Since proposing Leash Aggression as a chat topic to IAABC, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I think about it. And I’ve been doing my best to organize my thoughts into easy-to-type bits.

As an urban trainer, I assess and address leash reactivity on a regular basis, and over the years my opinions and strategies have evolved with experience, including many successes, a few notable failures, and all the cases that will forever live somewhere in between.

First order of business is the assessment, which varies from case to case depending on time and logistics, but should always include some determination of what contexts tend to trigger aggression/reactivity, as well as some evaluation of the relative influence of various factors.

Context includes location, identity of handler, relationship to handler, identity of trigger, proximity and behavior of trigger, handling methods and equipment, and stimulation level prior to reaction.

Depending on one’s history taking procedure, one may be able to determine all or most of the above without actually meeting the dog, and may focus one’s face-to-face time more exclusively on the nuances and relative significance of each individual element.

In the interview, the trainer should stay alert to home brewed analysis offered as fact. Statements like, “My dog hates men,” or “He’s just fearful/protective/dominant,” may or may not bear some relation to reality. When I interview clients, I try to steer them toward the objective delivery of useful data. I offer prompts like, “Tell me what you saw,” and “Describe what that looked like,” and ask follow-up questions such as “Does your dog react this way to [fill in the blank] consistently or randomly?”

After collecting background information, it’s time to look at each factor and identify the most important.  Suppose a dog presents with a history of aggression toward men when handled by his female owner on walks in their neighborhood. Possible factors might include

  1. The dog’s “baseline” attitude toward men (absent other factors)
  2. The owner’s attitude toward men
  3. Proximity and behavior of trigger (men) in relation to dog or owner
  4. The dog’s relationship to owner
  5. The owner’s handling habits/methods (including tools used)
  6. Location (dog’s perceived territory?)
  7. Dog’s arousal level/lack of self-control
  8. Dog’s temperament

The business of determining which factors are most relevant is fairly straightforward, but require some amount of flexibility and resources. I mainly conduct evaluations at my training facility, which allows me to assess the dog on neutral territory, potentially away from the owner, thereby isolating the presumed trigger and providing total control over its proximity and behavior.

One thing I’m normally adamant about, is not deliberately generating the reactive behavior, either in the context of my initial consultation or maybe ever. This has to do both with my role as a behavior consultant and trainer, as well as my experience dealing with reactive dogs. It’s been my experience that most dogs may be adequately assessed sub-threshold, and that it’s most productive, particularly in the beginning, to keep them that way. Mainly, I think one needs to be clear going in, as to whether the goal is to see “how bad” versus “how trainable” is the dog. Because the two are sometimes incompatible.

NOTE: I happened to choose aggression toward men as my example, although I expect the upcoming chat to focus mainly on dog-dog reactivity. The same principles of assessment apply either way.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.