We know that walking a dog is supposed to be a fun way to get exercise – good for both the human and the dog, at least in theory. But if you have a dog that lunges aggressively while out on the walk, it’s not only “not fun” – but it can be outright dangerous to yourself, your dog and others. Some of the most common targets that dogs lunge at include: other dogs; other animals (birds, squirrels, rabbits, stray cats, etc.); vehicles (sometimes any, sometimes specific, such as trucks or motorcycles); lawn equipment and people (joggers, skateboarders, bicyclists are common).
Trust me, a lunging dog is not fun. I’ve worked with owners and their reactive dogs, worked with reactive dogs in shelter settings, taken reactive dogs to foster and have a reactive dog that I am working with – and I’ve even taken one to Cesar Millan, of The Dog Whisperer television show, to work with. My first reactive dog experience occurred while I was just a youth; my normally friendly thirty-five-pound family dog saw a horse tied up to a mailbox. For some reason, she decided that the horse was a threat. Like most owners, I found that first transformation from happy-go-lucky dog to raging-lunatic-at-end-of-leash to be quite a shock. As an individual who trains and volunteers, I’ve gotten pretty used to the raging lunatic when a dog reacts. But that doesn’t mean one can ignore that reaction.
When you’ve got a lunging dog on the other end of the leash, you’ve got a problem that requires your attention. Not every dog owner realizes this, particularly when the dog is either a small-breed or a young puppy of any breed, an all-too-frequent reaction is “isn’t that cute?” because the assumption is that a small dog can’t do any damage and a young puppy will “magically” outgrow the problem.
Unfortunately, dogs don’t “magically” outgrow problems – and although small dogs have smaller bites, they can still do significant damage. Whether you are the owner or someone who regularly handles the dog, you have a responsibility to manage – and hopefully resolve – the problem. A lunging dog can break free of the owner, bite others, dash into streets and cause car accidents and generally be a cause of chaos.
Owners of “Leash-Lungers” basically have a handful of options. They can (1) stop walking the dog, hoping that they won’t have a problem when they take the dog for regular vet visits; (2) keep walking the dog but ignore the problem, hoping that it doesn’t get worse and that no one ever gets hurt; (3) imitate Pontius Pilate’s “not my problem” by giving the dog away, hoping that the next owner can “fix the problem”; (4) euthanize the dog, believing that the problem is unsolvable; or (5) address the problem by engaging in obedience training and/or rehabilitative behavioral correction and practicing better handling skills.
Pros and Cons of the Options
- If you stop walking the dog, unless your dog is so old that you were basically carrying him on the walks, you had better plan on finding some other way for your dog to get exercise. You might be able to get away with this if you have a large yard and are willing to invest time in the yard to bond and exercise your dog. Dogs generally use the walk to release energy, to learn about their world, to keep in shape and to bond with their owners. If you have a medium-to-high energy dog and restrict his world to an apartment, house or small yard, you’ll find out just how fast a dog can get the canine equivalent of cabin fever.
- If you walk the dog but ignore the problem, there’s a fair chance that the problem will get worse. One day, your dog may become so frustrated that he may turn and re-direct his aggression on you. Of course, you always run the risk that your dog will break free from you during a moment of aggression, in which case, everyone is at risk. Ignoring the problem is not a solution.
- Giving the dog away doesn’t really solve the problem; it just moves the problem to someone else – assuming that you, yourself, aren’t contributing to the problem in the first place. If this is the option you choose, be sure to be very upfront and direct with whoever you are giving your dog to regarding the problems you’ve encountered. Explain in detail what you believe sets your dog off, what you have tried to change the situation, what didn’t work at all and what seemed to work, if even only a bit.
- Unfortunately, there are some cases where the dog may need to be euthanized but only you, the owner, can make that call. While euthanizing a dog is a quick and relatively easy solution for the human, the dog is paying the ultimate price. Be sure that before you commit to this course of action that you have really done everything you can. Have the vet run blood panels and evaluate the dog to be sure there isn’t a medical cause to the aggression. Have a behaviorist evaluate the dog to see if the dog can be rehabilitated.
- Addressing the problem is generally the best option, because if you can get past the aggressive lunging problem, you may find that you have a rather wonderful companion in your dog. It will certainly require some work on your part, and in fact, may require work on everyone in the household who interacts with the dog.
Can an aggressive leash-lunging dog be trained to walk appropriately on the leash? Generally, the answer is “yes”. The question of how to get to that point is the subject of my next article.
About the author: Sharon McCuddy is the author of the “Lucky Dog” article series, which includes the above article. In part, the author draws on her experiences as a dog owner, rescuer and dog foster home to provide educational articles in the Lucky Dog series. Readers are strongly encouraged to consult with their veterinarian for any medical related issues, and to use the information provided in the articles as a basis for self-education as a responsible dog owner.