Why do so many little dogs lunge and bark on leash?
There seem to be so many little dogs who lunge and bark on leash at other dogs. Trainers call that behavior leash reactivity. It may be that the dog is upset by other dogs and wants to fight them, but many dogs that love other dogs when they are off-leash will do it, too. Here’s my read on why is so common in little dogs.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that just because their little dog is a dog, he should like meeting or hanging out with other dogs. But little dogs know how dogs are — they know that no matter their size, they can be predators and they can be prey. They also know that dogs play rough and that they can bite. So, quite often, little dogs are scared of big dogs. (They are often scared of people, too, for that matter. Strange people stick their big faces and teeth and smelly breath in their tiny faces. They touch them and pick them up, making them feel out of control.)
It’s really no wonder there are so many neurotic little dogs out there who lunge and bark at other dogs and people.
Little dogs are often scared of big dogs.
When a big dog meets a small dog it almost always threatens the little dog, even if the big dog doesn’t intend it to be that way. The big dog and small dog may start out okay, sniffing each other’s butts and faces, but in the process the big dog almost invariably puts his head over the small dog. The “stand over,” as its called, is a threatening gesture among dogs. And why not? The teeth are right over the neck and arteries — a killing bite can be delivered there. Or maybe the big dog will put his paw on top of the small dog. This is a standard play invitation gesture in the dog world, but it feels pretty scary and rough to the little dog!
I told them I was scared. (But they didn’t listen). So, I’ll say it louder.
Often dogs will tell us that they are scared and want to leave in nice polite ways, rather than by barking and lunging. For example, when a little dog stiffens his body and plants his feet when another dog is around, he is saying that he is scared and may need to protect himself. Unfortunately, most humans don’t read these cues well and do nothing to change or prevent future encounters. If you were the little dog, and you were scared during a previous dog encounter, and tried to let that be known to no avail, what would you do the next time a dog came over to sniff you? You would make your communication even louder and scarier, to the point that you look like a monster and owners listen and start keeping you away from other dogs.
The world is scary.
Think about how hard it must be to be a little dog in our world! It is the plight of the little dog to be stressed when out in public. Little dogs are expected to be able to go everywhere and behave nicely, even when the situation makes them uncomfortable. They have to walk through crowds and by giant clumsy human feet that can crush them in a second. Strange humans touch them. Approaching dogs add another level of stress to a tough situation, and sometimes the little dogs just can’t take it. Add an unfamiliar dog to the mix and they’ve had enough — so they snap.
Maybe all dogs are dangerous.
It often happens that little dogs generalize their experience of big dogs. After a couple of bad encounters they may start to think all dogs are potentially dangerous and try to keep them away. They would rather be safe than sorry. If a dog did not have structured, safe, positive association with other dogs of many types when young, he may be wary of dogs generally.
Back me up!
When you have more than one dog, things get complicated. I find that when two or more dogs walk together, leash lunging gets worse. Why? The dogs make each other more bold. There’s strength in numbers, right? And dogs, like people, like to win — especially when it comes to scaring away other dogs. And its a lot more fun when you have backup. Usually when you have more than one dog, one is more fearful than the other. The more timid or fearful dog will often become more assertive when with the other more confident dog. Also, anyone with more than one dog knows barking is contagious. When one starts the other almost always joins in.
Other factors that can make your dog Leash Reactive.
There are other factors that can make a dog leash reactive. A dog can be hyper-motivated to see other dogs, meaning he likes them so much he gets too excited when he sees them. This excitement sets him up for frustration and aggression on leash. Or, he may have been “punished” when he ran up to meet another dog and got popped by reaching the end of the leash. He could and begin to associate oncoming dogs with pain and fear of punishment. Or, humans may have scolded him for lunging or barking at a scary dog, which reaffirms his idea that oncoming dogs are bad news and need to be scared away. He could lack dog interaction skills because his socialization with other dogs early in life was poor. Finally, can become aggressive on leash because of the way the owner handles the leash — if its too taut or gets tangled, or if the owner drags and pulls the little dog around when on leash, this can make the dog feel trapped and unsafe.
How do you fix leash reactivity?
What can you do to prevent your little dog from becoming or being one of those lunging yappy little dogs? Can you change his behavior once it has started? Yes, and no. Behaviors never go away. They are merely replaced by new behaviors that are more rewarding and work better for the dog. You need to reinforce those new behaviors. So, yes! You can change this behavior with time, patience, and training for both you and your dog. You can also manage how your dogs experience when he is out on the world, and minimize how often it happens. For tips, see my post on leash reactivity.