Nothing can cut the enjoyment out of a walk out with your dog like having your dog go berserk when they see another dog! There may be as many reasons for why dogs bark at other dogs while on leash as there are breeds of dog, but the end result is the same – and not fun for you or the other dog and person being barked at! But how can you convince your dog that this very common and natural response isn’t desired? We’ve discovered one method that works quickly and easily for many treat-motivated dogs!
How this method works…
Barking is fun. If you’re a dog that is. Some of the most common reasons that dogs bark on walks are (1) to to alert you another animal or person is coming (as if you didn’t see them too!), (2) to let you know something is making him or her uncomfortable and that more distance would feel better, or (3) to communicate something else, like to go say hello to the other pooch. Dogs get an adrenaline rush when they bark. Adrenaline feels REALLY GOOD. So, once they’ve started barking… it’s pretty close to impossible to either give them something that feels better, or feels bad enough (and isn’t cruel) to make them stop.
Step #1: Anticipation
You need to anticipate when they are going to bark. Ideally, try to stay as far away from the other dog (cross the street for example) so that they are less stimulated, and BEFORE they get close enough to the other dog to start even thinking about barking (watch for staring, hackling, or growling), give them something to focus on that they really really really like, that’s even BETTER than their slightly fuzzy dog-memory of how good the adrenaline felt the last time the saw a dog and barked. That would be…
Step#2: The BEST treat in the world
You know, the one that makes them start drooling when you open the cabinet you keep it in. Eventually you can “ramp down” to lower-value treats, but when you start… stock up on those Bacon-Flavor Beggin Strips! Just like we’ll work a little harder for $100 than $10, a high value treat will increase your chances of trumping the desire to bark! It will also mean more when paired with the new behavior because the reward is greater.
Step #3: Reward Reconditioning
Currently when your dog sees another dog and barks, he gets the adrenaline reward. You want to retrain your dog so he sees another dog, he instead LOOKS AT YOU and gets the treat reward, along with a verbal reward! And not just one treat… break up your treats into tiny bits, so you can be feeding him with tiny ongoing rewards the entire time the other dog is walking by or you’re walking by the other dog. To get your dog to look at you you can try making kissy or clicking sounds, or speak a command – “watch me”, “look” or a single word like “focus”” tends to work best.
If you dog barks – stop the treats and just try to get past the other dog as quickly as you can. Crossing the street or turning to go the other way are helpful methods to head off an uncontrollable barkfest. Then start again on Step #1 with the next dog that approaches. Remember that working with your dog before he/she escalates is the only way to change the behavior and let the lesson sink in.
If treats aren’t enough to keep your dog’s attention on you and not on the other dog, you can try different treats, and you can try taking you dog to an area where other dogs are but you can stay far enough away – like outside a fenced-in dog park, to work with your dog focusing on you as you gradually move closer, maybe a few feet a day, over a few weeks of reconditioning.
Step #4: Practice!
The more times you practice this, the more engrained the behavior of looking at you when you see another dog will become. You may find you are able to reduce the number of treats over time, but do so very gradually, if at all.
Note: Some dogs are too aroused or entrenched in their “leash aggression” for this method to work. But is a safe method to try, and you’re not going to make their leash-aggression worse as long as you don’t reward the dog after they bark!
One of the most beautiful things about dogs is that no matter how old they are (you can teach an old dog new tricks) or what their past experiences have been, they learn through association. Therefore, we can give them new associations and thus shape new behavior by positively reinforcing what we want, instead of focusing on and fighting what we don’t want. Be patient with your pup as they don’t speak our language! With patience, time, and practice your pooch will learn to understand you and you will learn to communicate the desired behavior better.
Dog aggression is a very complex issue, and there is no way we could cover all the possible reasons and solutions that a dog might bark, lunge, hackle, growl or generally go bananas when they see another dog when on leash. Very often with young or less-socialized dogs, barking at other dogs on walks isn’t leash aggression at all, rather excitement or anxiety about not knowing what to do. But we’ve found that this one method has helped us and our friends with many leash-reactive dogs, and we hope it will help you too!
Written by Jennifer Warner, Adopt-a-Pet.com’s Director of Shelter Outreach and edited by Katya Friedman, Adopt-a-Pet.com’s Director of Partnerships & Promotions and certified dog trainer.