During my walks I encounter many dogs with their guardians who bark relentlessly at others as they pass by. I have been meeting some of these dogs for months and even years and their guardians continue with the same daily routine that has made no difference to the behaviour to date and continues not to work. There are two main types:
- The punitive: who smack, shouts and jerks the lead in an attempt to discipline the aggressive dog.
- The accidental praiser who inadvertently gives the aggressive dog the wrong message.
Many dogs bark out of an insecurity, others because they are not sure what else to do, they rarely bark out of a need to dominate another dog. A truly dominant dog does not need to make a big noise, it’s whole demeanour negates the requirement for a lot of fuss. Some breeds are more reactive than others. Often dog parents think their dog is barking out of an over active need to protect them, this is not so, however if the relationship is not quite right between canine and human the dog will feel that it has to cope with what it perceives as a potential threat alone. It is not uncommon to hear a human say “Let them get on with it”. Or to the other dog “Go on you tell him off, he deserves it!” if they were in the wild then yes they would get on with it, but our domestic dogs live in a human engineered society, humans get in the way, prevent non verbal communications between dogs with the use of leads or the way that they interact with their own animal and sometimes because there is not a relationship of trust that has been forged through good training and respect the dog cannot look to the human for protection. A dog that runs behind the human’s leg is trying to remove itself from potential conflict and seek the protection of its significant other, a dog that sniffs the grass as another approaches isn’t merely sniffing the grass it is telling the other dog ‘I am not interested in speaking with you, there is no trouble here, pal.’ There are so many subtle signals given off before we get to the whole gnashing of teeth phase and often the human will throw a spanner in the works!
If the human adopts number 1 further trust is eroded between man and animal and a potentially fearful situation for the dog just got a whole lot worse! My advice to this type of person is: Don’t do it PLEASE there is a better way and you will get a whole lot more from your dog if it isn’t frightened of you.
The other end of the spectrum is a tense person who thinks that through gentle chatter the dog will understand that barking at its contemporaries is not an acceptable activity. As I said before I see these dogs day after day repeating the same behaviour. The first thing to remember is that the dog does not speak English and therefore chatting away to it is unlikely to be affective; particularly if you are tense, nervous or feeling intense embarrassment as your dog turns from the loving family pet to Jaws on legs! If you remain calm and relaxed during the chat you might illicit a positive response as dogs are very tuned into our emotions and feelings on a mental and spiritual level, but also as their noses detect even small changes in the hormones that activate when you are in a particular mood.
Telling an aggressive dog “Good dog, good dog, be nice.” And stroking its head as it revs itself up into a state of high arousal is at best ineffectual at worst gives the dog the signal from you that it is on the right track, that this is the behaviour that you find acceptable, which of course it isn’t!
So what to do?
You may never get your dog liking every other that it comes into contact with as you have no control what the other dog is ‘saying’ to it on approach. Let’s face it we don’t like every human we meet and certainly don’t have a desire to play with a vast majority of them – it’s no different for dogs.
- The first step is to get your relationship right. You need a relationship based on trust and respect.
- The next thing is to work on control when walking. If you can’t get your dog to walk to heel or come when it’s called you can’t really expect it to listen when it is in a heightened state of arousal. If you struggle with control when the dog is on the leash and it lunges at others, put a muzzle on it to begin with. Your dog can then do no harm and people tend to give you a bit of extra space.
- After you have cracked the first two the next thing is to teach an incompatible behaviour. Most dogs will only bark and lunge if they are experiencing eye contact with the perceived threat. So quite simply teach the dog to look at you. This needs to be ingrained in the dog, practice in the home, garden and on walks where there is no distraction. You can’t expect it to do this for the first time as another dog approaches. It will automatically go into its default behaviour.
- Be one step ahead. Walking with your head stuck on your mobile phone is no good. See the other dog way in the distance and begin getting your dog’s attention with play or food, put the leash on, but keep it loose and relaxed. If it is a dog who you know also has a problem, change direction and avoid it.
Please remember when training your dog that if kind and gentle training methods are used correctly they are highly effective and will do nothing to erode your relationship. Punitive methods will only deminish the love and trust between man and dog.
- Use praise, toys and food to reward the dog whilst it is paying attention to you. You are paying for a job well done. If the dog has a mishap then no reward (no chastisement either) the use of food and toys is perfectly acceptable to keep a dog knowing that it is doing a good job. It is unlikely you would continue working at your best if your boss just patted you on the head at the end of the month and said “Good job!”
These are simple pointers, if you need help to modify your dog’s behaviour find a good behaviour expert who understands the canine mind.