The Weekly Q&A: Ask Way of Life™ Dog Training
The Weekly Q&A: Mystified by Dog’s Behavior

Mystified by Dog Behaviour

Q: My dog Harley is almost three years old and I need help training her to walk calmly. So for example, when I take her for a walk and she’ll see another dog, she’ll start growling and snarling at them. But when I take her to the dog park she acts completely fine. She’ll bark at a few dogs walking to the park but as soon as we get in and I let her off leash, she’s the friendliest dog ever. I think she acts this way because she has a mama bear instinct to want to protect me.

A: Thanks for reaching out to us about your dog Harley. Surely, being able to walk our dogs safely and in a way that is enjoyable for both of us is a priority for many dogs owners. Many struggle with walking their dogs without dealing with some form of reactivity or other, whether that’s reacting to joggers, passing cars, or cyclists, or snarling and lunging at other dogs. 

We have a mountain of training tools and techniques aimed at getting dogs to walk properly. Yet, these have their limits because they overlook the dog’s way of life, which is something that every dog owner has control over. In response to your question, I will comment on a dog’s leash manners, the dog park, and whether your dog’s aggression is in fact her protecting you.

First, it’s important to appreciate that a dog’s leash manners are not just about training the dog to walk properly on a leash. Walking on a loose leash is a skill to be learned but more importantly, it is an attitude that we nurture in our dogs. We have a dog who wants to be there, next to us, because we share a meaningful relationship. How do we build that relationship? In how we manage our dogs’ lives inside and outside the home. When we have a sense of order inside the home, we have a dog who is more responsive outside.

The second element is about the dog park. I will say more about dog parks in a future post but for now, consider that your dog’s reactivity and aggression towards other dogs on your walks is in great part a result of the frantic, chaotic, and often dangerous manner of interaction between dogs that occurs in dogs parks. Meanwhile, the owners are standing there scrolling on their phones, sipping their drinks, and chatting with the other owners, all thinking they’re doing their dogs a favor. At the dog park, you’re putting your dog at risk because you are leaving it up to her to deal with all these dogs. She knows this, and so why should she defer to you with the dogs on the streets? 

Third is the question of whether your dog is protecting you. The short answer is no. In the healthy development of drives, when we have dogs manifesting inappropriate defensiveness, this is not protecting the owner as many seem to think. Rather, this is about the stress that the dog feels for being handled by someone whom the dog does not trust. Given my comments above, why should your dog trust and want to protect you? 

This might feel humbling but you can also see how you can change things. Take control of your dog’s experiences and rebuild your trust with her. This involves not putting her in situations that aren’t natural for her (like the dog park) and then holding it against her when she shows you the consequences of your poor way of life choices. 

To find out more about steps you can take right now to start addressing this reactivity, please consult “Let’s Fix This,” a free Way of Life PDF: 

I wish you and Harley well! 

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