Many dogs bark and lunge at other dogs or at certain people or objects. Why “corrections” with the leash aren’t helpful, and what to do instead.
Sometimes I think I’ll scream if I see one more person yank the leash and snap “No!” or hiss loudly when their dog barks and lunges at something or other on the street. Fortunately, I have this convenient article in which to explain why jerking and snapping are no help at all. People! There is a better way!
Should You Punish Your Dog for Barking and Lunging?
I’ll use the example of barking and lunging at other dogs, but what I have to say applies to any situation in which your dog blows up. At first blush, punishment seems to make sense. Your dog is acting like a jerk, right? Maybe scaring people as well as other dogs? You can’t let him get away with that kind of behavior.
Well, yes and no. Of course nobody wants their dog barking and lunging. It is sometimes scary. If your dog is strong and fast and catches you off guard, you can wind up with a sprained shoulder or faceplanted on the sidewalk. I am not going to tell you that that is an acceptable way to live. I am going to tell you that punishment is not your best route to change.
Let's talk about a few things.
- Why dogs bark and lunge
- Why this punishment doesn't work
- Keeping your dog out of trouble
- Identifying triggers
- Desensitizing and counterconditioning
- Constructional Aggression Treatment
Why Do Dogs Bark and Lunge?
Think about body language for a sec. What does your dog look like when she’s having a good time? Her face muscles are soft and her mouth is probably slightly open. Her ears might be up or back. Her eyes may be squinty. Her tail is sweeping softly back and forth or if she’s excited she may be doing a full butt wiggle along with circle wags.
Now picture your dog blowing up at the spaniel mix across the street. Her lips curl in a snarl. She barks deep and loud. She flings herself forward, muscles tight, and her tail may be tensed over her back or tucked between her legs. Yup, sure looks like a good time! Don’t you want some of what she’s having?
You Can’t Punish Away Distress
No, you don’t, do you. Because the dog barking and lunging on the end of her leash is freaking out. Leave her to her own devices and she won’t settle down till the other dog is far enough away. In New York City, we have these giant cockroaches we call water bugs, and if you brought one of them up close to me while I was on a leash I would be shrieking and foaming at the mouth until that thing was gone. Yes, you could punish me hard enough to make me stop-- but you couldn’t punish me into feeling good about nearby water bugs. And you can punish your dog hard enough to shut down her explosion, sure--but you can’t punish her hard enough to make her feel the world is peachy keen in proximity to other dogs. In fact, you’re likelier to accomplish the opposite. “When dogs appear, my person yanks my neck.” Good lesson, huh?
Keep Your Dog Out of Problem Situations While You Look for Help
So. Bark-and-lunge explosions are stressful for your dog and you. In addition, from your dog’s point of view the aggressive display seems to work pretty well--after all, the other dog always goes away. That means every time your dog blows up, he becomes a little likelier to try the same tactic next time. So until you can get good professional help, keep your dog out of trouble as much as you can.
Learn What Factors Affect Your Dog’s Behavior
Make it your business to notice the distance at which your dog starts to tense up. Several factors can affect it--the other dog’s size, appearance, and behavior, for three. A big dog with a naturally high tail and an intense stare might as well have a target painted on him--and in fact, that intense stare suggests he’s a little reactive himself. How many close encounters your dog has already had that day will affect his stress level and thus his propensity to blow. On the other hand, if he’s relaxed after a long game of fetch he may ignore a dog he’d otherwise find seriously provoking.
As you get to know your dog’s patterns, it becomes easier to keep him far enough away that he can keep his cool. If you need to make a sudden U-turn, hide behind a parked car, or distract him with food tossed on the ground, then do it! Your job as your dog’s guardian is to look out for his welfare, and that means helping him out of tough spots. If you’re blindsided--say, a dog comes around the corner--and he does explode, then just hold that leash till you can get out of Dodge. I know it’s embarrassing. I know some people will be happy to give you the evil eye and tell you you should scold or hurt your dog. Remember, this is damage control till you get help.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning for Reactive Dogs
There are two scientifically sound and humane approaches to behavior modification for reactive dogs. Desensitization and counterconditioning is the first. In this process, you start with the mildest version of the problem stimulus that your dog will notice. As soon as your dog notices it, you deliver something your dog loves--usually, this will be a superdeluxe treat, roast chicken let’s say. When desensitization and counterconditioning is done right, your dog learns that the sight of other dogs reliably predicts that roast chicken appears in his face. Over time he comes to tolerate or even look forward to the proximity of other dogs, because they are such excellent predictors of succulent dead bird.
The Constructional Aggression Treatment for Reactive Dogs
The second approach is called the Constructional Aggression Treatment, or CAT. Elements of it have been around forever, but the behaviorists Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider are responsible for formulating it in a systematic way. CAT’s premises are two. One is that though aggressive displays may start in a moment of panic, dogs learn over time that aggression works. As I pointed out above, the other dog pretty much always goes away. The second premise is that most dogs are friendly in some contexts--so the trick is to teach her to import those friendly behaviors into the problem situation. In a CAT session, the learner dog is presented with a mild version of the problem stimulus--for the purposes of this podcast, another dog. As soon as the learner dog offers any non-aggressive behavior, the other dog moves further away. In effect, the learner dog learns to drive dogs away by being nice to them. Paradoxically, at some point in the procedure, the learner dog may apparently get to like the other dog for real.
Desensitization/counterconditioning and the Constructional Aggression Treatment are simple in principle, subtle in practice. How much a dog improves depends on many factors, including the trainer’s sensitivity and skill, the reactive dog’s resiliency and quickness to learn, and the guardian’s willingness and ability to work hard. Also, many dogs benefit from appropriate behavioral medication--ideally, prescribed by a vet board-certified in this specialty.
Dogs do better when we guide them and help them succeed. That’s the principle of modern training. All we need to do is apply it.
- “Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash-Aggressive Dog,” by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., and Karen London, Ph.D., is an excellent, short, inexpensive guide to changing this behavior. “Fight!,” by Jean Donaldson, covers more general issues of dog-dog aggression. Many training centers now offer special classes and other programs to help reactive dogs. The instructor should be familiar with the behavior modification techniques I describe in the podcast, though he or she may have more experience with one or the other.
- If “corrections” of any kind (collar jerks, scruff shakes, alpha rolls, penny cans, shock …) are employed, look elsewhere. It’s been well established that those techniques are useless at best and, at worst, will exacerbate your problem in the long run. No trainer who is still employing them has any business taking your money.
- A good brief discussion of counterconditioning and desensitization is here. Pat Miller’s article “Build Better Behavior,” describing the Constructional Aggression Treatment, was originally published in The Whole Dog Journal, May 2008. A brief description by Kellie Snider is here.