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Ask 3LD: Leash-Reactivity, Anxiety, Aversives, and Rude Teenage Dogs

1. Barking and Anxiety on Walks

“I am very stressed with my 4 year old Manchester terrier who won’t stop barking on a walk.  Bark collar was bad and made him more aggressive toward other dogs on walks and created more anxiety so I’m lost.  Any advice is appreciated.

Thank you,
K”

This sounds like leash-reactivity, which is when a dog freaks out at the sight of another dog, either because he’s afraid of them or he wants to play and is angry that he can’t. I know how upsetting this is, and I’m sorry you’re dealing with it. This is a big subject and I probably need to write a whole series of articles on it. For now, I can give you some resources to check out:

Working With Your Leash-Reactive Dog
Foundation Exercises For Your Leash-Reactive Dog
Reducing Leash-Reactivity: The Engage-Disengage Game

Here’s me talking about my experience nipping my pup’s reactivity in the bud. I explain a training game called Look at That, which might help you.


2. Anxiety and the Use of Medication and Aversives

“Hi Jake,

We recently turned to a trainer, who referred us to a veterinary behaviorist, because our then seven-month old standard poodle was out of control on walks. She was jumping and biting us in excitement at the slightest provocation (car, stroller, another dog). This behavior started around five months of age. 
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Her behavior was extreme -painful and scary- but I was surprised to have both trainer and vet recommend anti-anxiety medication for such a young dog, especially as she is well trained indoors. I’d assumed that time was on our side and was looking for strategies to get us over the hump, but was told that training alone was unlikely to solve the problem. I still decided to wait on drugs. And, after two weeks of consistent outdoor clicker training with the highest value food (hot dogs), she has improved tremendously. She is now almost eight months old and our worst problem outdoors is pulling on the leash to get at squirrels or people she is happy to see.

I did “cheat,” though. We prefer non-aversive, reward-based training techniques. However, when a dog’s teeth are clamped onto your calf, you need an immediate solution! A neighbor who saw my predicament suggested “Dog Corrector”. This is a can that releases a loud hissing noise that startles the dog out of the undesired behavior. It worked exactly as I’d hoped. I first confirmed that it wasn’t too scary by testing it out indoors when she was barking at the tv (her worst indoor behavior). She was clearly concerned, but not terrified. On our next walk, I sprayed it when she latched on to me, and she immediately let go. I was then able to get her into a sit and treat her, and we continued on. I had to use it only twice more. Ever since, when she starts to go crazy, I am able to distract her just by asking for the sit.

To boil it down to my question: What are your thoughts on the judicious use of aversive corrections in extreme circumstances? What would you have suggested to me in this situation?

By the way, I bought your book and it helped us tremendously during the early months of puppyhood!

Best,
L”

Congrats on making so much progress in your training! Seriously. I know this is an incredibly frustrating issue and you clearly handled it with patience, skill, and thoughtfulness. I’m not one to judge people for their well-considered choice in training tool. Life is hard and you do what you gotta do.

But you did ask, so:

If it were me, I would’ve done what the veterinary behaviorist told me to do. Veterinary behaviorists are the top of the food chain when it comes to expertise in behavior modification. The opinion of a VB outranks the opinion of Jake the Self-Taught Dog Trainer. And it definitely outranks the opinion of Joe from Next Door Who Knows a Lot About Dogs.

Medication is often treated like a last resort. Sometimes it should be the first step. I don’t mean we should be drugging every dog who has a difficult problem, but just like people, some dogs have legitimate mental health issues that can’t be fixed with clickers or corrections.

The fact that you had a veterinary behaviorist AND a professional trainer saying this dog had anxiety severe enough to warrant medication? I think there might be something there.

Anxiety and depression run in my family, so I know all too well that making lasting positive changes in your behavior is $^%#ing impossible when your brain is on fire. You have to put out the fire first.

Using aversives on a dog with anxiety is risky business. You might suppress the symptoms, but the pain that caused it is still there, maybe even made worse because the dog isn’t allowed to express it.

It’s like discovering an old termite trail on your wall. You break it open, and, finding no termites, just clean it up and forget about it. Now there’s no gross termite trail on your wall! Yay! But… is there still an infestation lurking beneath the surface?

Or maybe I’m being dramatic. Maybe everything is fine and the dog is perfectly happy and the problem is solved. It’s an impossible question to answer over the internet.

As for my thoughts on aversives in general: I’m a fan of a model called the Humane Hierarchy, which you can read about here. It sounds like you followed a similar model.


3. A teenage pup who bullies little dogs

“I have an 18-month-old, 65-pound goldendoodle named Mike. Mike is extremely social and loves going to the dog park. Although there are separate areas for large and small dogs, small dogs often come into the large dog area. Mike loves to play with all the dogs, however several times now -when playing with a smaller dog- it appears he is bullying the little dog. In order to make him leave the smaller dog alone, I must grab him and leave.  Someone has suggested I use a shock collar on Mike to stop this behavior.  I have never used one.  What is your opinion?

Thanks,
J”

“Someone suggested a shock collar.” Oh look, there’s Joe From Next Door Who Knows a Lot About Dogs again! Oh, Joe.

Smile and nod, smile and nod…

The first step is management: prevent Mike from bullying the other dogs. This means that if a small dog comes in, Mike goes on leash. Depending on how much this problem bothers you and how much work you want to do, this might be all you ever need. Just plan to avoid dog parks when there are small dogs inside. Simple, easy, life goes on.

But if you want to do more, it’s about teaching Mike appropriate ways to play with small dogs, and redirecting if he gets too rough.

And preferably, you don’t do this in the dog park.

For the safety of everyone involved, dog parks are not the place to train and socialize your dog. Dog parks are for dogs who are already trained and socialized.

To train a dog, you need to be able to control the situation, and dog parks are the Wild Wild West. A frightful, lawless land where you have no control at all. There are just too many risk factors.


How I feel upon entering a dog park.

As a sparky young teenager with more enthusiasm than sense, it’s likely that Mike doesn’t know how to read the signs of a dog politely telling him to back off. It would really help him to be around well-socialized adult dogs who can gently correct him if he gets out of line. If you happen to have a friend with a small adult dog, try setting up play dates in a neutral location.

I could write an entire article about this subject (and maybe I will) but for now, there’s a good guide to handling bully dogs here.

And oh yeah, please don’t shock your dog. People underestimate how much skill it takes to use a shock collar without screwing everything up worse. Your timing, as well as your understanding of dog training principles, must be impeccable. Say you zap the dog when he plays too rough. To you, this is pretty straightforward. But all the dog learns is that being around other dogs causes him some mysterious pain. The dog park equals pain. Dogs equal pain. He has to protect himself from other dogs. Maybe he starts barking and growling at other dogs on walks, too. Now instead of relatively harmless rude adolescent play behavior, you have full-blown fear aggression or reactivity. See question one, above.


4. Helping a fearful dog deal with overzealous strangers

“I have a dog who was abused early on and then pretty much ignored for a year. He has been with us for about 8 months now and is doing much better than when we first got him. He is aggressive with strangers who make eye contact or approach him directly, though. We do fine if people will ignore him and let him approach them. How do we help him deal with strangers who are too friendly with him in the beginning?”

It’s awesome that you’ve made so much progress with him; helping this dog must’ve been quite the difficult journey.

It’s your job to deal with too-friendly strangers, not his. You have to be vigilant and stand up for your dog. Tell people not to approach. Now, as a massive introvert myself, I know this is easier said than done for many of us. But, as our dogs’ advocates and protectors, this is what we must do.

You can use visual aids for this, too. You can buy bandanas, collars, harnesses, and leashes that display some variation of “don’t touch.” Here are a few examples:

“Do Not Pet Me” bandana
Nervous Dog coat
Do Not Pet harness
Caution patch for collar/leash

Additionally, see the video I posted in response to question one. The Look At That game might be good for your dog.