ClickerSolutions Training Treasures

Desensitizing Dogs to Other Dogs

My dog is a little lacking in the social graces. This really only seems to be a problem when we have him on lead, and encounter other neighbourhood dogs. The issue we have is with on-lead agression, and therefore we have unfortunately not been walking him as frequently since it is nearly impossible to avoid meeting another dog in our neighbourhood.

The law of learning tells us that what is reinforced, remains and grows stronger with each reinforcement, and what is not reinforced, will eventually extinguish. Each time now you walk your dog and he is given the opportunity to stress over other dogs approaching, the behaviors you DON'T want are being reinforced just as if you were purposely teaching them to the dog.

So, working within the laws of learning, there are many things you can now do to set your dog up for success. Youth is on his side, and yours.

You will find approaching this problem with a clicker will help immensely. The clicker works as a "marker", like a camera click, to tell the dog exactly when he is doing something right. This way, we does not have to "correct" for things wrong.

And correction is probably the thing you need least in this particular scenario. If,each time another dog approaches, you become tense, knowing how your dog will react, you will unconsciously tighten up on the leash, and your body language and scent will REINFORCE just what the dog now thinks: that the approaching dog is something to be worried and stressed about! We so often unconsciously reinforce what we don't want. It's just so natural.

So, I'd begin a program of systematic desensitization, and I'd begin with your own human posturing. Set yourself up to give off 'calming signals' to your dog. These are dog language signals dogs use to communicate with each other. Like, sniffing, head turning, lip licking, turning sideways, freezing in position, yawning. Practice giving off these signals, and LOOSENING the leash.

When you see another dog coming in the distance on your walks, immediately begin to yawn, stretch, stop and give Tobi a scratch. Give him a treat. Get him relaxed, ho-hum.

As the dog approaches closer, note your dog's calming signals. (Carol Whitney on this list knows LOTS about Calming Signals, and can help you here greatly. This is an important part of desensitization and becoming proactive--learning to SEE when your dog stresses, and just what signals he gives off.) He will begin to display them.

He may freeze, he may hold his ears very erect, his gaze steadfast on the approaching dog. Note any kicking of back legs, and any hackles raised. Note at what POINT this begins to happen. Is it 100 feet away? 75? 50?

Find the point, and you will begin your desensitization a few feet BEFORE the dog normally exhibits his stressing behaviors. Why?

You don't want to TRIGGER the behavior: this will force you to be reactive. Instead, you want to PREVENT the trigger from being activated. You become PROactive and catch your dog doing something good instead,and you reinforce this.

Keep your pocket full of the most succulent, marvelously smelly, TINY treats that are soft enough to be gulped down quickly. You don't want the dog to have to stop and chew, and now is not when you want to give him any boring kibble or milk bones.

Use your high-powered treats, like POUNCE cat food, or nuked garlic chicken (heartily recommended!). The object here is that you want to make yourself out to be the most fascinatin' bitch in town. You want to be the goddess, the giver of all good things, the person to turn to when stress begins.

Watch for approaching dog, and when dog is just about in the range where your dog begins to display his inappropriate reactions, turn slightly INTO your dog so he'll have to look up at you to not get stepped on.

Click or say a crisp "YES!" and give him a delicious treat. Then move into him another step, say Yes or click again and give another treat. Keep doing this, moving in a circular manner into the dog, and away from the other dog.

When you're going the opposite direction, begin turning back toward the oncoming dog, who will now be well into your dog's comfort zone. Keep reiforcing attention to you, and use your happiest voice, constant clicking and treating, and throw off a few calming signals--like yawning.

If your dog begins fixating on the approaching dog, turn into him again and continue to click and treat for attention. That's ALL you want at this point. To keep him from obsessing.

As the dog gets really close, keep turning circles, and moving a few feet in the other direction, to keep your dog's focus on you, all the while madly clicking and treating.

The dog will probably make it past you and your dog without giving your dog time to stress.

Continue to do this, and set your dog up to practice in places where he will encounter other dogs on leash. The more you reinforce the quiet behaviors, the sooner he will come to realize there is nothing to fear, there is no reason to challenge other dogs, that he can look to you for leadership and for ALL GOOD THINGS!

In this manner, I have successfully desensitized many dogs exhibiting major fear-agressive behaviors. One Pap came from a breeder who had kept him in a very cloistered environment, where he never saw any joggers, skateboarders, runners, bicyclists, etc. Every single thing was a trigger, and would set him off into fits of barking, into posturing and nonstop shaking.

It took nearly 3 months to desensitize this dog, with daily walks. If I'd upped the walks and done two daily, I probably could have halved that time.

But I kept doing this as terrifying things approached in his space, and finally I got cyclists to help me, by laying down their bikes so I could click and treat the dog for coming closer and closer to it (using circles, again--so valuable!), and finally sniffing it, then touching it with a paw, then eating a treat off the pedals!

Same thing with inline skaters. Got one of them to stop, sit down, pull off a skate, and I kept clicking and treating the dog to get closer and closer to the skate. Finally, the dog ate a treat off the spinning wheel!

Systematic desensitization early on can save you a multitude of problems down the road.

A few things to remember: Never, Never tighten up on your leash when a dog approaches. This reinforces that there is something to worry about.

Never correct the dog for acting agressively toward other dogs. Yes, I know this goes against everything you have ever heard. But we know that using agression to diffuse agression is very tricky stuff, and rarely works unless the handler is extremely experienced in the methodology, and even then, can exascerbate the problem. You are far better off distracting the dog, then rewarding--reinforcing the GOOD behaviors he is exhibiting.

Remember to circle. If the dog is fixated and freezes into position, you don't wan to have to pull hard on the leash to get him to move. Move INTO the dog and he will automatically give you his attention.Don't give him a channce to obsess, to start the stare down with the other dog. This is really a key here: be proactive and keep his focus on YOU, the goddess of all good things!

Finally, I strongly recommend two absolutely marvelous books which will make all of this so much easier, and give you a glimpse into how dogs think and react, and how you can 'shape' any behavior you want.

First, is a tiny gem by Turid Rugaas called, 'On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals." It's only $9.95, and is about 30 pages long, but it is absolutely eye opening. It will clearly illustrate what each dog behavior you are seeing means, and make it so much easier to understand what your dog is thinking. A true TREASURE and one of the most valuable books on my shelf.

Next, "Culture Clash" by Jean Donaldson is my strongest recommendation, and is my all-time favorite professional dog behavior/training book. I have read it at least a dozen times, and keep getting more from it with each read. It never ceases to blow my mind. It won the Maxwell award for best dog training book of '98, but it may be the best dog training book ever. This is my very biased opinion! I learned more from this book in one read than I learned on my own in 25 years. It has MUCH about systematic desensitization to dog-dog agression. Very strongly recommended!

Finally, there are some wonderful videos to help get you started, but Deb Jones "Click and FIX" may be very, very helpful to you on working through the behaviors you want to change. It's available at and worth the $29.95 price a dozen times over.

Good luck, and keep us posted on your progress! My monster, Peek--who was so severely undersocialized as a Pup with other dogs, now walks beautifully on leash past other dogs without a problem. Systematic desensitization is a WINNER all the way!

Debi Davis
copyright 2000 Debi Davis


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