On Leash Dog Aggression Due to Fear

A couple of months ago I received an email from someone who was very frustrated that her 1 ½ year-old Yorkshire Terrier was growling and lunging at some (OK, many!) dogs they passed on the street. According to this woman, the behavior started when the dog was about a year old and had progressed rapidly in the last six months.

After further conversation she explained that she had gotten her dog when he was 12 weeks old from a breeder, brought him home and promptly kept him indoors for the next 6 weeks, as instructed by her veterinarian. When she did start taking him outdoors he seemed very anxious and timid, especially when passing other dogs.

The change from being scared to seemingly aggressive is one of the things that confused her about what was going on with her little dog. She admitted that her frustration had gotten to the point where she was resorting to yelling at her dog and yanking on his leash in an effort to get him to walk by the other dogs calmly.I explained to her that it seemed to be what is, unfortunately, a common scenario. That is, a puppy kept in relative isolation at the breeder’s home, who is then transferred to another isolation ward (the pup’s new home) is then expected to handle the big world out there, for which it has had extremely limited experience with. When the pup is finally exposed to the world it is the equivalent of a child of about 4 years old going outside for the first time. While some dogs are temperamentally equipped to handle this, many are not.

This little Yorkshire Terrier would have benefited greatly from early and ongoing socialization and exposure to the world during the crucial socialization period of about 8-26 weeks of age. His was a case of the culprit probably being both nature and nurture. He is likely to have been genetically predisposed to being of a more reserved and cautious character, which was exacerbated by the fact that he was not adequately socialized and exposed to the world at a young age. I also explained that we definitely don’t like everyone we meet and can’t expect our dogs to either. So, the goal here wasn’t to have her pup love every dog, rather to help him become equipped to handle exposure to other dogs and hopefully make at least a few canine friends so that walks would be more pleasant at both ends of the leash. From what she described her dog is probably barking in an effort to keep other dogs away, not to actually try to inflict any serious harm to them. While we usually simply avoid the people we don’t like, a dog on a leash walking down a relatively small city street may feel he is being forced to approach a dog he is uncomfortable with. This is similar to being trapped in a corner at a cocktail party with someone we don’t like!

In our first lesson we set about setting a foundation for her dog’s road to socialization recovery. This started with making sure that she resolved to no longer verbally or physically punish her dog if he barked at other dogs. There are only two things that are likely to result from this approach; It will make your dog fear you, and it will make him even more stressed out when other dogs approach because he will anticipate a punishing experience. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he barked even more ferociously in an effort to keep the other dogs away. After all, being punished around other dogs is likely to teach him that the presence of other dogs causes the punishment to happen, so he may do everything he can to keep them away!

There are a few simple steps you can take to solve this problem:

Provide plenty of opportunities to socialize. The most obvious cause of this problem is a lack of adequate, ongoing socialization. Dogs need to have the opportunity to meet dogs and have off leash play sessions so that they learn good social skills and build confidence around other dogs.
In addition, it is important to know that even dogs with good off leash social skills may develop on leash aggression problems, just like this dog has. In these cases the culprit is usually the owner. Most owners get upset that their dog fails to make friends with new acquaintances. They react by jerking the leash and telling the dog “No!” By inadvertently eliminating the two acceptable options – trying to calmly work things out or simply leaving – the dog has only the fight option (again, imagine the dog feeling trapped in a corner at a party). Give your dog wide berth when passing dogs and stay calm…or at least fake it for your dog’s benefit! Go so far as to pretend you are really happy when another dog approaches. Your dog may be confused by your new attitude at first, but pretty soon he will get the idea you enjoy the company of other dogs: the goal is that he will too.

Also, for a few weeks, try rewarding your dog with a tasty treat every time another dog passes. Rewarding your dog when other dogs approach will teach him that dogs approaching equals great stuff from you. This will be as effective as if you were given $500 every time a person with a blue shirt walked by. Pretty soon you’d be eagerly looking for people wearing blue shirts to approach.

For dogs under 20 pounds, trainer moderated small dog playgroups can be quite useful as a way of allowing your dog to learn better social skills with other dogs (and their people). It may take some time for your dog to relax and enjoy himself, but with each positive encounter your dog has, he is developing better skills to cope with interacting with other dogs, whether on the street on leash or indoors at a playgroup.

Find a great, reward based trainer to guide you. Don’t underestimate the benefits of having an experienced, reward based trainer help you help your dog. Private in home lessons are generally a good start with fear issues. An appropriate group training class can also be a terrific way to practice around controlled distractions.

In the past month this lovely, little Yorkie has made wonderful progress. He attends our small dog playgroups twice a week, and has just joined one of our small dog training classes where he is learning to respond promptly to requests to focus, come when called, hand target, sit and down. These, and the other skills he is learning, are an added way to help him develop confidence in himself, trust in people and a better feeling overall around other dogs because he is having fun playing the training game.