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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ask the Dog Trainer:
Working with Barrier Frustration

by Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC
 courtesy reader submission on file
A Halloween Photo Submission
Dear Michael:

Let me start by saying that my dogs are very friendly. They love to play with other dogs and are extremely friendly with all people that they meet. My younger dog has a peculiar behavior whenever he is restrained (leash, car, house, fence) that I cannot figure out. Over time my older one is beginning to pick up this behavior also. I would like to do something about it but my trials have not gotten me anywhere.

Gangster, the large younger mix is a lab mastiff hound of some sort. He's a big friendly oaf that loves everybody. If I remove him from his leash when he barks at another dog on a leash, he melts into a new best friend of the dog he was barking crazily at. I do not understand this and need someone to explain it. Because he is so big, many people avoid us and don’t want me to take him off leash to say hello to their dog. If I allow him to say hello on leash, the other dog is often unsure of his energetic barking and will react either with fear or aggression. Help, please!
Dear Reader:

You just described one of the most common, yet vexing, dog training behavior problems of our day.  Author and trainer educator Jean Donaldson calls it the on-leash cycle of aggression.  A lot of dogs have it, and it can be very serious.

As you’ve already noticed, all behavior is dependent on the environment.  On-leash Gangster looks like an outlaw maniac.  Off-leash he’s every dog’s best bud.  It’s important to remember that behavior isn’t something inside your dog.  Behaviors are actions (like barking and lunging) that happen in the real world.  They might be problematic, but they aren’t personal, and they aren’t a character flaw.

Jean Donaldson suggests that the on-leash cycle of aggression begins with owners trying to maintain control of their young dogs on leash.  When a curious fellow pulls toward another dog, the well-meaning owner may pull back.  He may even say “no” to correct the behavior.  That alone can be punishing to some dogs.  At the very least we think it’s uncomfortable and frustrating.  Here’s where we humans get in trouble.  Dogs sometimes associate consequences (like a yank and “no”) with their own behavior (pulling on leash).  More often, however, they associate that unpleasantness with the sight of another dog.

In a short time, our dog might start anticipating a jerk on the leash and some scolding every time he sees another dog.  To avoid the discomfort, he may bark at the other dog to make him go away.  Of course that leads us to correct the dog again, which only makes the problem worse.  Pretty soon, the cycle is in full swing.  Every time our dog sees another dog, even at a great distance, he comes unglued.  Get out of here dog; this guy’s about to yank the heck out of me.

I’m not suggesting, dear reader, that you’ve ever intentionally hurt Gangster.  This is just the way the process often works.  Sometimes it doesn’t take much to get the cycle going.  Most of the time, we never even know we’re doing it.  As you mentioned, even a fence or other type of barrier can be frustrating enough to begin the cycle.  (What Gangster wants to be locked up?)

The good news is, most reward-based dog trainers can easily help you get Gangster back on the straight and narrow. 
  1. Continue to let your dog play off-leash with other dogs.  
  2. Inter-dog socialization is important for your dog’s entire lifetime. 
  3. Refrain from using prong or choke collars. 
  4. Teach your dog to walk nicely on leash and pay attention to you while walking without pulling on their leash. 
  5. Try using a Gentle Leader Easy Walk Harness if you need immediate relief from pulling.  
  6. Teach your dog to sit and attend to you on walks.  
  7. Reinforce this behavior with special healthful treats. 

Since you are catching this early while Gangster is still young.  I bet before long the only thing he’ll be stealing is hearts.  There’s no crime in that.

© Robyn Arouty
Houston Dog Trainer Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC is the director of training and behavior at Rover Oaks Pet Resorts. You may readch Michael at the link for a personal consultation, or write to him at our Ask the Dog Trainer Column Michael's advice does not replace an actual consultation with a qualified trainer.

Check out Michael's Archives Page, or these recent articles:

Helping a Fearful Dog
Adding Another Dog to Your Family


Melissa T. said...

How interesting. I've heard of cage aggression but not on-leash aggression.

I just wanted to say Gangster is handsome, I like his outfit & the bracelet on his leg had me laughing. :)

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