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It can take just one bad encounter for a pup to feel as though other dogs are scary or and learning from the many experiences that they have during their formative years.
Today’s reader asks:
“Our dog was attacked while on leash at 10 months. Now he is 2.5 and reacts to dogs that get into his space, sniff at him or approach quickly, especially from behind and don’t pick up on his “give me space,” body language. He stresses and if they persist he reacts aggressively.” – Reactive Rover
A similar story from another reader writes:
“Our 15 month old St. Bernard, following an incident where another dog was getting too rough in playing has become aggressive. When my granddaughter tried to stop it the other dog bit her. Now, anytime another dog comes near her or my daughter, or even me, [she] becomes very aggressive.
– Not So Saintly
If you’re struggling with a dog who is fearful or aggressive towards other dogs, you might also benefit from the other Journey Dog Training Articles below:
- How Do I Teach my Dog to Play Nicely With Other Dogs?
- My Dog Doesn’t Play with Other Dogs. Is That OK?
- What Should I Do If A Dog Charges Me and My Dog?
- Why Does My Dog Bark and Lunge at Other Dogs?
Or this E-book: Practical Solutions for Aggressive Dogs
Why Does My Dog React “Aggressively” Towards Other Dogs?
There are many reasons that your dog may react unfavorably towards other dogs. A large portion of pups that lunge, bark, or growl at other dogs are in fact fearful or anxious around other dogs.
Sometimes this is due to a traumatic experience, like our readers’ two dogs.
However, there are often things that predispose dogs to develop this fear more easily than other dogs. These might include:
- Genetic predisposition. If mom or dad are anxious or nervous, their pups may also potentially be more sensitive, too. This means they may have a harder time recovering from a stressful situation than other dogs or overreact to stressful situations.
- Prenatal stress. If mom was stressed during her pregnancy, her hormones have affected her pups before they were even breathing air. Studies show, prenatal stress can predispose offspring to feeling more fearful or anxious.
- Lack of socialization. Puppies have a critical socialization window of 3-weeks to 16-weeks. During this time, their brains are creating new neural pathways to all kinds of new experiences and stimuli. And because this starts before they even come home with us, we often have little control over the amount of socialization they have received. Lack of socialization or bad experiences during this time can create longer term fears or phobias and mean your dog will be less resilient to unfavorable experiences she may have.
- Fear period. Puppies also go through two fear periods. These happen at 8-10 weeks and again in adolescence, anywhere from 6 months to 14 months of age. During this (approximately) two-week period, your pup is much more sensitive to stressful and scary situations. A bad encounter during these periods may be more damaging and stick for life.
- Generalized anxiety. When a pup is worried about her environment, she is on high alert. She is frequently stressed and hypervigilant. A dog with anxiety is more likely to react to a situation with more overtly “aggressive” tendencies (being reactive).
- Previous punishment-based training techniques. If your pup has been punished for growling, lunging, or barking at other dogs in the past, it could be that their behavior has suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Punishment-based techniques may include the use of shock collars, prong collars, choke collars, pinning your dog, scolding, startling, or any type of corrective response. These techniques teach your dog that other dogs create an unpleasant reaction from you. In turn, she tries to keep the other dogs further away by barking and lunging more frequently and more intensely.
The bottom line is, we often can’t really know exactly why your dog is behaving aggressively. It’s often down to a combination of the reasons listed above.
Why Is My Dog More Aggressive On Leash?
When a dog becomes stressed, they are flooded with all kinds of hormones. These hormones create a physiological reaction in your dog to either flee, or fight. This is known as a fight or flight response.
When your dog is on leash, in an enclosed space, or generally feels like he has little control over her environment, he has lost the option to flee.
This generally results in “fight”, or aggressive behavior used to threaten and scare off the perceived threat.
For both Reactive Rover’s dog and Not So Saintly, this threat is other dogs. And in both situations, it likely stems from a stressful past encounter with another dog or a combination of predisposing factors.
How Do I Stop My Dog’s Reactivity Towards Other Dogs?
There are a few things we need to do in order to begin to change your pup’s aggressive reaction towards other dogs.
1. Manage His Environment
In order to be successful, we need to manage our reactive dog’s environment so that he is never feeling threatened, overwhelmed, or feeling as though he needs to defend himself.
- Advocate: For Reactive Rover, this means not allowing strange dogs violate his personal space. It is more than okay to advocate for your dog! Don’t be afraid to say things like “Please give him space,” or “He’s not friendly.” It is completely fine if your dog doesn’t want to socialize — not every dog wants to be friends.
- Choose Your Route: You may also want to choose your route wisely. Walking you reactive dog through a popular dog park is only going to increase his anxiety levels and stress him out. And this scenario is much more likely to lead to an unfavorable incident.
For example, my pup, Juno, is startled by dogs barking at her from their yard and becomes quite stressed.
One or two dogs, no big deal, she can recover. However, one particular street near my house has several dogs in a row who are frequently out in their yard and this is far too overwhelming for her.
No biggie, we just don’t walk there!
Try walking during the day, early morning, or late at night to allow for a less stressful and more manageable environment.
- Change Direction: When you encounter another dog, try crossing the street or taking a u-turn. These strategies can help you avoid an unwanted encounter and usually act as a good non-verbal cue for other pup-parents that you need some space.
- Muzzle Up!: Another good non-verbal cue is having your pup wear a muzzle. Conditioning your pup to wearing a muzzle not only give you peace of mind that everyone will be safe, but it often acts as a deterrent for pushy pet-parents.
2. Avoid Punishment When Your Dog is Scared
Sometimes after a bad experience, it’s not just our dogs who behave differently — sometimes we also change our behavior!
In order to control a bad situation, people often resort to yelling or tugging on their dog’s leash when they are in a precarious situation. Sometimes people feel they need a harsher tool such as a sock collar or pinch collar to control their dog’s behavior.
These tools and strategies actually make matters worse. They can make aggressive behavior worse, and cause your pup to become more fearful.
Your dog is feeling worried or anxious, and it’s ok to comfort him.
The aggressive reaction he is expressing towards other dogs is not intentional, it’s reflexive.
He is worried and is trying to tell that other dog to go away. It’s ideal to help him to avoid these situations and to look to you for support.
3. Change His Opinion About Other Dogs
There are a few strategies we can use to help your pup cope with seeing another dog:
- Desensitization. In low, slow doses, expose your dog to triggers (other dogs) without any reaction from him. If it looks boring and it looks like nothing is happening, you’re doing the right thing! Exposure to other dogs without any reaction or feelings of anxiety can help your dog overcome her fears.
- Counterconditioning. This, when paired with desensitization, can help to rewire your pup’s brain. When he is in the presence of another dog but isn’t reacting in any way, feed him some tasty food. When we pair the trigger (dogs) with delicious snacks, we can change his reaction from something negative to something positive. When he sees another dog, he begins to predict a treat.
4. Emergency Preparation for Nervous Dogs
Sometimes we find ourselves in a bind. Afterall, we can’t always predict what’s going to happen out there in the world.
Sometimes a loose dog may run up to you, or we may round a corner and another dog is already on top of you before you have a chance to turn around. We talk about being charged by off-leash dogs in more detail here.
My favorite tactic in such a predicament is the lure. I like to use a squeeze bottle filled with something gooey and yummy: peanut butter, cream cheese, yogurt, or soft canned food.
Pull out your squeeze bottle and start squirting and luring your dog away from the other dog.
It’s simply a distraction and a tactic to get her away from a potentially bad situation when it’s already too late to plan.
Another good strategy is the treat scatter. I take a handful of (irresistible) treats, toss them into the grass and let my pup sniff them out as the too-close distraction passes by.
5. Practice Makes Perfect.
Practicing these tactics once or twice a week isn’t going to get you very far very fast. It takes patience and perseverance! Even if you get out to practice for 5 minutes twice a day, you’re doing great!
Try to keep the sessions short and sweet. Sometimes the first or second dog is tolerable, but anxiety begins to build and the third, or fourth dog your come across put your pup over his threshold.
It can be frustrating to have a dog that doesn’t get along well with others. But it’s okay, we can work on teaching them new coping skills and take the pressure off by avoiding close-up interactions. The key is to make sure everyone is safe and everyone feels safe (people and pups!)
Take your time, be patient, and be consistent. You want your dog to be able to feel secure and look to you in the face of adversity.
Erin is currently from Alberta, Canada where she works as a canine behaviour consultant. Erin is a CDBC and CPDT-KA, working with all types of dogs with all types of training needs. She has a MSc in Anthrozoology (the study of human and non-human interactions), and is a PhD candidate in the same field. Erin will be relocating to Christchurch, New Zealand at the end of 2018.