Leash Training Behavior in Dogs

Veterinarian Kurt Steinam Discusses On-Leash vs. Off-Leash Behavior in Dogs

This article was originally written by Dr. Steinam for the Pet Page” of The Beach Reporter Newspaper

A reader recently wrote: “I wonder if you could address the issue of behavior changes in dogs when they are ‘on leash’ as opposed to ‘off leash’ “

As most dog owners have discovered, the dog “on leash” feels very vulnerable and protective when an “off leash” dog approaches. Often, a fight will start when the “off leash” dog gets too close and the “off leash” dog’s owner will blame the “on leash” dog who is only trying to defend his territory. (Note: or alternatively, the “on leash” owner will blame the “off leash” dog’s owner for recklessly allowing their dog to be off the leash).

torrance veterinariansThe issue of the behavior of dogs on or off leash, and their interactions with one another, can seem complex. As most dog owners can relate, there can be quite a range in the behavior demonstrated by one dog to another when they encounter each other and either one of them is on leash. Besides the effect that the leash exerts on the situation, the dogs are also having to contend with other significant factors such as the sexual status of the dogs (male/female, intact or neutered, immature/mature, in heat), their age, their size, the number of dogs involved, and the environment in which the encounter is occurring. All of these items are being factored by the individual dogs, who filter it through their own past experience, their core personality, and the characteristics of their owner before deciding how to act. And to think that some people believe dogs aren’t that smart – heck, that kind of information processing to arrive at a “proper response” would require one or two really powerful computers.

Needless to say, I am not as smart as that, and could not possibly address all the subtle nuances listed above to explain the interplay of an “on leash” encounter. Instead, I’ll just tackle the basics regarding what role a leash plays with basic canine behavior.

Dog Behavior and Leashes

The first thing to get a grasp on is the greeting behavior and its purpose in a natural state (i.e. between 2 dogs that are by themselves and not restricted by leashes). Dogs may have ancestors that are pretty confident predators, but they didn’t rise to the top of the food chain by being careless. So, greeting another being on face-to-face terms is an opportunity to learn whether they are prey, adversary, or friend, and to be prepared to take a proper response. These include the options of chase/hunt, fight or flight if there is a conflict, or socialization/play. Some dogs can see better than others, but most of them have determined long before they get up close that the being they are approaching is, in fact, another dog; occasionally, if the other dog is small and is running, it may elicit prey behavior in the dog, but most of the time they have narrowed down the categories to either friend or foe. Now, to make their best judgments, they have to get in close and smell out the situation; this leads to the sometimes prolonged (and often embarrassing to some owners) sniffing behavior of various body regions. Again, the variation on this can be quite enormous, and is determined by how confident, fearful, or submissive a dog is, whether it is already familiar with the other dog or not, and whether it wants to really socialize with another dog at that moment (some dogs would rather be with people than their own kind, and will give hardly a sniff to another dog, but will fawn endlessly in front a person). It is important to notice that some dogs will really move around a lot during this greeting process; they are in a high state of alert, and are prepared in a split second to flee if they learn from the other dog’s behavior or smells that there is going to be a fight. With 2 dogs exhibiting the same degree of anxiety, the interaction starts to resemble a dance, each moving around the other, until finally one or the other is satisfied the situation is ok and can relax.

The second factor that shades this greeting behavior is the dog’s individual personality. Dogs do not want to fight; they are evolved from packs, and a social structure can’t very well be maintained if everyone is fighting all the time. Thus, the greeting is a way to understand where everyone in that particular social setting ranks, which then carries with it the guidelines to proper behavior to be shown in all their interactions. It is not a set-in-stone linear hierarchy; rankings may change depending on the situation, in subtle ways that most humans cannot appreciate. But for simplicity’s sake, one could compare it to a military outfit; once everyone figures out who the generals, corporals, sergeants and privates are, it’s easy to follow the rules of conduct. This not only is serving to the more dominant members, who get all the respect and perks of their position, but also to the more submissive members, who are usually treated well and fall under the protective umbrella of the leaders, reducing their fears and allowing them to relax.

The Role a Leash Plays in Dog Behavior

So, now let’s see what a leash does. First, a leash is restrictive; it limits the dog’s options in response to potential danger to just a fight response, since a 6 to 10 foot radius is not considered much of a flight zone. Dogs that have spent any more than 5 minutes on a leash quickly figure out that the playing field is no longer level, that they are at a disadvantage. When feeling “cornered” or limited, they are heightened in their sensitivity to potential danger, knowing that if things go wrong, they will likely have to fight. Thus, when they enter into a greeting situation, they are primed for the worse (which makes sense, since instinctively, it is an act of survival), and may over-react to any sign at all that the other dog might want to fight it. And dogs are not perfect in their conveyance of their intentions; the other dog might be trying to convey that it is friendly, but perhaps one or two of its signals show anxiety, and looked at individually, could be misinterpreted. The dog on leash, in its heightened sensitivity to possibly needing to fight, would be most likely to misinterpret these anxious signals as being aggressive, and ignore all the friendly ones. It might then strike first, in anticipation that it is about to be attacked, and thus start a fight that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred.

The second thing that a leash does is attach the dog to the owner; thus, the owner’s personality will influence the dog’s response during greeting. Dogs are very influenced by their “pack” and when tethered to a person, are immediately put into a pack mentality. As a pack member, it has a specific role to all situations, including during the greeting of new individuals. Thus, the dog’s response will depend on how the dog views its ranking compared to the person they are attached. If the dog thinks it is ranked lower than the person, it can be a little more relaxed, since it is assured that its protector is there in case things get out of hand. This would be akin to a person walking down the street with Superman; one could be pretty relaxed and could greet everyone encountered with confidence, no matter how scary the environment, knowing one had a superhero right there to get out of any jams. However, if the dog is not confident of the person on leash, or has been made to feel like it is actually the leader (which is what people often convey to their dogs when they view the dog as being “security”), then the dog is forced to determine whether something might be a threat to not only itself, but also to the person on the other end of the leash. This puts it on that heightened state of alert, again, which as previously described, can lead to over-reaction and fight behavior.

Our Experienced Veterinarians Can Help with Dog Leash Training Issues

If your canine companion is experiencing any anxiety, discomfort or unusual behavior, our Veterinarians are here to help. We have decades of experience with leash trained dogs, and can help you get to the root of any leash training issues your dog may be having.

Call our Veterinarians today at 310-536-9654.

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