Leash aggression is an all too common issue and one that can be frustrating and upsetting for both dogs and their owners. Unfortunately, many owners simply interpret this as bad behavior and react accordingly, but that only serves to exacerbate the problem. In order to successfully deal with the issue you need to understand what is causing it and take the proper measures to break your dog of this unwanted behavior.
Rather than being a case of a dog "acting up", pulling, tugging and snapping while on leash is actually a response to fear and frustration. It signals the fact that your dog wants to interact socially with other dogs but is unsure of how to do it properly, so instead he overreacts. Surprisingly, this can happen with a dog that is otherwise very well behaved when off leash, which makes it even more confusing and frustrating for you as an owner.
As uncomfortable as a case of leash aggression may be for you, your reaction to it can make it even worse for your dog. If you're like most people, when your dog begins jumping, pulling and barking at other dogs while on leash your initial response is probably one of embarrassment or annoyance and you display that by becoming tense and tightening up on the leash. This response is passed on to your dog, creating a vicious cycle that leaves you both unhappy and frustrated.
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So what can you do to correct this behavior in your dog? First off, relax. Displaying aggression while on leash is not a sign that there's anything wrong with your dog. In some cases there may be a medical issue causing the behavior but in the greater majority of cases it is purely a social problem. It can occur in any breed, even those like the Australian Shepherd that are known for being friendly and social, and at any age. There may not be any warning signs before it happens but it can be easily handled.
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The key to overcoming leash aggression is using positive reinforcement to make your dog more comfortable in social situations with other dogs while on leash. You need to train your dog to be calm while meeting other dogs and this can be done using high quality treats. Using another dog that is relaxed on leash, you can have his handler slowly approach you and your dog. Each time your dog begins to react to the other dog's presence, distract him with a treat.
When you have done this often enough, your dog will begin to associate the presence of other dogs with a good outcome, which in turn will make him less tense and reactive. As he begins to react more calmly, you will be able to do the same and before you know it, you'll both be handling those meetings easily and get back to enjoying your regular walks. It's important that you approach this training with patience and remember to praise your dog every time he responds appropriately.
It may be embarrassing but leash aggression is actually quite natural. It can become a real problem when it interferes with your dog getting the regular exercise he needs so it's important that you handle it properly. Remember no matter how frustrating it may be you should never punish your dog for this behavior. Positive reinforcement and gentle training is all that is required to help your dog start making canine friends the right way.
If you are dealing with leash pulling and aggression, chances are you are also dealing with other behavior issues. These are likely related to an underlying training problem. It is better to have a well rounded understanding of dog training built on a solid foundation which will allow you prevent problem behaviors from developing in the first place than to constantly be playing whack-a-mole with one issue after another.
One dog training program I recommend to Aussie owners, or owners of any dog breed for that matter, is The Online Dog Trainer which features hundreds of video lessons that show you, step-by-step, the concepts you need to understand from the fundamental "Golden Rules" of dog training, to more advanced lessons—including how to deal with a multitude of behavior problems if they have already started or gotten out of hand. This program was created by a professional dog trainer from New Zealand who is known as "Doggy Dan". You can find more information about Dan's program here.
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