Does your dog bark and lunge at other dogs? Freeze on the spot when strangers are passing? Try to run away if another dog or people are walking toward them on the street?
Dogs need exercise and we all want to walk our dogs and have a pleasurable experience, but sometimes our dogs are not confident in the external environment particularly when they see stimuli such as other dogs, people, or children. Their reaction is often barking and lunging on the leash, or freezing on the spot. As the stimuli gets nearer and nearer, your dog may lunge and bark at it or they may simply try to evade or run away from the trigger.
The reason that dogs behave this way is actually because they are anxious, nervous and fearful. It may be because they are genetically predisposed to be fearful or it could be the result of a lack of socialization with different people, other dogs and children during that crucial period when they are between 8 and 16 weeks old. Or it could be that during one of their fear imprint periods they had a single traumatic event which can have lasting consequences as explained in my previous blog on Socialization.
Therefore, two of the important things that dog owners need to learn about their dogs are, firstly, understand what your dog’s triggers are (other dogs, strangers, children, etc), and secondly to learn your dog’s body language.
What do I mean by all this?
When a dog is walking towards something that causes them anxiety, as they are approaching it from a distance, dogs start to exhibit displacement behaviors called stress signals in order to signal to the thing they fear to keep away. But if that trigger keeps coming nearer and nearer, that is when the dog goes over its threshold and either starts barking and lunging, freezes on the spot, or tries to flee. There are a number of stress signals dogs exhibit which include the following:
Averting the eyes
Slowing down in movement
Sniffing the ground
The difficulty is that many owners get fooled because if their dog starts, for instance, sniffing the ground while approaching another dog, the owner thinks, “oh, they’ve found something good to sniff”, however, doing this behavior in the context of another dog walking towards them is actually an example of displacement behavior i.e. when a dog exhibits a behavior that is out of context when faced with something that it fears -- their trigger.
Also, many owners cannot understand that their dog can run around very happily in a dog park or go to doggie daycare but when it comes to leash walking they are reactive to other dogs. The difference is, if your dog is off leash and there is a dog that they are unsure of, they can take themselves away from the situation. But when a dog is being controlled by a leash with an owner that doesn’t understand that the dog coming towards it is causing them fear and anxiety despite them exhibiting stress signals as the stimulus gets nearer and nearer, that is when they will go over their threshold.
Now that I know, what can I do about this behavior?
So, you understand what your dog’s trigger is and you have started to notice that as they walk towards it on walks that they turn away or lick their lips, sniff the ground or slow down in movement, or, they may do all four of these things, what do you do to avoid your dog going over it’s threshold? The answer is to take them away, cross over the street to avoid that dog or person from walking past them, turn down another street, block your dog’s vision of the trigger by hiding behind a car until the trigger has moved on. By doing this you prevent them from going into that red zone where they are no longer able to listen to you because their fear has taken over and in the long run the more you understand your dog’s body language they will be less anxious on their walks, your walks will be more relaxing and enjoyable and your dog will have more confidence in you.
When you are consistent with this over time, you will find that your dog will start to be able to tolerate their trigger being a little nearer to them, but it takes time. It is also a good idea to get the help of a trainer who can also put together a training plan consisting of tightening up some obedience cues that will help you on walks but also explain how desensitization and counter conditioning, where you reteach your dog to have a better feeling when looking at a stimulus that causes them anxiety by pairing it with something really delicious. Over time this will help your dog to feel more comfortable around their triggers.