DEAR DIDI: Our Golden Retriever is the sweetest dog. He loves people and gets along with other dogs, most of the time. Except when we are on walks he becomes a whole different dog. He suddenly lunges, barks insanely and scares people. We’ve worked with a couple of trainers and nothing has changed. How do we fix this? – Concerned Parents in Lodi
DEAR CONCERNED PARENTS: You are describing a dog that we refer to as being leash reactive. I could do an entire weekend workshop for trainers on the subject. Dogs who exhibit these behaviors have complicated psychological reasons for doing so. The root of the problem is always, with very few exceptions, insecurity and fear. There are dozens of scenarios that may lead to leash reactivity.
You could stop taking your dog for walks. Eventually, however, you will have to take him to the vet, groomer or boarding facility. The behavior will still be there. You may find that immediately crossing the street to give a wide berth to oncoming walkers with dogs may lessen the reaction, but it doesn’t solve the problem or repair your dog’s mindset.
Consider a human that has a fear of flying, yet must board a plane in six months to attend a momentous family event. There are different levels of fear. On a scale of 1 to 10, fear level 1 may be butterflies in the stomach and white knuckling the arm rests. The person still manages to get on the plane and make the family event. Stress level 10 may be sweating and having a panic attack over the mere sight of a suitcase coming out of the closet. It is imperative for a therapist to know the stress threshold of their patient before attempting any behavior modification or teaching coping mechanisms.
I approach leash reactivity in the same manner. We must determine the stress threshold of your dog. At what point does he actually begin to exhibit physical signs of stress. Those signs may be yawning, tail down between hind legs, low whining, averting gaze, or licking his lips. Canine body language is extremely subtle. They always attempt to make their feelings clear before they feel the need to “lose it” and lash out with barking and lunging. This is why you need a canine therapist/behaviorist. Someone who is experienced and educated in behavior modification techniques. You as the owner need some re-education in how to walk confidently, use the leash correctly and role model for your four-legged companion.
We seek to alter how your dog perceives the situation and the emotional reaction he may be experiencing when he sees another dog walking towards him. Then we teach him some coping mechanisms and alternative behavior choices. Under the thoughtful and deliberate guidance of a dog therapist you can make walks pleasant again and your dog will be his normal happy self – even while on a leash!
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. For a free consultation with Dierdra or to ask your dog behavior question, email www.CaliforniaCanineUnleashed.com.