This article by Dr Cynthia D. Fisher, B.A. MS, PhD - Chief Instructor (Obedience)at Gold Coast Dog Obedience Club - is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.
It's not uncommon for dogs to have problems when approached by other dogs. Often these problems are based in fear or anxiety. There are a couple of things dogs can do when approached by another dog that worries them: 1) run away or 2) lunge, bark, and threaten in order to drive the other dog away. Both of these actions achieve the same end - the dog is able to increase the space between itself and the other dog that is worrying it. Leashes largely remove the run away choice, so an aggressive response becomes more likely when a dog is on lead, especially a short or tight lead.
The most common handler response when their dog lunges or threatens another dog is to yank on the lead and yell at their dog. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. Yanking and yelling might build up the dog's courage to attack the other dog (Dad is right behind me, I can feel him on the other end of the leash, and he's barking at this strange dog too!). Alternatively, if the dog finds the leash corrections and yelling unpleasant, then it becomes even more convinced that other dogs are bad news. Whenever another dog approaches, not only does the dog feel stressed about this potential danger, but it learns that abuse is also forthcoming from its own handler. So it becomes more worried and defensive about other dogs, and a vicious circle is created.
Dogs that try to run away from another dog in fear are less socially unacceptable, but are still stressed and uncomfortable about other dogs. Handlers of these dogs often try to reassure them with petting and cooing, but this can have the effect of strengthening the display of fear. The dog learns that if it shows fear, Mom will make a fuss of it, take it away from the other dog, or pick it up for a cuddle, so it continues to display fear. In many ways, the approach to working with a dog that is either fear-aggressive or just fearful about other dogs is the same. There are three steps involved:
1. Prevent the approach of other dogs, or control approaches to a distance at which the dog feels relatively comfortable. Every time a too-close approach triggers an aggressive or fearful response, the response becomes stronger and more likely to happen again. The dog gets to practice the response and learns that it is an effective way to get the reward of relief from the stress of a close approach. While you are working on the problem, try to control 100% of the approaches by other dogs to a level your dog can handle without displaying either fear or aggression. Turn and take the dog away before the other dog comes too close.
Be sure you can control your own dog as well as the approaching dog. A strong or very excitable dog should probably wear a head halter. In class, put a yellow ribbon on your dog to warn other handlers not to bring their dogs too close, and work on the edges of your class rather than in the middle until the dog learns to relax.
2. Change the emotional response of your dog to the approach of other dogs. The dog has learned to be anxious when another dog comes near. It can't help that anxiety response, any more than you can stop yourself cringing when you see a huge spider or snake. For most dogs, the quickest way to induce a positive emotional state is to feed them. Eating is incompatible with fear. So, arm yourself with lots of tasty treats and go for a walk. When you see another dog in the distance, as soon as your dog notices it but before it can go nuts, start feeding treat after treat and praising madly.
Keep enough distance from the other dog that yours doesn't go on full alert, and keep feeding. Turn and move away before the other dog is too close. When the other dog recedes into the distance, stop feeding and start ignoring the dog. Repeat many, many times. Eventually, the dog will learn to be more relaxed about the approach of another dog, as it predicts wonderful food treats that are not otherwise available. Gradually, your dog will tolerate the other dog being closer, as its anxiety is replaced with happy anticipation.
3.Teach the dog to focus its attention on you. Like people, dogs have only a limited amount of attention. If they are paying attention to one thing intently (you), they have little or no attention left for other things (an approaching dog). So teach your dog to direct its attention entirely to you to make and hold eye contact with you or to touch its nose to your hand. Heeling with eye contact is a great focusing exercise, as is sitting and gazing at the handler. Teach your focusing exercise away from other dogs at first, then in a variety of locations with interesting but not scary distractions, then when another dog is approaching but in the distance.
Very gradually build up your dog's ability and desire to stay focused on you even when another dog is walked by fairly close to it. Use positive reinforcement with praise and food treats to build the dog's willingness and ability to pay attention to you. Reward attention generously as another dog approaches, then turn and take your dog away from the other before it gets too close as an additional reward for sustaining calm focus. Practiced diligently, these three activities will gradually reduce your dog's anxiety about other dogs.
Your dog may never become a social butterfly who is eager to meet any and all dogs, but it can learn to be more comfortable and less likely to lose it in the presence of other dogs. Note that very similar steps can be used to desensitise dogs to other fears, such as fear of men or fear of loud trucks. Ask your instructor for more advice.
Cynthia D. Fisher www.gcdotc.org.au