Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT
One of the most common calls we get at Companion Animal Solutions is from an owner whose dog barks, growls, and lunges at other dogs when on leash. Often, the owner is baffled because their dog loves playing with other dogs at the dog park or dog daycare. There are several reasons why dogs act so differently on leash than they do off leash. I thought it might be helpful to explore some of the more common reasons.
Dogs are highly social animals and when a dog sees another dog, they’re biologically programmed to head on over and investigate with a quick butt sniff. If a dog is on leash, their intense biological drive to investigate the other dog is being thwarted. This reaction is called barrier frustration. Even the most dog friendly dogs in the world are prone to barrier frustration around other dogs. In fact, the most difficult dogs to stay calm around for many dogs are other friendly dogs.
I worked with a Great Dane client who was enormous, black, and the belle of the ball at the dog park. In 2 years she had never gotten into the tiniest little scuffle at the dog park. How good was her dog/dog body language and manners?! When she was on leash and would see another dog in the distance (and I do mean distance), she would begin to whine and jump straight up into the air. In the beginning, I could walk her by another dog who was giving her hard eye or a dog who was ignoring her, but if the dog walking towards us started throwing play solicitation body language, look out! I call these dogs “Woo Hoo’ers” as in “Woo Hoo! I love other dogs so turn me loose to meet them!”
Some dogs react aggressively on leash because of fear. They’re afraid of other dogs. They react by barking, growling, snarling, and lunging at other dogs. This is just their way of saying “I’m not comfortable. You need to go away”. When a dog encounters a person or another dog they’re afraid of, they’ve got two choices; fight or flight. When the dog is on leash, we’ve taken away their flight option. It stands to reason that any dog is going to be more reactive with their flight option removed.
There’s another category of dog that it took me more experience to be able to identify. I call these dogs my Anxious Woo Hoo’ers. By in large, these dogs do just fine with other dogs off leash but they tend to be reactive in general and not super confident around other dogs. Not being confident around other dogs isn’t a problem until that pesky flight option is taken away. These dogs are highly conflicted. They’re super curious about the other dog but anxious at the same time. In my experience, these dogs are the quickest to react on leash towards another dog meaning they react at long distances. Often, it takes the longest amount of time to counter condition these dogs’ reaction.
We always have a Reactive Rover class going on at Companion Animal Solutions. Our classes are unique because of the one on one personalized attention each student receives and because we work outside where the problem is happening. If you’re interested in learning more about our Reactive Rover classes, check out the Companion Animal Solutions web site. If taking a class seems too inconvenient, we can always work with you privately on this problem behavior. Contact us and we can discuss which option is right for you and your dog.