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The lead makes my dog aggressive!

Aggressive dog on a lead

(Q) My two-year-old Border Terrier, Poppy, is very good off the lead and enjoys her walks. However, sometimes for no apparent reason she will be aggressive towards other dogs. Her behaviour seems to be much worse on the lead. What can I do to stop or at least prevent this? She had some bad experiences as a puppy, with a couple of attacks making her wary of some dogs.

(A) Trainer Elizabeth Kershaw says:

The fact that Poppy was attacked by other dogs will undoubtedly have left her feeling insecure about some meetings and greetings. The reason this is more likely to happen on the lead is usually that our use of the lead to prevent our dogs being aggressive often has the opposite effect.

When meeting another dog on the lead it is important to keep the lead as loose as possible while also keeping it relatively short so that you can quickly take control. A short, tight lead gives all the wrong messages to your dog, as well as often physically altering her body language. She only needs a maximum three-second sniff to get all the necessary information about the other dog. Allow the three seconds and then cheerfully call your dog away. Bear in mind that as she is restrained there will be an element of anxiety on her part as she cannot control the meeting and it is up to you to do everything possible to help her.

We often can’t tell what two dogs have said to each other to trigger aggressive reactions. It could well be connected with hormonal changes if she is an entire bitch, the fact that some neutered dogs may have a different scent that is unfamiliar, or just because she doesn’t like the other dog. Whatever causes the disagreement, terriers aren’t normally known for their tolerance and forbearance, and tend to act first and regret it later.

Prevention is better than the cure and attempting to distract her from the other dog before aggression starts is preferable than allowing the meeting and then having to stop a fight. Continue her training so that you can call her away from any dog you feel unsure about.

(A) Behaviourist Claire Arrowsmith says:

Addressing aggression problems in dogs is very difficult as each case needs specific examination. Most aggression occurs because the dog is feeling concerned about the outcome of the interaction.

Undesirable behaviour towards other dogs occurs for many reasons. Aggressive behaviour can occur after a single negative incident (such as being attacked, or just overwhelmed by a bigger, older dog) and then continues to occur due to the learned associations from each encounter, the dog’s desire to avoid the same situation again, and continued anxiety in these circumstances.

To get specific advice and to be shown how to overcome Poppy’s problem in a practical way you should seek the advice of a specialist. Your vet will be able to help you to contact a suitable practitioner. In the meantime, take time to mix Poppy with dogs she knows well so she can learn to relax properly. Avoiding areas with new or strange dogs is vital so that she doesn’t continue to practise her undesirable responses. Spend time working on getting her to focus on you, even when around these dogs. Once she is responding well, gradually bring in new dogs and make sure that Poppy is relaxed around them (at a distance and then gradually closer).

Although she is more reactive when walking on the lead, it may be necessary to use a long training line to maintain your control and safety while walking her. This is important if you are walking in public places. Always avoid using any form of punishment when she is around dogs. It is likely to create more anxiety in the long term.

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