NORMAN — Dear Dr. Fox: We have an 18-month-old German shepherd/Lab/Akita mix who we adopted from the Humane Society at 5 months old. She is very smart, and I have trained her in good manners and many tricks at our house. My main problem is that she acts aggressive and hostile when she cannot get to another dog when on a leash.
She is fine at the dog park and has playdates with a neighbor’s dog. However, when she is on the leash and sees another dog within 40 to 50 feet, she becomes almost unmanageable. She growls, snarls, lunges and acts like she wants to kill the other dog. Once the other person lets me come over and after sniffing the other dog, my dog is fine and we can walk together.
I have used the clicker for training and used lots of treats on walks, but she ignores me when she sees another dog. I am at my wit’s end and do not know how to stop this behavior. Can you help me?
— S.Z.-D., St. Louis
Dear S.Z.-D.: Your letter is important for many dog owners to understand why their pets behave as yours does when on the leash and being approached by another dog.
First, understand that a dog who is leashed feels restrained and, therefore, vulnerable. Excitement and pulling on the leash means you pull and jerk her collar, which acts as an inciting, if confusing, signal to her. So stay calm, because your emotional reactions are transmitted to your dog through the leash. Try fitting her with a harness around her chest, either alone or coupled with an over-the-muzzle halter, similar to those used to effectively and painlessly control horses.
Be patient and keep the faith — she is still young and excitable, and she will calm down in a few months when she matures, around 2 1/2 to 3 years old. Never scold or yell. Just stand very still and let her pull and do whatever while you have your feet firmly planted. On walks, teach her to sit and stay with intermittent rewards of treats. Give her those commands when you see a dog coming. She may eventually make the connection and be still, but right now her brain is lacking in self-control/internal inhibition, which she will hopefully acquire with maturity.