The Importance of Carefully Controlled Dog Play and How to Prevent Leash Aggression
Most dogs play nicely together, but this depends on their personality and socialisation history. If they were not sufficiently socialised, have previously had a bad experience in playtime, or are naturally anxious dogs, they may feel defensive when in close proximity to another dog. The more dogs there are in the mix, the worse this anxiety can be, and the faster it can develop into aggressive ‘play’, and then full-blown aggression.
This is very common at off-leash dog parks and beaches. These places should be avoided, or visited only when there are very few, preferably known dogs there. This is because you have absolutely no control over what is likely to happen, nor over what sort of dogs (and people) you and your dog are interacting with. It is far safer to find a small circle of dog-friends – trusted people with well mannered, friendly and confident dogs – to have your own ‘play group’ sessions. This way you can stay in reasonable control of your dog’s environment and be more certain of good outcomes.
How Anxiety Becomes Aggression
Aggressive play occurs when normal play starts ramping up into over-excitement, and then becomes more physically rough, noisy and intimidating. When a more confident dog becomes over-excited and play becomes boisterous, a less confident dog is likely to feel anxious and threatened. This is unacceptable! It is unfair to inflict fear on a sensitive dog. His anxiety will manifest in defensive behaviour which can quickly develop into defensive aggression as he tries to protect himself from the onslaught of rough treatment. Sadly, these defensive-aggressive dogs are labelled the ‘culprits’, when it is actually the over-boisterous dog’s poor play skills that has triggered the nervous dog’s defensive behaviour.
With each subsequent interaction with another dog, the anxious dog will begin to react defensively earlier. His expectations of a bad experience, in response to increasing anxiety are demonstrated through barking and avoidance initially, and then begin to ramp up into snarling, growling, snapping and attacking behaviours – all in an attempt to send the approaching dog away. This behaviour usually works, because other owners will almost always avoid such dogs, but this means the defensive dog thinks it is his defensive, unsociable behaviour that is protecting him, so it becomes reinforced.
If he ever displays this defensive-aggressive behaviour to a highly dominant dog – such as an entire male – he will probably be attacked, so quite suddenly his defensive aggression becomes life-saving overt aggression in order to survive. His perceived fear suddenly becomes a reality. All future encounters with other dogs will be highly charged with both defensive and overt aggression. This cycle continues until the anxious dog cannot be allowed near any other dogs and he is declared a Dangerous Dog by the authorities and euthanased, or placed under severe social restrictions and kept imprisoned in his owner’s backyard.
In my extensive experience as a trainer, breeder, carer and vet nurse, having worked with thousands and thousands of dogs, I have only seen a handful of genuinely aggressive puppies, and they usually had some sort of congenital defect which caused it. The vast majority of puppies are not naturally aggressive, and in fact, the vast majority of dogs in general are not naturally aggressive. They become aggressive through poor socialisation, poor training and poor management. We are responsible for ensuring our dogs become confident as puppies, and remain confident as adults.
Prevention of Aggression through Controlled Socialisation
To prevent defensive aggression behaviours from developing, trainers (owners) have a duty to ensure young puppies are carefully socialised at a very young age. To do this we must control all interactions our young dogs have, to prevent any bad experiences with overly-boisterous or aggressive dogs. Less experienced and less confident, sensitive or anxious dogs MUST be given some space and a more controlled level of play. Boisterous, excitable and aggressive dogs MUST be managed effectively to ensure their behaviour does not affect the development, confidence and safety of any other dog. Owners of aggressive dogs MUST take responsibility and face up to the fact that their dogs need assistance to behave in a more social manner, rather than pass of the aggression as something else.
Be vigilant for the signs of tension and aggression
Over-excitement must be calmly stopped, before it develops into an environment of aggression. Once a play environment ramps up into a noisy, rough and charged scene, another dog can become reactive, and then another… and the entire atmosphere becomes charged with tension and aggression. This can happen in extremely subtle ways that we humans – often busy chatting amongst ourselves – frequently miss. Suddenly there is a fight! The signs are there, so stay alert and look for them! And never simply blame the dog doing the most fearsome fighting – that dog is usually the anxious victim!
When allowing dogs to interact, each handlers’ full attention should be on their own dog, looking for subtle signs of abnormal behaviour. This may be avoidance (cringing, running away, showing their belly, barking), unusual vocalization, cringing behind your legs, climbing onto the back of another dog, or swinging one forearm over the other dog’s shoulder. At the same time, every owner should be constantly assessing the whole scene: looking for any problems that might be ramping up.
Keep the play quiet and calm. Sure, let puppies tumble and run, gargle and growl in a playful manner – but as soon vocalization becomes more noisy and sharp, or if there is boisterous play, defensive cringing or avoidance, and certainly if there is any snapping, yelping or snarling, calmly separate the dogs and soothe everything back down. Don’t put them back together unless they have settled and are relaxed.
End every interaction on a good note
It is very important, when a dog becomes over-excited or aggressive, to remove him and allow the aggressor/s to chill out for a while, right away from the other dogs. Give him some things to do which focuses him on you, to distract him from his aroused state of mind, and allow him to earn positive reinforcement and rewards. We need to change his emotional state! For example, ask him for a succession of sit and drop actions, or get him to perform some tricks. When he seems calm again, reintroduce him to the edge of the play area and select one very calm and confident dog to approach. Using positive reinforcement for confident, pleasant greetings and kind, gentle play, encourage him to relax at the edge of the play area with this single, pleasant dog. If his arousal starts ramping up again, take him straight away and start again.
It is extremely important to end any training/behaviour situation on a good note, so if your dog ever has a problem with play (or anything) be sure she has a chance to go back to the play area and either successfully interact with the other dog/s, or, at the very least, to be close to them without interacting, but remaining happy. She should receive lavish praise for good, calm, confident and pleasant play with, or proximity to, other dogs. If she is too aroused/aggressive, or simply lacks the confidence to interact pleasantly with the other/s, just approach the play area, but don’t let her interact with them.
Do this many times, on as many different occasions as possible, getting closer and closer to other playing dogs, until occasionally she may touch noses and then have a sniff and then a gentle play and finally, she may have developed enough confidence to have a little romp – but always under close observation and with prolific reinforcement of pleasant, confident, calm play.
To break this down: take her towards the other dogs from a distance at which she is comfortable and showing no signs of stress or anxiety. This may be a few metres away, 20 metres away or 100 metres away. Ask her for compliance of as many different actions she is trained for (this is where trick training becomes an essential part of training), without interacting. If this goes well, go a little closer – say by a step or two if fairly close, or by five to ten metres if far away – and repeat your one-on-one interaction with your dog.
Do not take her so close as to develop fear, so watch very closely for signs of anxiety! If you do, retreat a considerable distance and start over. If she exhibits any signs of fear, anxiety or aggression, you have taken her too close too soon, so take smaller steps in your progress in future and observe more closely for the subtle signs of anxiety. Be sure to end every single training session on a really good note – NEVER after an aggressive interaction or when she has displayed signs of anxiety. This process can take weeks or even months, so, above all, be patient.
Inadvertent Reinforcement of Anxiety
This is another common problem: never molly-coddle anxious behaviours – this reinforces them! By trying to soothe and reassure the anxious dog with murmurs of encouragement and praise, you are effectively teaching the dog to be anxious, because she will interpret your gentle voice as saying: “Good dog, it’s okay – good girl… it’s good to be anxious, yes, good dog, that’s right, be anxious and aggressive and they will all just go away…” This is NOT the right message to be giving her.
By the same token, if she is showing any signs of aggression do not reprimand her! Your raised voice will only add to the emotion of the situation and the dog may misinterpret it as you joining in the melee. This INCREASE the anxiety and the aggression in both instances.
When she shows signs of anxiety or aggression, rather than inadvertently reinforcing these behaviours with reassurance, just calmly remove her from the interaction to a distance that significantly or completely reduces the behaviours, then distract her with tasks that can be rewarded. This will improve her frame of mind enormously. DO NOT TAKE THE DOG HOME! This will end her interaction on a very bad note, and this is all she will remember!
When she is calm again at a suitable distance, follow the steps outlined above and work at approaching the play area/other dog again and again, very gradually. Even if she is still at a considerable distance at the end of the session, this is okay, so long as she leaves the area on a good note, and not taken home remembering only the bad experience.
Once you have ended on a good note, even if you are still a fair way away from the other dog/s you have effected a positive training experience and should end the lesson. Take her home and call your behaviourist for an appointment!
The occurrence of increased aggression when a dog is on a leash is EXTREMELY common. The tension she feels through the leash to you triggers the dog’s ‘flight or fight’ survival instinct. She feels restricted in her ability to take flight because the tension of the leash is restraining her. If a dog is anxious about another dog, but knows they can’t run away – take flight, so the other hard-wired instinct kicks in – the need to fight. The tension she feels through the leash also charges up her level of arousal. A tight leash can exacerbate aggression in two ways – and both are very unhelpful.
If your dog is more aggressive on the leash, she needs to be very carefully trained in how to greet or play with calm, quiet confidence. Special one-on-one behavioural instruction is advised. If it is only mild, however, find yourself a friend with a ‘bombproof’ dog, and train your dog how to greet and, eventually, play nicely, even when there is occasional tension on a leash, but remember – always from a considerable distance.
Take the lead-aggressive dog closer in tiny increments – from a zone as far away from the other dog as necessary, where she feels confident and non-aggressive – and reward her for any calm, confident behaviour, especially if she looks up to you, seeking reassurance. When she has reacted calmly to the presence of the other dog from a distance, always take her back away again to ease the pressure, and then approach again to the same spot. If, after several repetitions of this, she is still calm and confident, next time approach a little closer. Depending on how big the distance of her comfort zone is between her and the other dog, each increment of progress may be ten metres, or one metre, or one foot, but a 10% increment gives a very rough idea. In other words, go forward and backwards then forward again, in tiny progressions, while watching at all times for any signs of fear or anxiety.
I liken this process to an incoming tide: imagine the waves on a beach moving in and out, in and out, but every now and again the waves move a little further up the beach. If you remember this analogy when working a dog towards a source of fear, you can’t really go wrong, so long as the dog is never allowed – or pushed – to go too fast and becomes anxious.
Keep the tension off the leash
When interacting up close, avoid putting any pressure on the leash: preferably drop it completely, and let the dogs meet or play in a small enclosed area. Keep the leash attached so that it’s there ready to be picked up for a quick extraction if necessary. In this case, always try to call the dog away with voice and patting the leg to encourage her, rather than pulling tension on the leash. Once she gains confidence playing with the ‘bombproof’ dog without any tension, gradually introduce gentle tension until she is happy to play on the end of the lead, which may occasionally get tight if stepped on in play, or while you untangle it, but otherwise is not a cause for anxiety. These dogs may always require very careful management of the leash – no tension in the presence of other dogs!
If you are walking in the street and meet an unknown dog, and there is immediate arousal /signs of aggression that are likely to be exacerbated by tension on the leash, do not drag the dog away by the leash. This will usually cause the lead-aggressive dog to explode with aggression of some sort. If safe to do so, put your arms around his chest and guide him away as gently as possible (again: be very careful not to create any further arousal by placing excessive contact or tension in your actions). If he is too close to the other dog and this is unwise, try small pops on the leash with lots of happy verbal encouragement to come “this way”, with lots of hand-pats on your thigh to encourage her to come with you. Quickly and firmly ask the other handler to please take their dog away a little and the increased distance may be enough to reduce the charged emotions.
Developing the verbal cue of: “This Way”
To avoid this situation, all dogs should be trained to be called away from an item, person or dog of interest without any pulling on the leash. We should only call him while patting your leg in encouragement, then lavishly rewarding with treats when he responds and comes to you. If you practice this every time he stops to sniff a bush or pole, or every time he greets a person or a friendly dog, you will have your best weapon of defense established when you really need to call him away from an aroused, aggressive dog – without pulling on the leash.
Gradually work this up to calling him away from strange dogs, initially from a distance – this could be when he locks on visually to the presence of another dog from 100 metres away. Stop, let him look, and then quickly step backward to the end of a loose leash and call him while patting your leg in encouragement: the command is usually: “This way, Fido, this way!” It must be said in a high, happy voice, with lots of other interesting encouragement. Have your treat ready, so that when he turns in response to your command, you can reward him with a great level of reinforcement. Gradually reduce the distance, in tiny increments, until you can call your dog away from another without tension on the leash, even when they are touching nose-nose.
As always, finish on a good note – watch for a particularly pleasant interaction or a particularly prompt and willing response to your “This way!” command, lavishly reward him and then ease him away without any pressure on the leash. Use treats to lure him away and be sure the dog doesn’t have any negative feelings about being taken away, or he may feel as though he is being punished by being ‘isolated’ from his new friend/s and all the fun of dog play.