Q: In this episode, you demonstrated how changing over from a cable and prong collar to a simple rope lead immediately reduced a dog’s aggression. Can you elaborate on why this works?
A: A major cause of problems people have when walking their dogs comes from too much tension on the leash, especially for large, powerful breeds. The leash isn’t just a physical connection between the dog and the human. It’s a psychological connection, and the energy state of the human travels right down that leash to the dog. Dogs have a natural reaction to being pulled backwards by their neck. They pull forward. This is how they get working dogs to pull things like sleds and carts, but it’s not what you want when you’re just trying to go for a walk.
Ideally, the leash should be slack and the dog should be next to or just behind you. When I tell people this, I often get the same response: “I can’t do that because my dog starts pulling immediately and I have to pull back.”
That’s where they make the mistake — the dog pulls on the leash, the human pulls back, and the dog pulls harder. When a dog pulls on the leash, the key is to not pull back and not move forward. Stop walking and relax. If the dog stops moving but doesn’t feel tension on the leash, it will relax and this will help bring its focus back to you. This is also important to remember when making corrections with the lead — always pull to the side or up, and never back.
Q: You mention frustration as a cause of aggression in dogs, but what causes frustration?
A: For dogs, it’s a lack of physical and mental stimulation, and a lack of leadership. This is why my fulfillment formula is “Exercise, Discipline, and then Affection — in that order.”
Exercise is important because it lowers the dog’s energy level, while discipline stimulates their mind. Combine the two, and it’s called playing a game, whether it’s fetch, agility training, or search and rescue practice. The affection comes after because a dog needs to earn it first.
Now, when I say the dog needs to earn it, I mean it’s really the dog who needs and wants to earn that affection. This comes from their pack nature, when the job part of it was assisting in the hunt and the reward — the dog version of affection — was a share of the prey after the job was done. We generally don’t let our dogs hunt anymore because they don’t need to, but the process of going on a walk together is exactly like the pack roaming its territory to hunt for food.
Leadership by the humans is important in eliminating frustration because a dog that doesn’t have a strong leader will try to take on the role themselves. The problem is that most dogs are not naturally born leaders, so they don’t know what they’re supposed to do in that situation. It would be the same as if you were suddenly taken to the Oval Office and told, “Okay, you’re the president now.” Most people would have no idea what to do next and the results would probably be pretty disastrous.
Q: At one point, you used your llama, Lorenzo, to help out. Can people really learn how to find balance with their dogs by working with other animals?
A: Absolutely. A llama is great for this because most people have never met one before and it can be intimidating. Lorenzo is very tall, and very friendly. When he meets a new human, the first thing he does is get right in their face to take a sniff. He also likes to lean on people. But llamas don’t bite or kick and, despite their reputation, a well-socialized llama rarely spits at people. But people can learn how to have calm energy through lots of other animals, which is why I have them at the Dog Psychology Center — my horse, chickens, ducks, a tortoise, and now a macaw.
Because these animals are not as familiar to people who live in the city, it puts a person in their dog’s place because they don’t know what the animal is going to do except by reading its emotional state by observing its energy and body language.
It’s all about getting back in touch with Nature and learning to use your instincts.
Q: Tell us more about the touch you perform by using your foot.
A: A touch is exactly what it is, and I can do it with my foot, my leg, or my hand. It just depends on the circumstances and the size of the dog. The idea is that once a dog has gone beyond a certain energy level — five on a ten point scale — sound won’t be effective at redirecting the dog’s focus. A touch will get the dog’s attention, block the excitement, and redirect them. And remember that the key word is “touch.” It’s not a strike or a hit. You’re only trying to get the dog’s attention, not provoke a reaction.
It’s the same thing, really, as touching someone’s arm to get their attention at a crowded, noisy party. I know that some people complain when I use my foot and they say that I’m kicking the dog, but nothing could be further from the truth. Kicking an excited dog would give you exactly the opposite result from what you intended, and would probably make that dog aggressive toward you.
Dogs use touch on each other all the time. A dominant dog will physically nudge another dog out of the way, and when a mother is training her puppies, she uses touch all the time, especially with her muzzle and teeth — this is why, when I use my hand to do it, I touch the dog with two fingers and my thumb. It feels like the mother’s canine teeth and gets the dog’s attention.
Q: Is it a common problem for dogs to be aggressive towards things on wheels, like bicyclists and rollerbladers?
A: Yes, because something going by fast can trigger the prey drive, especially in an excited dog. It’s not just things with wheels. Some dogs will also try to chase joggers or cars.
The key is to re-direct or block the dog’s focus before it goes into prey mode, and to establish your position as Pack Leader by making your dog walk next to or behind you. When the dog is out in front, then it will take charge, and this will manifest itself by chase behavior, which is just the dog’s way of protecting the pack and leading the hunt. Remember: the dogs at the front of the pack are there to provide protection and direction. If you aren’t the one in front, then your dog will be trying to do both.