Lead Reactivity Part 1: How it develops and why it’s a liability

Lead reactivity and/or aggression is a common complaint I receive from my clients. Unfortunately, too many dog owners contact me after a significant incident has taken place even though the behaviour has been present, albeit in a milder form, for a period of time.

Having a dog that aggressively barks, lunges or pulls towards other dogs or people can be a source of stress and embarrassment. This often results in people being reluctant to walk their dog or continuing the walks but not knowing how to resolve the issue. Either way, this just perpetuates the problem. We know from neuroscience that "neurons that fire together, wire together" meaning the longer a behaviour persists, the more ingrained it becomes.

(Image: Mr.TinDC on Flickr)

Why are some dogs lead reactive/aggressive?
The most common reason for developing lead reactivity that I see in my clients’ dogs is fear due to past unpleasant or scary experiences. For example, a dog that is attacked by another dog while on lead may subsequently develop lead aggression when it encounters other dogs in an attempt to protect itself. Similarly, a dog that’s been hit by a car may display reactive barking or lunging when it sees moving cars during a walk.  It’s important to understand that a lack of prior positive socialization experiences can also result in lead reactivity/aggression. For example, dogs that have not been socialized with a range of other dogs (of varying breeds and breed types) may be fear aggressive when approached by other dogs. Similarly, a dog that’s never seen a person on a bicycle or skateboard may lunge aggressively at a cyclist or skateboarder who passes close by. This is called the “fight or flight response” and it’s a survival mechanism.

When a dog (or person or other animal) finds itself in a scary situation it either runs away or confronts the source of their fear in an attempt to make it go away. When on lead, the escape option is no longer available so using aggression in an attempt to create distance between themselves and the threat is more likely. Here’s an analogy; imagine you are walking down a dark alley at night and suddenly a dark figure lunges towards you demanding your wallet. What would you do? You’re either going to attempt to run away and escape the situation or, if you’re grabbed and can’t escape, you will fight back with everything you’ve got.

Normal dog behaviour
Dogs normally greet one another from the side, in an arc, rather than head on. When we walk them on lead along pathways we may force them to greet each other in an unnatural way. When two leashed dogs meet they are restrained and unable to move away from one another if they feel unsure or threatened. Many owners keep their dog on a tight lead when meeting other dogs “just in case” however the tension is felt by the dog and can exacerbate their stress. The dogs may all of a sudden start barking and lunging at one another (fight response) because the option to increase the distance between each other was not available (flight response). But get this; even if the dogs didn’t bark at each other, it’s wrong to assume that they were fine. Most dog owners are actually quite bad at reading their dog's body language and often miss subtle signs of fear, stress and anxiety such as pacing, panting when it’s not hot, lip licking, shaking off, paw lift and low tail carriage.

(Image: IIdar Sagdejev / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Furthermore, people often fail to recognize inappropriate and rude behaviour in their own “friendly” dogs. Bounding up to other dogs, jumping on or body slamming them or getting all up in their face is extremely rude behaviour and could easily cause a fight. This inability to communicate appropriately also tends to be the result of inadequate socializing with other dogs, particularly past the puppy stage. Many dog owners don’t realize that socialization is an ongoing process and attending puppy classes is not enough. These dogs tend to carry their puppy style greeting into adulthood when it’s no longer tolerated by other dogs. When another dog growls or barks at the rude greeter it’s owner chastises the other person for their dog's "aggressive" behaviour.

Being on the receiving end of a lead reactive dog
If you’ve ever been on the recieveing end of a lead reactive dog you will understand what a frightening experience it can be. If not, here’s an example of what happened to me. A few months back, when I was 36 weeks pregnant with my second child, I had an awful experience with two lead reactive dogs. My husband and I took our 15-month old son and dog, Joseph, to a local park. After a lovely walk we stopped at the playground to let our son play and explore. While he was happily playing I was standing nearby watching with our dog, a very placid Labrador, on lead. Several minutes later I heard loud barking and turned around to see a man sitting on a bench nearby, his two dogs straining on their leads, intently focused on our dog who remained calm and quiet. One appeared to be a Rottweiler mix and the other a Staffy mix. Upon seeing the dogs behaving in this manner, and realizing the man wasn’t going to move away, I immediately walked in the opposite direction behind a large piece of play equipment. My intention being to create distance and a visual barrier between Joseph and I and the two reactive dogs. 

The man remained on the bench and was struggling to control his dogs. Just as I was about to move further away I heard the man yell out and both his dogs came running up to me and Joseph, who was still on lead. It was an incredibly tense moment and my heart was racing. I could tell from the stiff body language of the other dogs that they were far from relaxed and friendly. After what seemed like an eternity the dogs’ male owner came running over, his female companion close behind, attempting to restrain his dogs. There were lots of young children in the playground at the time and my husband was holding our young son a meter or so away from us. The dog owners apologised profusely and remained there with their dogs. We immediately left the park. 

At the time I was so angry and in shock at the whole situation. All I wanted to do was ensure my family was safe, so I didn’t engage in what could have been a very valuable conversation with those dogs’ owners. I am so thankful that Joseph is such a placid and social dog. It seemed as though he knew it was in his best interest to remain calm and allow the dogs to sniff him intensely and not react. Had it been our late boxer, Archie, in the same situation I know the outcome would have been so much worse! I realise now that the dogs’ owners’ were just naive but that doesn’t change the fact their dogs are a huge liability. Given the same situation with a less placid or anti-social dog, the outcome could have been dire.

(Image: Kumarrrr / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Again, just the other day while enjoying a walk with my boys in the pram and husband walking our dog we were confronted by a mother with her two small children walking a large American Bulldog. Upon seeing us she attempted to walk her dog (who was straining on it’s lead, body stiff, focussing intensely on our dog) behind a tree just off the footpath. I asked her if she’d like us to cross the road and her response was “lets see how it goes.” Really? Let's not! My husband immediately walked Joseph to the other side of the road passing the dog with as much distance as possible. 

As I walked past the family and their obviously anxious dog the mother laughed it off, assuring me her dog was “the most beautiful dog in the world at home” but that he behaves this way because he was “attacked by another dog as a puppy”. This is unfortunate for sure and if I had a dollar for every time I heard a client say those words… The problem is, the explanation for the behaviour doesn’t fix the behaviour, nor does it keep the community safe. As dog owners we have a responsibility to keep our dogs safe and the people and dogs around us safe as well. If you have a dog that’s reactive or aggressive towards other dogs or people you have a responsibility to your dog and your community to seek professional help from a reputable dog trainer or qualified animal behaviourist.  

Having regularly been called in as an expert witness, to conduct temperament assessments on dogs that  injured a person or another dog, I can assure you their owners also proclaimed how great their dogs are with kids and dogs they know. However that’s not the point. The point is that these issues need to be address before they become serious and endanger others. 

Read Lead Reactivity Part 2 to learn how to avoid your dog from developing lead reactivity/aggression in the first place (because prevention is better than cure!) and what to do if your dog is already lead reactive/aggressive.

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