Monday, September 17, 2012
Solutions to Barking and Lunging on the Leash
Without a boring introduction and further ado, cause this is a longer post, I’ll share with you how I address barking and lunging on the leash; behaviors so many dog owners are struggling with.
Here are the Dos and Don’ts.
DON’T allow yourself being pulled toward whoever your dog wants to get closer to. Even if he just wants to say Hi, seeks friendly interaction but is impatient, letting him pull you reinforces pulling and lacking impulse control.
DON’T let your dog off the leash when he is tense, even if you believe that he behaves better off than on. We have leash laws everywhere in North America, and letting every dog loose is not an option. DO relationship and leash work, so that he trusts you, and it, in a problematic situation.
DON’T move closer to whatever/whoever when your dog is on the leash and tense, even if he doesn't pull.
Check in front of a mirror what it looks like when you contract your muscles in your face and body. On your dog, you might see a fold between his forehead, still ears, no blinking, the mouth clamped shut, shallow breathing. The whole dog is still, perhaps only the tail tip quivering a bit, or the tongue tip rapidly, snake-like flicking in and out.
In my last post I said that sometimes an anxious dog becomes more relaxed when he has the opportunity to sniff the other, but the underlying emotional issues: insecurity, fear, nervousness, are not addressed, and the trust in you and leash not strengthened, and as a result the dog will continue being unsure and tense whenever he spots his triggers, typically dogs and/or people. Furthermore, depending on the other dog’s reaction, or a person’s for that matter who can act erratically when presented with a tense dog sniffing his legs, hands or crotch, things can escalate quickly. Allowing a tense dog within teeth range to anybody is never a good idea.
DON’T wait too long when you have an appropriate on-leash greeting before you move on. Keep it short and sweet, and then be on your way with a happy “let’s go” command.
DON’T collar correct, zap or punish your dog. It will do nothing to change his mind about the stimulus he feels queasy about. To the contrary: being jerked back arouses him more, and he might lunge again with increased power.
If the reason for out-of-control actions is frustration because he can’t get to a potential playmate fast enough, corrections can turn a dog who initially sought friendly social interaction into an aggressive one. Force and pain cause distress where there was none before, and remember from the last post, possibly - probably also to the leash.
Regardless of motivation, overreaction to environmental stimuli means the dog is already disengaged from you, and discomfort coming from you will lead to more mental avoidance. Your goal is the opposite: you want your dog to connect and take his cues from you. Not the leash, not the collar, but you.
It is a realistically achievable goal, which brings us to the Dos section.
DO give your dog the information he needs when he is in conflict. If you don’t, he will react like a dog who is frightened or excited. Dogs have to act on how they feel. They have no choice. Most humans do too, despite our rational brain capable of overriding emotions.
Information comes in form of words and gestures, commands, and they have to be taught and practiced before they become, from the dog’s point of view, useful. In other words, the dog must understand them as information.
Some commands dogs can learn by your capturing and naming behaviors. For example, “Let’s go” is our cue for moving in the same direction together, and I say it each time we do exactly that. It is a command that feels good to my dogs, one that is rehearsed often, and one I can also use to guide them away from a stimulus. “This way” serves the same purpose, but I use it when I change directions, and “over” when I curve out to increase distance to a stimulus.
"Walk away”, is a command I only use in conjunction with a subject or object I want my dog not just to ignore, "leave", but to walk away from. When something is on your dog’s radar, but before he loses his mind, turn 180 degrees and bring him with you simply because he is on the leash. Walk away without jerking or luring, and generously reinforce as soon as he mentally disconnects from the stimulus, and reconnects with you. Catch that moment and play a game, toss treats out, playfully jog. I especially love chase games because moving and catching up is intrinsically reinforcing for most dogs, more than tug. Plus, you are using yourself as the reward, which means you have an always handy reinforcement if you forget treats and a toy. When you invite your dog to chase you, be upbeat and animated. I use a staccato-like "quick-quick-quick" to egg mine on whenever I want them to close the distance to me, so when I want them to follow or heed the come command.
When the interesting, or scary, stimulus is stationary, so not approaching closer provoking an outburst, waiting the dog out until he shifts his focus on his own is an option I like, cause whenever a dog finds a behavior, whenever not prompted, it is internalized; the dog owns the behavior. After he shifts his focus, continue with the same "walk away" routine.
In time, you can get closer and closer to the trigger and tell your dog to: “walk away”. Rehearsed enough, it should become your dog’s conflict copout, which is much better than barking and lunging.
“Leave” has to be trained, but when it is solid and generalized, it can jog a dog’s memory to shift his focus away from a stimulus - leaving it alone and reconnecting with his person. The way I teach it also includes a follow-up word that tells him what to do next. "Walk-away" is one, but also "say hello" when he can greet, or "get" when I permit access to an object or allow chasing a squirrel.
It is critical that a dog learns the meaning of words a person can then use as information. Not teaching that is one of my biggest peeves with Cesar Millan. He doesn’t give dogs information prior to their making a mistake, only corrects when they walk into the trap he set up.
There are two commands people often use in an attempt to settle their reactive pooch: “sit” and “watch me”. Typically neither is very successful, because when a dog is asked into a sit outside, the trigger often approaches closer, and the situation becomes more difficult for the dog. Hence, complying with the sit command is punitive, and not only will he be reluctant to obey in the future, but because the word predicts pressure, it also raises arousal. “Sit” becomes a poisoned cue and backfires.
“Watch me” only works if the dog trusts his human without reserve, and it takes a lot of trust to be able to look away from something that is frightening and might come closer.
Imagine you walking with someone in a dark alley and a shady character is appearing, and perhaps looking at you, making you his visual target. Could you sit still and ignore him on demand? Look away? Comply with the person you’re walking with? Would handing you a five-dollar bill every 30 seconds make a difference?
Perhaps you could trust your partner or parent explicitly because they proved again and again that they have your back and are able to keep you safe, but you probably wouldn’t trust an acquaintance or even a friend that absolutely. So, don’t expect that level of trust from a dog you adopted a couple of weeks ago.
The pleaser or treat-bribed dog might hold it together, but like the punished one, will feel pressure, is internally aroused, and still feels the same about whatever he is worried about.
DO pay attention when the dog’s mood is changing, to subtle signals. When you take action before he is in an emotional outburst, you have the best chance to successfully guide him into an alternate behavior.
Common scenario: a person walks the dog and a human friend joins in. The people yak away and don’t pay attention to the dog and what happens around them. Meanwhile, he is bored and focused on the environment, and spots something that first alerts, and then excites or concerns him. His mouth closes, ears pop forward, eyes become rounder, tail stops wagging or wags frenziedly, and breathing might increase. He yawns or flicks his tongue, lags or pulls – and perhaps even looks at his person for information what “that” is and what he should do about it, but the owner misses it all and keeps moving in the direction of the stimulus that might move head-on toward the dog at the same time. Eventually, the pooch loses it and barks, and suddenly gets his person’s attention.
The oncoming person/dog combination typically reacts as well at that point and likely retreats, creating more distance. Barking worked: his human paid attention and the trigger backed away - the situation changed, and because barking was reinforced, it might be the dog's first and preferred course of action in the future. Barking and lunging on the leash becomes an operant conditioned, learned behavior trait.
Eye contact, the dog reorienting to you, is your clue that he might need something. Eye contact is the primary and natural way for a dog to connect and communicate directly that he needs help. Pay attention to that and provide information and guidance.
Don’t expect your dog to only connect when it matters to you. When I walk with friends, it is an unspoken rule that I might interrupt in mid-sentence if my dog needs me. If I don’t take charge then, and the scary thing comes closer and closer, and she’s got no viable copout, she’ll act in dog-typical ways: lunge, bark, growl, snap.
If your dog erupts because you miss the subtler hints, are on a narrow trail and can’t avoid a conflict, or a dog or person suddenly pops around the corner or stealthily creeps up behind you and startles you both, get through the situation the best you can. Increase the distance the safest way you can, but don’t give it any other attention. Walk with conviction and confidence, but without anger and anxiety, and bring your dog with you without jerking on the leash.
If you are thinking with me, you might argue that increasing the distance reinforces the barking and lunging, and depending on the dog’s motivation, you are correct. But you really have no other choice at that moment. You have to do something, and it is better to guide your dog to walk away than to wait until the environment, which you can’t control, takes action. When you act on your dog’s behalf, you become trustworthy. Doing nothing and letting the environment decide makes you a useless bystander from the dog’s point of view.
DO pay attention to your two friends: Distance and Alternate Behavior.
Regardless if your dog’s motivation is to make the opponent disappear because he is afraid, or seeks social stimulation and is frustrated because he can’t get to it quickly enough, distance and fun interactions with you are the two key components that will authentically change his behavior.
You need distance because when a dog is too close to the stimulus he is unable, not unwilling, but unable, to respond to you.
After an outburst most people go home. A dog’s acting out leaves people feeling discouraged, frustrated, or even defeated, and understandably they want to retreat to their safe cave. But if the goal is to change the dog’s emotional response to the trigger in the future, what they should be doing is to turn the troublesome event into a positive learning experience by interacting with him in the proximity of the trigger, but at his comfort level.
The threshold distance is when the trigger is on the dog’s radar, but when he is still able to voluntarily shift his focus away from it and back to you, and the emphasis is on voluntarily, so no prompting or luring. That distance is different for each dog and situation, so pay attention to subtle signals. When he reconnects, stay engaged: have fun, do tricks, toss treats or a ball, work the area in a positive way. Yes, it might be counterintuitive to interact playfully with a dog who acted “aggressively” and embarrassed you just moments prior, but remember that it is not his choice. He is not being bad on purpose, his actions not a calculated move to tick you off. Rather, he acts on how he feels, on emotions, and your job is to remain rational and make the area a safe one – a safe one again, and interacting in familiar and rewarding ways together does that. Always aim to end the outing on a high note, and then you go home.
That said, if the dog absolutely can’t chill out, but reacts to more and more triggers from farther and farther away, he is too charged up and too overwhelmed, perhaps even just by virtue of being outside, and then do abort your walk and go home. If that happens often, you might have to give the dog a complete break for a couple of weeks, and then very incrementally introduce stimuli back into his life.
When you interact with your dog in a way that is rewarding for him, you are the big deal, not the environment. The anxious dog will have a viable copout that involves you – and you might be surprised how many dogs are agreeable when an alternative is opened. I met many forward lunging dogs that were almost relieved when controlled retreat, walking away and doing something else, was made an option.
And of course spending quality time with you also works for the bored pooch who lunges and barks because he wants to play with, or herd and control, other dogs.
There are two German words occasionally bounced around in behavioral and dog training circles: One is Umwelt, the other Merkwelt. Translated, the first one is “Surrounding World”, the second “Remembering World”. Umwelt includes all stimuli in the environment the organism lives in and encounters; Merkwelt are the things that get stuck in the brain’s memory center – and yes, dogs have that. You can imagine what happens when everything the dog encounters on a walk is Merkwelt for him; stuff that, from his point of view, matters and is relevant. Not only will he be perpetually overstimulated, but he’ll also be unable to focus on, and be responsive, to you.
Engaging your dog with you forms the contrast between what should be irrelevant: environmental stimuli at large, and what should be important: you, things you do together, guidance you provide in conflict situations – the safety and pleasure you facilitate.
You can’t avoid that the Umwelt is on the dog’s radar. Of course he registers the world around him. A dog should be allowed to look at dogs, people, cyclists, horses, cows, cats, squirrels… and be allowed to sniff, play and greet when appropriate, but you should always be more important than anything else. And if a trigger is already a big deal in the dog’s mind, don’t make it an even bigger deal by either punishing the dog, or treating him when he looks at it. You want to reinforce when your dog willingly looks away from it, and it is up to you to orchestrate many situations that set him up for success. Remember distance? Practice where you have enough space to increase it when you have to.
With a dog who has unlearned to connect with his human once outside - they are typically the ones who were neglected or punished on walks at one point - initially accept and reinforce the shifting away from the trigger, but the end goal always is authentic mental and emotional connection with you, signaled with prolonged eye contact.
DO make sure your dog is comfortable when you are out and about together.
Make sure that he is not hungry or thirsty, and free of pain and discomfort, which includes the equipment you are using. A head halter, such as a Gentle Leader, feels very uncomfortable to many dogs. It adds pressure around the dog’s sensitive nose, often leads to sudden neck twists when he lunges, and that, like a startling neck pain coming from a choke or prong collar correction, or an electric shock, causes or contributes to stress.
I like to use a 6-foot leather leash and a front buckle body harness. My favorites are the Freedom Harness at www.wiggleswagswhiskers and the Sense-Ation harness at www.softouchconcepts.com. Likely you won’t find either in your neighborhood pet store, so check for a local distributor on the manufacturers’ websites, but also compare prices. Sometimes even with extra shipping costs, shopping from someone farther away can save you money.
The body harness allows your dog unrestricted head movements and to communicate freely, it is perceived as comfortable by almost every dog, and you still have good physical control.
DO stay calm.
I despise the term calm-assertive because, although synonyms include confident and self-assured, it also implies forcefulness, pushiness and aggression, and none of those attributes exuded from the person the dog depends on will help him out of emotional conflict.
What happens at the loop end of the leash is very important. When a dog is charged up, the person must remain centered. The dog’s lunging and barking means that he is literally out of his mind at that moment. If you become agitated as well, you’re adding fuel to the fire.
If an insecure dog’s companion conveys with muscle tension, jerky hand movements, rapid patting, increased breathing, and fast-spoken words that there is reason to worry, the dog’s fear intensifies. Dogs don’t have the brain-ability to talk themselves into being rational. They need us to direct them.
Instead of jerking your dog back, or hands-on pushing his butt into a sit, or patting him on the head, or worst of all pinning him to the ground, anchor him: keep a loose leash as much as you can, and confidently, calmly, increase the distance. Use your information words you rehearsed.
Hands-on-body often arouses a dog more, so only physically handle him if you have a certain touch that brings about relaxation. It could be scratching his ear, or for our Will it is drawing a diamond shape with my finger between her shoulder blades. It became a conditioned feel-good touch because I do it each morning when we snuggle in bed.
If you are anxious, sing a song. Your dog will hear your normal sounding voice, and that, unless you regimentally bark orders, should be a conditioned feel-good cue. Plus, singing loosens your facial muscles and regulates breathing. Tell yourself mentally that what other people think doesn’t matter; your dog's welfare does.
Rehearse your copout steps: the shortening of the leash by bringing your hand closer, the leave command, the “let’s go” or “walk away” distance increasing maneuvers, the whatever fun interaction that follows. Rehearse when there are no triggers, so that you don’t have to think about everything at once when one appears.
Calm role modeling will take conscious effort, but is key to success. A calm and confident dog can be a great helper, but be careful with that. The anxious, pumped, or excited dog usually influences the grounded one more than the other way around.
DO teach impulse control. Duration position stays, “leave”, and delaying the reward after a behavior teach the dog patience.
We began with Don’ts and here is one more for the finish:
DON’T be lured into quick-fix, look-good on TV and YouTube solutions. The dog you see after he is rehabbed in 5 minutes or less might not bark anymore because he is intimidated and zapped into silence, but the unwanted expressions are only suppressed. There are others. If you watch closely you typically see stress panting, cowering, whale eye, a tail tucked under the belly, lot's of blinking, or a dog frozen shut. Those dogs are subdued, not calm. You see no fluidity, no offered eye contact, no active communication, no social interaction seeking and inquisitive behaviors. So don’t be fooled: Just because the dog doesn’t bark and lunge anymore doesn’t mean he isn’t distressed anymore.
For that matter, I caution against adopting a dog from a rescue organization or humane society that applies methods that suppress expressions. You have no idea about a dog’s true disposition and behavior if the part of his communication that signals how he feels is quelled. He might show wonderfully at the shelter or foster home, where and with whom the punishments happened, and when under surveillance, but explode in anxiety and stress outbursts in the new, less skilled one.