En Garde

Originally Posted October 13, 2013

I have been noticing a trend lately in handling new dogs who arrive in class.  The people handling these dogs arrive with their dogs leading them into the training hall, often straining on leash.  Sometimes when these folks come in, they take their dog to the toilet area and their dogs stand facing away from the handler, often staring intently at another dog or student.  Sometimes the people will stand chatting with a family member while the dog stands, stiff and staring, or even quietly growling.  Usually the handler is disengaged from their dog, and rarely is the handler aware of the situation they have created by the manner in which they are handling their dog.



When this is what I see coming into class I worry, not only because the dog has learned to pull on leash, but because the dog may also be learning to guard the handler.  Image credit: steveball / 123RF Stock Photo


Many of my students have come to class because their dogs have learned to pull on leash and they want to stop that behaviour from continuing.  Better yet they would like to teach their dogs not to pull.  One thing that people often don’t think about is what else they have inadvertently taught their dogs by permitting them to lead them out or to drag them into the training hall.  This is most common in breeds from the guarding, terrier and mastiff groups, but I have seen even spaniels and retrievers learn this unintentional lesson; how to guard.  I had a student this past spring come to class because people were crossing the street to avoid her and her supposedly gentle dog.  When I first encountered her in the parking lot of my training hall, she was sitting in her car with her dog out in front of her, and her leash wrapped several times around her wrist.  Her dog was leaning away from her and staring at anyone who happened along.  The dog, a bully breed, appeared confident, and absolutely unapproachable.  He barked precisely once, and then the hair on his back went up, indicating to me that he was highly aroused and likely to bite if I were to approach.  Everything about this dog told me not to approach and that he would be very willing to bite.

The mantra in the dog training world is that all aggression stems from fear.  Sadly this is not true.  Much aggression stems from fear, but I am encountering more and more dogs who are confidently aggressive.  they know what they want and they are willing to use threats and intimidation and if necessary their teeth to get what they want.  How does that develop?  Sometimes it develops when a handler teaches the dog that pulling gets what he wants, that staring makes people yield space, and that guarding what they have means more attention for them.  This is exacerbated if the dog is at all timid and his behaviour causes events to unfold in his favour.  This is a recipe for teaching a mildly timid dog to be more confident, in a very dangerous manner.


When I see a dog behaving like this, I believe the dog; she WILL bite.  She is telling me that she will bite.  I can see the whites of her eyes, she is staring hard, the corners of her mouth are all pulled in and her tongue is drawn deep into her mouth.  Dogs can learn this all from being held back on leash; it is in fact how some guard dogs are taught to bite.  Image credit: wollertz / 123RF Stock Photo


The other scenario where I see this guarding behaviour develop is when the handler shortens the leash up to about 18 inches and walks his or her dog in very tight heel position.  This position makes the dog very vulnerable because the dog cannot avoid either staring forward or being handled by passers-by.  Not only that, but it tips the dog’s balance backwards onto his hind quarters, putting him physically into a position that encourages lunging in the event that you allow the leash to become loose again.  In point of fact this is one of the positions that guard dogs are placed in to encourage a good driving bite.

So what exactly do I mean by guarding?  When the dog has his back to a resource (often the handler) and then leans forward in such a way that he could lunge, while staring at someone or a dog with a direct, hard, intense gaze, I identify that as guarding.  Piloerection, or hair standing on the back of the dog’s neck and back indicates that the dog is highly aroused and not likely to make great choices.  When the dog pulls his tongue in and puckers his mouth, I know that the dog really means business and even if he has not bitten yet, he is willing to do so and preparing his body to do that.  When the dog is restrained by a leash, all these signs are often amplified.  If the handler suddenly lets go of the leash, then the dog is released on a predetermined pathway and will most likely follow through on his threat.


This dog is being trained to bite, intentionally.  If you aren’t thinking about how you handle your leash, you can replicate this scenario exactly without intending to teach your dog to be aggressive.  Image credit: brezina123 / 123RF Stock Photo

I see these scenarios play out daily at work and I am especially concerned when we are talking about young dogs who are just learning about the world.  The thing to understand is that when you and your dog are walking out together, you should both be, by choice, together.  A leash should be like a mountaineer’s safety rope; available if needed but not tight and bearing weight.  A leash should not look like the string from a bow pulled taut to transfer the maximum amount of energy forward.

When looking at a dog on leash, I am looking at a template for the relationship that the dog and the person have together.  When I see a handler and dog walking together with a leash that is soft and loose, with the handler and the dog engaged with one another and with the environment around them, I see a partnership where both parties are enriched and involved with an activity that is meaningful to both the handler and the dog.  When that same picture has the dog engaged with the handler but not with the environment I see a relationship that is likely out of balance; the dog is hooked on everything the handler is doing, but that is not reciprocated.  This may be appropriate within the context of a dog sport such as obedience, but when walking down the street, the dog who is doing this is not getting the kind of attention that I would be aiming for.  When the dog is walking on an angle, leaning away from the handler, I see a dog who has months or years of experience trying to make the handler move faster in a more desirable direction.  Again, there is an imbalance in the relationship, a disconnect between the handler and the dog.



Here a trained guard dog…is NOT guarding.  One of the most important things about training a dog to guard is also training a dog to not guard.  Most of the dogs I work with who guard don’t have an off switch, meaning that any time they are on leash, they are guarding.  Image credit: lsantilli / 123RF Stock Photo


When the dog is pulling ahead of the handler, stiffly marching and staring hard at everyone he meets, I see a dog who is a potential threat, leading his army out behind him.  Guarding.  This tells me that the relationship is out of balance in yet another way; the dog relies upon the handler to give him the confidence to act aggressively and if the handler is not a terrifically confident person, this may feed his ego.  This sort of mismatch between dog and handler can lead to all sorts of problems, especially when the dog or the handler chooses to enter a situation where neither one of them is confident enough to deal with what they face.  Handlers lacking confidence may go places or do things they would not do when they are without their dogs.  Dogs lacking confidence may lead the handler to situations where neither one of them is prepared for the consequences.  Perhaps the best example I can think of to describe this situation is a particular type of young man and a pit bull.  Wanting to get look tough, the kid gets a muscle dog such as a Rottweiler or a pit bull.  Lacking the information about how to train the dog, he buys the biggest chain he can find and puts a clip on the end.  He wraps the chain around his hand and he and the dog walk through the local park intimidating everyone they meet.  The dog gets amped up by this behaviour, and the kid gets a kick out of finally finding a way to control the people who stress him out in his environment.  After several years of doing this, the chain breaks or the collar fails and if the dog was actively guarding when this happens someone gets bitten.  The kid is now facing responsibility for more than just the care and feeding of his ego booster, but also the liability of owning a dog who bites.  .  An important element here is the breed of dog.  Not every dog enjoys this sort of activity, but there certainly are breeds that do; the rottis, the pits, the mastiffs and to a certain extent the German Shepherd and the Malinois are all breeds that get a thrill out of this set up.  That said, I have seen many breeds you would not expect buy into this sort of activity; I have seen it in Goldens, in Poodles and in pointers, in toy breeds, and lap dogs and Labradors.  Breed alone does not predispose a dog to this problem; this is strictly a handling issue.

Often dogs who are guarding when they are on leash will stop doing this when they are off leash. If they are loosed while guarding, they will finish the sequence, but if they are just turned loose, they may not guard at all.  They may be otherwise pleasant dogs who when put on leash will guard not because they are inherently aggressive but because they have few other options and have been taught to exhibit this behaviour through years of mishandling of the leash.  This is why so many dogs with leash aggression can be so easily rehabilitated simply by teaching the dog leash manners.  When the dog stops staring outwards, and stops leaning against the leash, he stops behaving in a dangerous and aggressive manner.  Importantly, the handler has to play a role in this dance.  The handler cannot go back to handling in a manner such that the old behaviour pattern is re-established.  Better yet, if you are coming to dog training from the point of view of starting a new dog, never establish the pattern of guarding in your dog.


This lady is being proactive in teaching her dog not to guard.  The dog is facing her and she is aware of what he is doing even though she is facing the camera.  I would not be afraid to approach her and talk to her about her dog, which I might be if she had set him up to guard her by allowing him to face outwards and strain on the leash.  Image credit: orangephoto / 123RF Stock Photo

The simplest and easiest way to avoid this trap is to start out by teaching your puppy to face away from oncoming people when he is on leash and look towards you.  When you come to school and you are waiting for the doors to open or your class to start, you can either leave your dog in the car until you are ready to go in, or if you do get him out, have him face you and treat him for doing that.  As you start to move together, stay connected.  If your dog bolts ahead and hits the end of the leash, simply regroup and reconnect.  Wait; this WILL happen.  You can hurry it along by using pain or force, by jerking on the leash, but the lesson is decreased by the prompts.  If you wait and connect without nagging, without prompting or causing harm or pain to your dog, the connection is built on you being more important than the thing that the dog wants.  When the dog reconnects by turning towards you and away from the thing he is targeting, then you can go together to explore whatever your dog is interested in seeing.  By doing this together instead of allowing your dog to drag you to what he is interested in, you create connection and engagement and you untie the knot of guarding behaviour in the dog you are working with.

While guarding may be a desired behaviour in certain circumstances, it is not a safe behaviour for a family pet in a city neighbourhood, or when around strangers.  Allowing a dog to guard can set the dog up to become aggressive and it is easy to avoid if you are aware of what you are doing when you have the leash in your hands.  Start by being aware of the problem and avoiding putting the dog in a physical position to engage in the behaviour.  Stay connected with your dog, and work on training good leash manners and avoiding using a leash at all when you cannot pay attention to what you are doing.

En Garde

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