal walk. Now when your dog sees other dogs, you are more likely to get check-in behavior! Remember, the goal here is to reduce intensity and frequency of the problem behavior and increase frequency of the new replacement behavior. Don’t expect perfection! Keep a rough track of the percentage of dogs that your dog can walk by without lunging or barking. While you will have good days and bad days, you should notice over one to two months that you see a trend of improving behavior. Finally, remember that “space is your friend”! You always want to give enough space to set your dog up for success and help make it easier for them to make the right choice. Over time, the space required will shrink.
How long do I need to do this for?
My answer is as long as you need! Some dogs need this work for a few months and then will start engaging in their own socially appropriate behavior (sniffing the ground) or will approach dogs more politely. Other dogs need lifelong management, and that’s ok! Remember, lunging and barking is a stressful behavior for your dog (and you), and if taking out some treats and controlling space helps them feel better and more relaxed, it’s a very small price to pay.