Why is my dog reacting aggressively towards other dogs?

Cillian Costigan Dog Training

Leash reactivity (sometimes referred to as leash aggression) is rampant in Ireland. You are not the only pet parent to suffer from it. You will be glad to hear however, that there is light at the end of the tunnel! So what’s the deal? Why does your darling pooch turn into a demon dog at the sight of another canine?

Leash Reactivity Cause #1: The Leash

Dogs are creatures that move towards what they are interested in and move away from what they fear. When you put a leash on a dog, it no longer can do either of those things. For example, when the dog shows interest in exploring something (say, another human or dog), you prevent it. And when it wants to avoid something that scares it, you prevent that too. So, the leash inhibits the dog’s natural approach/retreat mechanisms. And any time you fool with mother nature, consequences arise.

Leash Reactivity Cause #2: Uncontrolled Enthusiasm

When an enthusiastic dog wants to move towards something of interest (for instance, another dog or a human), and it cannot, the dog may become frustrated. This leads to reactivity whenever the leash is on. The severity of that reactivity can vary: at one end of the reactivity spectrum, a small amount of frustration may result in barking and pulling. At the other end of the spectrum, a larger amount of frustration may result in redirected aggression towards the owner.

Leash Reactivity Cause #3: Inability To Avoid Danger

Alternatively, if a dog is fearful of an approaching human or dog (or car, or bicycle, etc …), it may want to move away. By doing so, it would be creating distance from the object of its fear — and therefore creating safety. But if it cannot do this, the dog may feel no choice but to throw up an aggressive display to ward off the object of its fear. Again, the reactivity may range from hiding behind the owner, to barking and lunging, to redirected aggression towards its owner.

Leash Reactivity Cause #4: Incorrect Handling Of A Leashed Dog

Another contributing factor to leash reactivity is the way the owner handles the dog when it is on the leash. If an owner gets nervous when his dog sees another dog or person, they may try to quash the dog’s behaviour. By tightening the leash, jerking on it or handling the dog roughly, the owner confirms to the dog that there is reason for stress — after all the owner obviously feels the stress too! This adds to the dog’s tension. So, training the dog to walk correctly on a leash is part of the fix, but so is teaching the owner to correctly handle their dog in difficult situations.

Leash Reactivity Cause #5: Unrealistic Expectations

By far, one of the largest contributing factors to leash reactivity is the owner’s unrealistic expectations. All across the country  there is a notion that all dogs should be joyful greeters of all other dogs and humans. This is unrealistic and unnatural.

Do you joyfully greet every other human you see on the street and force interaction upon them? I’d bet not. So, why expect your dog to act in a way that would seem psychotic if you saw another human doing it?

Leash Reactivity Cause #6: Untrained, Over-Friendly Dogs

Dogs that pull themselves excitedly towards oncoming dogs to greet contribute to the stress level of those dogs. In the dog world, such a rapid frontal approach can indicate an impending fight. Instinctively, dogs typically do not greet frontally. Instead, they approach in more of a semi-circular manner with more of an exploratory demeanor. Additionally, a dog that rushes carelessly into an oncoming dog’s personal space is begging to receive a scolding or worse.

That is not the way socially mature dogs act, and it increases the stress level of the encroached upon dog. And that increased stress, in turn, increases the likelihood of leash reactivity / leash aggression.

What you can do to address the issue

You guessed it! Training.

With time, patience and daily training exercises you CAN teach your pooch to be ‘normal’ and not react around other dogs. Here are the names of some books that will help you get to grips with the situation you and your dog may find yourselves in and get you started on the right path to rehabilitation.

The Cautious Canine by Patricia B. McConnell
The Other End of the Leash by Patricia B. McConnell
In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need Our Understanding by John Bradshaw
Click to Calm by Emma Parsons