Imagine yourself being afraid of roller coasters.  Having a fear so overwhelming that if you ever find yourself in the position of taking a ride, you have a hard time even thinking straight.  You persevere through all the twists and turns and you finally and very thankfully find yourself coming to a halt.  Then imagine someone becoming angry with you, yelling for you to not be so afraid and even going as far as physically punishing you for your fears.  It is a sure bet that you would not find this kind of approach helpful.
Now lets take a look at this scenario as it pertains to dogs and their fears.

Some fears are more obvious than others and many dog owners find themselves being quite patient while Sparky steers clear of balloons or men with beards.  These fears seem to be more in tune with what we humans can relate to.  We find ourselves being patient with an under confident dog who puts on a fearful front but can we find it in ourselves to understand how fear can manifest itself in our canine friends in other ways.  

Dogs who lunge out at other dogs are often (and quite commonly) fearful.  While this may look like aggressive behavior initially, upon examining it closer we often find the roots lie in a dog’s lack of confidence.  The history of the person and their treatment of the dog during the initial stages of this fear may also play a part.

Commonly, owners tell off dogs that lunge out at other dogs.  They are verbally reprimanded and often have their collars yanked.  The dog owner may even resort to more physical correction as the lunging escalates.  The thought behind this may be well intended, but this type of reaction on the part of the people only has a negative effect.
The occurrence of dogs that are reactive towards other dogs, especially on the street, seems to be increasing.  This could be due to the fact there are simply more dogs out and about or it could be that dogs tend to feel the added stresses that add up to daily life.  It is important to make a decision to work on helping these dogs feel more confident on their daily walks and to work towards changing their mind.  We would like them to feel that the approach of other dogs is non threatening.

How do we go about this challenging exercise?

One problem is that the dogs that lack confidence often have the start of that problem inside their homes.  There are many different types of dog/human relationships.  There are those dogs that would love to have the job of pack leader and their owner, probably without realizing it, simply hands over the job.  Then there are dogs that would love the job of pack leader and their people are more aware of the situation. Then there is the group of dogs who really never wanted the job.  They don’t feel qualified to do it but have it given to them by people who are not taking on the job of pack leader themselves.  In this case, you will find these dogs going out for a walk and they may not feel they have enough back up.  They lack the confidence needed to greet the other dogs, or to even face the great outdoors, and they often display this by vocalizing and lunging.  This may be an attempt to have the dogs stay away, a defensive action.  

Now, lets look back on the history of this type of dog and his owner.  The first time they go out for a walk when their dog displays this reactive side, the owner will attempt to diffuse the situation in one of two ways.  Either the person will try to comfort their dog and settle them down or they will try to stop the behavior by being physical.  When the dog owner attempts to soothe the dog by stroking and telling the dog that everything is all right, they are in effect telling their dog that his behavior is all right.  

This could lead to the behavior occurring more frequently as the dog perceives the stroking as a reward.  The second way of dealing with it is similar to getting angry with someone for being afraid of a roller coaster.  It simply ends up making the fear worse or at the very least, not being helpful.

The way to successfully help these dogs is to assume a leadership role in the house.  To do this you can start by making sure you say what you mean and mean what you say.  In a nutshell, be consistent.  If you ask the dog to sit, then follow through by nicely placing it into position and rewarding it accordingly.  Treat and praise your dog for a job well done, not simply because he has nice velvety ears.  Try your best to set up some household rules and follow through with them.  Some examples of this are - your dog is not allowed near the table while you are eating, doesn’t use your couch as his bed or is not allowed to lounge in-between doorways.

Second, you must start to make an association between the dog walking on the street and good things happening.  Let’s change the dog’s mind.  First, create some distance between your dog and the approaching dog and start feeding him.  Continue to feed him as long as he is paying close attention to you.  As soon as he reacts, discontinue the food.  While this may seem a bit confusing to some, let me assure you that you are not treating the dog for the lunging.  You are treating before the lunge begins.  You want to tell your dog in a way he can understand, that cool things happen for him when a dog walks by.  Practice this a few times a day with fabulously tasty treats.  

Once your dog is sitting by your side and allowing dogs to walk past without reaction, you can then progress to walking your dog and treating him after he passes the other dog.  Go slowly and be patient.  Remember that you are trying to undo his fear and that may take some time.  The use of a head halter during this time is very helpful. It will provide some much needed focus.

Remember, just because a dog has a tendency towards being reactive does not necessarily deem him aggressive and by committing to these exercises you have given him a great chance at recovery.

The Dunbar Academy Top Dog Academy – 4 books, 13 videos, 9 seminars and workshops