You may often hear people say “my dog is fine with other dogs, they’re only dog aggressive when on lead

When two dogs interact off leash, they are free to move around each other, advancing, retreating, sniffing body parts, sometimes movements are slow, sometimes quick, giving the other dog subtle body language, using distance as a way, to keep safe…

So, if they were to meet on lead, they are inhibited by the leash, one moves the other gets trapped by the leash, knowing they can’t retreat they may growl and snap to signal to the other dog to move away, who is unable to, so frustration, arousal and aggression and a fight breaks out, all this can be avoided. It is so important to maintain loose leads as much as possible as leashes can interfere with a dog’s normal social interaction, be watchful of your dog while they are interacting, what you hope to see is the following: Initially (this is from a distance) the dogs should be interested in each other, without excessive arousal (lunging, barking, pulling on the lead etc)…ideally tails should be relaxed and wagging half mast, with soft wriggling body postures, squinting eyes, ears back, no direct eye contact, and play bows, these are all indications of a social invitation…if you observe this behaviour then proceed closer until the dogs are approx 3/4 metre apart, if they continue to show signs of wanting to still interact and their body language hasn’t changed then drop the leads (make sure they are still attached) and allow the interaction to happen. This then allows you to easily grab the leads and separate the dogs if required.

They may jockey for position and there may be a bit of rigidity in their body language but only very subtle, as they circle and sniff and hopefully break into play. If they do bottom to bottom sniffing and each dog is allowed, to reciprocate, this is an indication of acceptance. If you are comfortable and play is relaxed and even, then remove the leads. It is also important to remove the dogs regularly from play, so that you are able to maintain calm, don’t allow arousal levels to get too high. If a dog is regularly removed from play then they will be more accepting of this process and will be less likely to redirect onto you when removed from a dangerous situation.

A tight lead can stiffen and raise the dog’s front end, making the dog appear more tense and provocative than they mean to be, which then can lead to the other dog being offensive, then this makes the dog feeling trapped and often will display aggression as a way of communicating ‘give me space’, ‘go away’. If the dog is unable to retreat then the situation can very quickly get worse and then you have two reactive dogs on lead.

It is very evident to see the warning signs as you approach another dog when your dog is on lead, your calm dog changes to a reactive, frustrated and trapped individual… please do not tighten the lead and reprimand your dog, the best thing you can do is move away, give them space… before they have time to react, because if they learn to lunge and growl and the other dog retreats, it reinforces ‘this behaviour worked to make the dog go away‘. What you don’t want to observe is prolonged hard engaging eye contact, (that is hard to avert), also stiffness in the body, tension in the mouth and ears, tail high and either moving very fast or very slowly, (fast is high arousal), this could go either way…try to gain contact with your dogs eye to diffuse the situation and move them away to where they are more relaxed.

If you have to let two dogs play on lead, which I don’t really advise for a number of reasons, please maintain a loose lead. This technique is not appropriate for dogs that want to run and chase as someone is inevitably going to get hurt, either dog or human. Please don’t let your dog engage in play with a dog on a check chain, equipment can get caught, and this can lead to frustration… arousal… and on lead aggression… also dogs can suffocate.

Dogs can also associate being on lead as a negative, this could be associated with a particular person handling the lead, or alternatively when on lead, a dog may have more confidence by having their owner next to them, giving them the confidence to act aggressively. Also the stress of the human can also add to the stress of the dog on lead, thus pushing them over threshold. So to end, on lead play really isn’t ideal at all and all dog to dog interactions should be initially monitored to make sure that the dogs are truly compatible playmates.

References Pat Miller


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