How to prevent dogs from throwing themselves at other dogs and people

This is a question sent to me by a lady in Australia (Anne).

How do you control strong pups who literally throw themselves at any people and dogs reasonably close and are totally focussed on that activity so treats do not work.

Anne goes on to say her dog is a Labrador.  I’m not sure if the dog is literally a pup because many people seem to use the term pup just to mean dog these days.

It is difficult to advise without a full picture of a dog’s life. Their daily routine and activities can be important pointers as to what’s going on.  No behaviour happens in a vacuum. It is usually influenced by many factors outside of the immediate situation.  However,   I can give some ideas and pointers.

Systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning

We would need to ensure that the dog remains far enough away from other dogs that the reaction (throwing themselves at the other dog) doesn’t happen. This may be as far as the length of a football field.  We work with the dog at this distance, maybe giving a few treats, doing some easy training or playing a game.  This is known as keeping the dog under threshold (not reacting and not concerned).  Over time (a few months) we can reduce the distance, step by step.  This is a very brief description so read up on it if you would like to know more.  In reality, this method can prove difficult as we are usually not able to control the environment to the degree we would like.

Wait it Out

We can stand firm, hold the lead with both hands against our body (for a firm hold which doesn’t involve pulling the dog back) and just wait it out.  Sooner or later, the dog will realise that his behaviour of pulling forward isn’t working.  We wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. What are we waiting for? We are waiting for the dog to look at us for a fraction of a second, at which point we will say “YES” and give them a fantastic treat.  Not a piece of dry kibble, but a piece of cheese, chicken, or whatever is his favourite kind of treat.  He will not learn in one lesson (far from it) but over time he will come to realise that lunging forward is fruitless and looking at us is a highly worthwhile thing to do.

It’s raining treats

It’s common for dogs to want to go say hello to everyone.  However, not everyone likes a wet nose in their hand (I don’t know why).  Whenever you see a person approaching, start giving the dog treats, one after another until the person has passed.  The dog will soon learn that people approaching mean treats from you, will rain down.  When he’s learned this and his focus is on you, you may start to reduce the number of treats so that he waits 2 seconds, then 3 then 4. Before long you may only need 1 treat.   If he is looking at you for the treat, he is not throwing himself at other people.  As with the desensitisation, it will work better if you start at a distance where the dog doesn’t react and reduce the distance over time. So give people a wide berth at the start of training.

Photo courtesy of Teresa Umbelino

The U-Turn

Teach the dog to turn and walk in the other direction. Firstly without the distractions of other dogs, give the cue “Let’s Go” (or whatever you like), turn and walk the other way (don’t yank the dog though). As soon as he is moving with you in the opposite direction, it’s “YES” (cheese time).  Once he gets the hang of this you can use it to quickly avoid any unwanted encounters.

Food Treats?

Now I realise I’m banging on about treats although Anne stated that her dog isn’t interested in them in the given situation, so let me explain.  It’s not about trying to give a treat whilst the dog is reacting to the other dog or in full ‘I’m gonna jump on you’ mode. We are waiting until the dog’s focus is with us, we are reinforcing the choice that the dog made, we are reinforcing the preferred behaviour.  Secondly, we can stop feeding the dog from a food bowl on the floor and give all his daily diet via enrichment toys, training, interactions and hand feeding.  The dog learns that his behaviour and actions earn the food. I believe that dogs become far more interested and attuned to our actions in this way.

Meeting Their Needs

Of course, the behaviour may be (and probably is) friendly, rather than aggression of any kind.  Dogs are highly sociable animals and many greatly enjoy meeting others and having a play.  It may benefit us and the dog if we can allow them to meet-up with other appropriate play-mates and have a good play session (some are happy with just a sniff). Ensuring we meet their needs may prevent problematic behaviour developing.

Reduce the Stimuli

Imagine a dog who lives (as many do) in a house where he’s alone for long periods and only leaves the house once each day for a 30-minute walk.  Of course, the majority of dogs will be excited at the chance to go say hello to another dog or person.  If you can manage it (I know many can’t) get the dog out for a walk 4 times per day.  This will decrease the intensity and allow him to take the exhilaration of the great outdoors, in his stride.  This is normalising it and preventing overstimulation.

Just Enjoy It

Never get angry or show your frustration. This will not work, it has never worked, it can never work. Just Enjoy It!  Enjoy the dog’s issues! Now you’re starting to wonder if I’m a little crazy, aren’t you? But what is the point of getting all stressed when you can enjoy yourself?  The dog isn’t being bad, he is giving you information.  He’s saying, “in this situation, this is what I do” and you then say “Thank you for telling me that, you fantastically amazing dog” (you can just think it if you want).  We then get to consider what we can do in this situation. How can we best respond? That’s fantastic, we get to use our great big brain to help out our canine friend.

Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read

2 thoughts on “How to prevent dogs from throwing themselves at other dogs and people

  1. Thank you Shay that is a really uplifting article. Some of us are so serious and worried when we really don’t have to be.

  2. Just to let you know that Amber turned one today. In every other way she is becoming a marvellous companion dog learning to do many things almost without teaching her. We have made a little progress with her reactions to people and dogs but it may be a long haul. I no longer worry unduly and admit it is much easier to avoid these situations at present. Twice a week I am able to exercise her off lead with another (much bigger) Lab who reacts the same way. After the initial rough and tumble they do settle to run and explore together. Another update when she is 2 perhaps!

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