Stopping a Dog From Staring to Stop Him From Barking and Lunging at Other Dogs

By: David Codr

Published Date: April 30, 2015

Trumpet and Messi

For my last California session this month, I worked with Trumpet (left) a 7 year old female Bichon Frise and Messi is a 5 year old male Golden Doodle who live in the Pacific Palisades.

Their guardian called me in to put a stop to the barking, lunging and pseudo aggressive behavior the dogs show when out for walks around other dogs.

When I met the dogs in person, it was clear that Messi was a little insecure while Trumpet though very highly of herself.

I sat down with their family to discuss the situation and what they wanted to accomplish in the session. During this discussion I learned that the dogs did not have many rules or boundaries they were expected to follow. While this can work well with a single dog, jealousy and rivalries can develop when you have multiple dogs living together.

I have found adding rules, boundaries and structure can eliminate many unwanted dog problems. I suggested a few easy rules such as having to sit and wait for the guardian to give permission before they can go through an open door.

I also went through a leadership exercise to help define the leader follower dynamic in the home. We started out with Trumpet who picked up on the exercise faster than any dog I have ever worked with.

On the other end of the spectrum was Messi. While he is a big boy, he showed a big lack of confidence when we attempted to do this exercise with him. Its pretty common for dogs who are on the insecure side to get a little withdrawn when running through this exercise, but I have never seen a dog react like he did. He simply removed himself from the area and refused to come back.

After spending close to a half hour going through various variations of the exercise without success, I decided to change things up and work on a basic recall exercise instead. I had the members of the family arrange themselves in a circle around the room and we took turns calling Messi over.

The recall exercise proved to be problematic as well, but not to the same extent. Messi didnt look up when called, even when it was done repeatedly. His family thought that Trumpet’s presence may be influencing him so they put her in another room and we continued. Unfortunately removing trumpet did little to help.

Eventually I had the family relocate to a smaller space and put Trumpet into another room. At first we got the same response, but after a few moments, Trumpet started barking from the other room which was distracting Messi. I left the room to stop the barking and when the barking stopped while I was gone, the family made progress with Messi.

I suggested that they practice the recall exercise with Messi a few times a day for the next week or two. Not only will this improve his recall, his mastery of the exercise will lead to a boost in self esteem and confidence. Something that Messi needs big time.

Since the big issue for the family was the dog’s behavior when they see other dogs out on a walk, we fitted the dogs up with leashes and headed out for a walk. It took a little while, but we finally found a woman out walking her dogs a block away form Messi’s home. Their guardian seemed a bit cautious telling me that the woman’s dogs usually reacted pretty angrily when they see Messi and Trumpet on a walk.

As soon as they saw the other dogs, Messi and Trumpet started barking and getting over excited with Messi rearing up on her hind legs like a bucking horse. I took the leash and demonstrated how to correct Messi and disagree with the behavior. When using a leash to correct a dog, its important to tug it to the side in a quick motion and not backwards. Pulling back on a dog’s leash usually generates a forward pulling motion from the dog where a side tug breaks a dog’s focus on whatever its reacting to. Its also important that the leash goes slack immediately after applying the correction as a dog will always pull against a tense leash.

I asked Messi’s guardian to wait down the street and went over to ask the woman walking the dogs if we could practice walking by them. The woman was concerned explaining that her dogs were aggressive and that she didnt think it would be a good idea. When I explained we would only walk by across the street from her dogs, she agreed to wait so we could practice walking by.

I took the leash and demonstrated how to guide the dog and correct it before it started to really react. They key was breaking Messi’s staring at the other dogs. Dogs can easily get into trouble when they focus on the visual. Dogs are scent creatures so the best way for them to meet another dogs is using their nose.

Any time Messi started to try to stare the other dogs down (staring at another dog can be interpreted as a challenge), I gave a quick tug on the leash to break his focus off of them. Despite the excited territorial barking and lunging from the other dogs, Messi was able to walk past them without barking at all.

After explaining how and when to deliver this correction to Messi’s guardian, I handed the leash back to her so she could practice the technique. I coached Messi’s guardian from a bit from a distance as I wanted her to have the experience of walking her dogs calmly next to these barking dogs on her own.

Messi’s owner did an amazing job, walking big Messi past these other dogs as they barked their tails off. Because the timing of her corrections were so precise, Messi didn’t bark or react at all as she walked them by. I waved her to walk back past them and when she got the same reaction, I could see a surprised / happy expression from her. I love seeing that look on my client’s faces.

I wanted to repeat the process again and get Messi closer to the dogs in a safe way. I went over and asked the woman if I could hold the leashes to her dogs for the next walk past. The woman said it wouldn’t be a good idea and went on to say she was pretty sure they would bite me if I got close enough.

While her dogs were reactive, I didnt get an aggressive vibe from them so I approached them in a way I knew would be non threatening. Within 20 seconds, I was petting and playing with both dogs. She handed me the leashes and I had Messi’s guardian pass by again, but this time I corrected the other dogs as soon as they started to bark.

I had Messi’s owner get closer and closer on each pass until they were about 4 feet away. Once she got to that distance without any of the dogs barking, I had her put Messi into a sit. Messi took the sit command the best possible way, sitting with her back to the other dogs. When a dog offers its back to another dog, its a clear indicator that it is comfortable and does not consider the other dogs a threat.

I thanked the woman and we went off in search of other dogs to practice with. In each situation, Messi’s guardian was easily able to walk Messi by the other dogs without any reaction or barking by correcting him the second he started to stare at the other dogs.

At first, I had their guardian correct Messi any time he looked in the direction of the other dog. But as we practiced I saw his body relax which was another sign that he was gaining confidence that his handler had the situation under control. When you have a reactive dog, helping it learn that it doesn’t need to defend itself in a big part of fixing the problem.

As he gained confidence, I started to have Messi’s handler allow him to look at the other dogs provided he didn’t lower his head or engage in staring. Looking is fine. Staring, especially with a lowered head or tense body is not.

On our walk we practiced walking by several dogs including one off leash Greyhound, but Messi and her handlers did an outstanding job. They needed to correct Messi less and less as we practiced and when they did, his response to the correction was immediate.

By the time we returned to the family home, Messi and Trumpet were completely calm, listening to their owners and watching them with a relaxed and respectful body language.

This is not the end of Messi’s reacting to other dogs. Its going to take time and practice from his family for this transformation to become his new default behavior. It will be important they continue to practice walking him near other dogs in a controlled way while correcting and disagreeing with him when he starts to stare.

As Messi gains experience from successful walks (where he doesn’t bark or react as he used to), he will learn to accept and not feel threatened by their presence knowing that his handler has the situation under control.

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This post was written by: David Codr