Dog Advice Column Debuts this Week
I get very agitated when I see another dog coming towards me. I bark, lunge and pull on my leash. I’m normally calm and even-tempered, but this is like something from the exorcist! I don’t know if I need a priest or Prozac, but something is wrong! What should I do?
Well scoop my poop, Lungely, how did you know I was just thinking about this? I know exactly what you’re going through! It’s like turning on a light switch. Every time I see a fellow canine approach, I’m like the Incredible Hulk, except that I don’t turn green. Or actually get bigger. Or tear some T-shirt I’m wearing. OK, maybe not the Hulk, but this is known as being "leash reactive." I’ll bet that off-leash, you’re just fine. Is that the case?
What is currently understood about this is that because of the leash, your movement is constrained. Yeah, I know, duh. But the effect this has psychologically is that you are meeting other dogs as if you had one paw in a sling, or as humans say, "one hand tied behind your back." As a result, your anxiety increases because you know you can’t fully defend yourself in an unknown situation, even if you don’t need to.
One of the other things I’ve noticed is that this is worse if the other dog is staring at me. Yeah, I know, it’s kinda creepy. If they are busy sniffing something and don’t even notice me, I may not have this reaction at all. In addition, distance is a factor, where the further the dog is away from me, the less I am triggered.
In our dog language, staring is a very rude gesture, so it makes me very upset. So, you have a choice of 1) managing the problem by avoiding other dogs or 2) by re-programming your reaction so that you learn to working through your anxiety. In some ways, both approaches are related and often work more effectively when applied together. Here are some specific things you can do:
When you see another dog, turn around and go the other way, or go across the field or street, or behind a barrier like a hedge, or fence, or car.
The result is that suddenly they are moving away from you, so the stress of "the dog is approaching me" is minimized. This is a management technique. It may also result in not seeing the dog anymore, as well as probably not having it stare in your eyes, which further
mitigates some of the trigger points.
Management by itself is very helpful, but sometimes you get trapped by several dogs coming in opposite directions or by a dog that is suddenly upon you that you just missed and now don’t have the time or space to manage the problem.
In addition, management of the problem doesn’t really address re-programming your reaction so that your stress levels go down. When it comes to re-programming, it doesn’t matter what species you are, there is nothing like a great snack to do the trick. What happens here will require an alert and a snack-armed human companion. Their job will be to work through the situation by distracting you with a treat at the point before you go postal. There are a couple of subtleties in the timing of this.
If they give you the treat before you even see the other dog, you will be distracted and potentially not even see the other dog — but this is unlikely unless the dog is rocket powered and goes by in less than a snack-second. You’ll get the snack, then see the dog, and then just be a snack-breathed barky monster.
Additionally, if it happens in a way that you don’t see the other dog at all, the re-programming you want can’t occur. The optimum sequence is a) your human sees the other dog (usually they’re taller and can see further. If your human is shorter than you, you really should think about trading them in), b) they start to get the treat ready, c) you see the other dog, but, d) before you react and bark, your human says something useless but importantly, consistent, like "look" or "this way" and gives you a treat.
In some cases, step d may involve turning you in another direction before giving the treat if you follow. This variation cleverly combines a management and reprogramming technique for optimal benefit and maximal stress reduction.
The point is that over time, you will associate the other dog with getting a treat and may even look at your human, in expectation of a treat, instead of looking at the other dog, in expectation of trouble, before your human has even said anything. By this point, you will have re-programmed this from being a situation that brings the expectation of stress to one that brings the expectation of pleasure.
Lungely, you may not be aware of it, but many of us end up at the Animal Shelter due to behaviors like this! So, your concern is completely justified. However, with a little bit of knowledge and behavior training, this one can be history.
Keep those questions coming in. If your human needs help training for dog-to-dog reactivity, have him or her call my human, Alameda resident Barbara Gallardo, a certified dog training professional and Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter (FAAS) canine volunteer for help at (415) 367-5127. All her service fees are donated to FAAS and she offers discounted fees for adopted FAAS pets.
Flora Bora-Boomdier is a German Shepherd rescued by Friends of Alameda Animal Shelter. She is a Pisces who enjoys eating, sleeping, squeaky toys and cat herding. Her favorite food is food.