Living with a human-aggressive or dog-aggressive dog can be a challenge, especially in the city. Unless the dog is trained to use a litter box or pee pad, all dogs need to be taken outside sometime during the day. This can be a very stressful situation with a reactive dog. Luckily there are ways to prepare yourself and work with your dog to make life a little less stressful.
Before you take your aggressive dog for a walk on the city streets, make sure to prepare yourself mentally for the upcoming walk. Practice learning how to handle your own stress by using positive mental imagery, finding your “safe place,” and belly breathing. Positive mental imagery will help you see and create a safe, pleasant walk with your dog before you have actually gone out the door. Your “safe place” can be imagining being with someone who brings you great comfort or picturing yourself somewhere that is your own personal safe haven. Belly breathing is used for relaxation compared to chest breathing which is used more for a fight-or-flight response. Practice belly breathing and become comfortable with it at home before going out with your dog into a stressful situation.
Imagine walking your dog safely down the streets and around your neighborhood while in the safety of your home. When you can do this successfully, start taking a walk without your dog along those same routes that you imagined. Although it sounds silly, take a leash along and really pretend that your dog is there with you. On your return home, actually visualize your walk that you just took. Recognize the areas that may have caused problems with your dog, for instance a bicyclist that passed you from behind or a group of school kids coming down the sidewalk. Think of how you would have handled them to keep them a safe experience for you and your dog. Continue with this visual walk until you can “walk” it calmly. Remember to use the stress lowering aids.
Go out for a second walk, making sure to hit those areas that you know will cause problems for your dog. Again pretend that he is there with you and act accordingly. Remember to breath, use positive imagery and if necessary, retreat to your “safe place.” Start building muscle memory for these types of occurrences, so that when you are with your dog, they will become more automatic and you will find that you can maneuver through the walk with more confidence. Because you have walked through it in your mind, you are better prepared to handle the encounters when your dog is with you. Continue practicing these walks as often as you can. You should start to see improvement with your dog when you do actually have him with you if you are consistent.
It is much easier for your initial walks with your reactive dog if you have another person who can ride shotgun with you. This person must be familiar with the dog, and the dog should be comfortable with them around. The person walking shotgun will help you look for possible problems as you are handling your dog. This helps to relieve some stress on your part as you will have someone there who can help support you if something goes wrong.
The person riding shotgun should be aware of what may provoke your dog and how the dog may react. They need to be aware of everything going on around them, not just what is immediately in front of them, or to the left or right. They also need to put themselves between the dog and the potential problem.
As you progress, you shouldn’t need to have a second person, but the right person is handy to have with you on your first walks with your reactive dog.
If you are unable to find someone who can walk shotgun with you, take your dog out only to relieve himself. Make sure that you provide him with plenty of mental stimulation in your home by playing mental games with him, such as basic obedience as well as training him tricks or hide and seek type games. If he is toy motivated, you can play with him while walking him. If he is more treat oriented, don’t be afraid to feed him high dollar treats as you walk past the potential stimuli. Start playing with the toy or feeding him the goodies well before he comes to the stimuli and continue for a minute or two after passing it.
On your walks, look for places that you can duck behind or into when something potentially scary is approaching. This could be an alleyway, a vestibule, a hedge, solid fence, dumpster, car, tree, light pole, etc. Anything in which you can be separated from the potential trigger. Keep an eye out for them whenever you are on your walks so that you are prepared to duck behind it if something approaches you that you know will cause your dog to react. During your walks, practice ducking behind these even when there is no reason to, and feed your dog tasty treats or play a short game. This way he will not associate ducking behind something as a potentially scary thing and will look forward to it. In this way, he will pay much less attention to the stimuli and may begin to associate it with something good.
Don’t be afraid to change direction or cross the road to avoid possible stimuli. Remember that you can vary your route. Step off the curb and around cars or other objects if traffic permits. You do not have to stay in a straight line, nor do you have to stay directly on the sidewalk all of the time. If you feel that your dog’s safety is in jeopardy, by all means, change your route, cross the street, or duck into an alleyway. Use whatever piece of land you need to while still staying safe.
Working with an aggressive dog is a daily challenge. With time, patience and understanding, you can help the dog become more confidant and less reactive. While this may never fully go away, with consistency you and your dog should come to enjoy walks outside of your home.