The phone rings, and I pick up, "Help! My dog barks, and lunges at every dog in sight, is she being aggressive? What's going on?!".
The first question I always ask is "How's the off-leash play?"
With that, you'll commonly get one of these 3 answers:
1. "She's great, but when she's on leash, She's a monster!"
2. "Off-leash?! I'd never try that, are you kidding me? She'd bite the other dog, without a doubt."
3. Lastly, the case where a dog is fearful, we won't be covering that right now.
If the dog is good off-leash, then we know our probable go-to is barrier frustration. The dog can't get to the thing she most wants to see/play/investigate, in this case another dog. The leash is holding her back. Barking, lunging, pulling on leash are all common behaviours for a barrier frustrated dog, which can oh-so commonly be mistaken for aggression.
What if the dog has no play history? There are two options, and every trainer, has their own bias. Mine is: "let's test them with a bomb proof dog, before condemning them to a life of no dog play" (besides, integrating play into a barrier frustrated dog's training plan can help so much!) . Other, more conservative approaches include working on walking the dog without reactions, but no access- ever.
Why am I so caught up on wanting to let dogs play?
1. Playing is great energy burner. It's physically and mentally exhausting.
If the dog likes other dogs, why wouldn't we exploit this!
2. Imagine if, the thing you loved most, was taken away from you forever.
No more ice cream, or playing sports, ever. How frustrating would that be?!
3. Using play is a great defence to help with leash frustration.
What is a bomb proof dog?
Okay, so let's rewind to the term bomb-proof dog for a second: no this isn't a dog wearing a bullet proof vest, or riot gear. A bomb proof dog, is a dog who's experienced it all; the dog who goes to the dog park and gets snarked off and walks away from it; the dog who gets lunged at and couldn't care less... you get my point.
Now, It sounds scary, doesn't it? Testing an adult dog, sometimes newly adopted, with no prior known history; there are many unanswered "what ifs". Good news! The world will not come to an end...
With the help of a bomb proof dog, a skilled science based/ force free trainer, along with the help of some safety precaution tools such as dragged long lines, and pre-trained basket muzzles, testing a dog can be safe. (If you need help finding a trainer, head over to the Academy for Dog Trainers for a data base of professionals in your area),
We recently experienced a similar case, Joya was adopted, as an adult dog, and for the most part she had been kept away from dogs because of an uncertainty of her past. Her mom called me up one day, almost frantic. Joya had begun to lunge, and bark at dogs from almost a 50 foot radius. Living in the city, this can be a major issue, there are dogs everywhere. It can make the smallest walk around the block, very stressful, embarrassing, and feel like a chore more than anything else.
Luckily for Joya, her mom is as dedicated as they come. Like anyone experiencing similar circumstances she had her doubts and was overwhelmed with emotion; was feeling unsure that this was even the right dog for her, or that she could successfully work on the issue at hand. She persevered, and boy, did these two ever work hard together!
We had a bit of a rocky start, when we tested her with the bomb proof dogs, she was so excited from finally having access to a play-mate she was a little scrappy: muzzles to the rescue!
How did we proceed?
We worked on teaching her a rock-solid sit for walks and "Watch" on cue, where she'd have to look at her mom, instead of the dog. These are incompatible behaviours to lunging at other dogs. With weeks of practice, and Joya slowly starting to behave much calmer around other dogs, we decided to try playing again... and this is what we got (video below). 2 HOURS of play with perfect body language, self-handicapping, bouncy movements...etc. (For more on body language and dog play, head over to iSpeakDog)
Joya is now able to relieve her energy through play and reacts much less on leash to other dogs in a very populated city. If we had never tested her with other dogs and slowly progressed based on her reactions, we would have never experienced this and given her mom the sense of ease in owning an adult dog with an unknown past.