Someone recently contacted me about a problem. When out walking in the park with their small, usually good-natured dog, their pet became noisily aggressive with every other dog that came close to him.
This problem is known as "lead reactivity": it's due to fear of other dogs. If the small dog was not on the leash, they would be able to simply run away, but because the leash stops them from doing this, they are effectively cornered. Defensive aggression is the only way that the frightened dog feels that they can deal with the situation.
A specific technique is used to solve this. The owner needs to identify their pet's reaction threshold i.e. how close dogs can come without the animal getting upset. They then need to train their pet to receive rewards for calmly looking at unfamiliar dogs that are just further away than this. They need to repeat this, over and over again, rewarding their pet for being calm when other dogs are just far enough away that they don't feel frightened. Over time, this distance is reduced, as long as their pet stays calm. If they do this, the nervous dog should gradually get used to strange dogs coming closer without getting upset.
Another answer involves taking the nervous dog to a doggy daycare centre: if they have plenty of friendly contact with other dogs in a relaxed environment, they will gradually learn that there's nothing to be so frightened of, and that their aggression is unnecessary.
So that's how you solve the problem, but why do dogs get so anxious about other dogs in the first place? Can this be prevented from developing?
In some cases, this type of fear can follow a one-off bad incident: if a dog is attacked by a passing animal, they will naturally be fearful of other dogs that come close to them. It's hard to stop this, and the best you can do is to make sure that you take time after a dog attack to reassure your pet, and to help them gain confidence with other dogs again
But there is another reason why dogs can be anxious: poor socialisation of puppies. This is the most common cause, and it's one that is easy to prevent: pups need to be well socialised when young.
When dogs are young, they have a golden period of easy socialisation, from birth to around 4 months of age. During these first sixteen weeks of life, puppies' brains are geared to be accepting of new experiences, learning about their surroundings. If young pups are exposed to a wide range of sights and sounds, and a selection of people, animals and places, they will learn that all of these different aspects of daily life are normal and harmless. They will then grow into adult dogs that are not afraid of people or dogs.
If, on the other hand, puppies are reared in isolation, without meeting people or animals, and without experiencing different situations, they are more likely to grow up to be nervous, tense dogs who become aggressive when faced with any new experience.
This is one of the main reasons why puppy farms are such bad news. Pups may grow up in an isolated environment, such as a bare shed with straw bedding, and only their mother and siblings around them. They only get limited exposure to social stimulation, and they then grow up to be dogs that are anxious and perhaps aggressive in their daily lives.
A recent study by the Guide Dogs in the UK proved the value of early socialisation of puppies. Six litters of puppies took part in the study. Each litter was divided into two groups with one half receiving basic socialisation and the second group being given special enhanced exposure to new experiences.
The puppies were reviewed at six weeks and then at eight months old: they were tested on a range of traits including excitability, separation anxiety, and distractibility.
The results were significant: by six weeks the puppies on the enhanced training were already showing increased responsiveness and confidence with people, and by eight months they were far less anxious and much easier to train.
The "enhanced socialisation" used specific methods, which changed as the pups grew older.
Puppies are born blind and deaf, so the first two weeks of life, the focus was touch. Handlers offered comforting strokes, cuddles and comb the puppies' fur with a soft toothbrush to help them bond with humans. They also wrapped them in different materials so that they became familiar with fabrics like wool, fleece and nylon.
Between two and four weeks, the pups were allowed to walk on different floor surfaces such as concrete and rubber. They were exposed to everyday sounds such as mobile phones, TV and washing machines.
In week five and six, the puppies were allowed outside to begin exploring, and they met men with beards and moustaches, as well as people wearing hats and sunglasses. Trainers also opened and closed umbrellas in front of the pups and placed them in front of mirrors so that they learned about their own reflections.
Enhanced socialisation of puppies is easy to do and it works well: if you know anyone who is rearing puppies, make sure that they do it. If they do, those pups will turn out to be calmer and happier adult dogs.