Why Do Dogs Leash Bite?
There are a variety of reasons why dogs bite on the leash. Sometimes, they may be bored of leash training exercises. More often, they are redirecting their excitement or frustration onto the lead.
Walking outdoors is frequently a high energy, high stimulus, extravaganza of scents, movement, sound, and sights, for a dog. Therefore, they are more likely to lose control and act out, than when they are at home. This usually occurs when our dog sees a person, squirrel, cat, or some other trigger. Instinctually, he wants to chase the squirrel and cat, or interact with the person. When our dog is prevented from chasing, all that excited energy must still go somewhere, so it may get redirected onto the leash.
My dog was ultimately leash biting, because he was picking up on my weak, tense, and fearful energy. This increased his stress level, and would usually trigger his crazy leash dance. For shy dogs, unbalanced human energy may also cause fear aggression.
Which technique we use to prevent biting on the leash, will depend on the intensity and source of the behavior. If our dog has a bite history, it is best to hire a professional trainer.
For the Bored and Playful Leash Biter.
1. Let our dog carry a stick or toy during leash training.
A problem with this technique is that some dogs may want to lie down, and just play with the toy or stick.
2. Play the Find-it game.
A fun game that I play with my dog during walks, is the Find-it game.
- First, I get my dog’s attention by calling his name.
- I reward him for giving me his attention.
- Then, I say Find-it and throw him a treat a short distance away.
- When he finds it, I praise him well, treat him, and repeat.
Once he is accustomed to finding it, I may combine the exercise with other obedience commands, e.g. Come. As his skills improve, I make the game more challenging by throwing the treat under bushes or in tall grass, but only if it is safe to do so.
Most importantly, I keep sessions short, fun, and rewarding. The Find-It game is a big favorite with all of my dogs.
3. Make leash training more interesting.
Leash training and walking will be a lot more interesting, if we change direction, change speed, and throw in some fun foot-work commands, such as Jump, Up, Weave, and Spin.
4. Walk our dog on a loose leash.
I walk my dog on a loose leash, stop often, and let him smell the roses. I only shorten the leash and move my dog into a heel position, when there are excitement triggers around, such as squirrels, cats, other dogs, and loud people.
5. Take our dog to interesting environments.
Visit nearby parks and empty school fields. These places have interesting smells and interesting objects that will keep our pooch happy, while he exercises his scent muscles.
For the Mildly Frustrated or Excited Leash Biter.
1. Redirect our dog onto a toy.
Redirection worked initially, but after a time, my dog would ignore the toy and continue biting on the leash.
This technique is most effective when we catch the biting behavior early, so that our dog is not too frenzied to redirect his energy, onto another object. Redirection works best with Sephy, when I am calm and confident.
2. Issue an alternative command.
Once I notice that my dog is starting to lose control, I quickly get him to refocus on me, and get him engaged in doing obedience commands. I only use simple commands, which my dog knows so well that it is almost a reflex, for example Sit. Command redirection will only work, if we catch our dog before he gets too excited or frustrated.
3. Touch the dog’s body with our foot.
We can touch our dog, to try and refocus him back onto us. Do not kick him or apply excessive force to our ‘touch’. This refocus method worked for me initially. However, after a few touches, my dog got habituated to it and just ignored it.
Note that this technique may also be risky, if we accidentally apply too much force, if our dog is easily spooked, or if he is really sensitive to handling. Any of these conditions may cause him to lose trust in us, become even more anxious and fearful, or redirect his crazy energy onto our hands and feet, instead of on the leash.
For the Out of Control Leash Biter.
In this situation, it is very important that we stay calm and use management equipment, as necessary, to keep everyone safe. With Sephy, I also have a plan ready, so that I can respond quickly and decisively.
1. Step on the leash and ignore our dog.
This technique is similar to a time-out, but it is not as effective. We take away our attention and our dog’s freedom to explore. However, there are still interesting things happening around him, and fascinating smells.
When I use this technique, my dog will settle down after a short time. As soon as I step away from the leash though, he will start his biting behavior again. I have tried lengthening the duration for up to about 15 minutes, but he still resumed his bad behavior.
2. Get our dog into a brisk walk home.
Forcing my dog to focus on an alternative physical activity, for example a brisk walk home, is the only thing that works for us. I also ignore him while we are walking home. I hold the leash really close to his collar, so I have good control of him, and just go. I do not look at him, talk to him, or touch him, for the entire trip.
Once my dog realized that leash biting only ends the walk and gets him a quick trip home, he stopped the behavior. He still gets excited when he sees a moving deer, but is able to calm himself down once we move a certain distance away from temptation.
Note – I only do this because my dog has good bite inhibition and will not bite hard on my hand, which is now near to his rather large teeth.
There are several advantages with this leash biting technique:
- Engaging my dog in a physical activity, gives him an outlet for his frustrated and excited energy.
- The brisk walk quickly removes him from the object or event that caused him to lose control. It also ends his enjoyable neighborhood outing.
- Since he is busy walking, he does not have the opportunity to do anything else, including leash bite.
- Finally, I can get home quickly and put him in a full time-out, if he continues to act out.
If my dog leash bites in the house, then I put him directly into a time-out area. This allows him to calm down, and shows him that extreme behavior will get his freedoms revoked.
Dogs are smart, and will quickly stop a behavior that gets them nowhere.
4. Spray water on our dog’s muzzle.
This is an aversive method, albeit a mild one. Nevertheless, it still comes with some of the dangers of applying an aversive stimulus. When I tried this technique, my dog just attacked the spray bottle. In addition, it will not be effectual if our dog likes, or is not bothered by water.
Some trainers suggest adding some vinegar or using mouthwash. If we do this, however, we must be very careful with our aim so that the added chemicals do not hit our dog’s eyes. I only used regular water on my dog.
5. Leash correction.
Leash corrections did not work well for Sephy. It only caused him to fight back and escalate his leash biting behavior. Leash corrections are difficult to implement and can be risky, especially when not properly applied.
6. Desensitization exercises.
Another good way to reduce leash biting, is to desensitize our dog to the triggers that get him over-excited. For example, we can do controlled desensitization training with people, other dogs, and even cats.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises helped a lot with my Shiba Inu.
Reactive Dogs and Leash Biting
Some dogs get excited more quickly than others. My Shiba Inu is a very reactive dog and like a super sports car, he can go from 0 to 60 mph in under 5 seconds. Once a dog loses control, he is no longer able to listen to us, and anything that we say will fall on deaf ears. A very high priority treat may sometimes snap him out of his frenzy, but I found that to be unreliable. Most of the time, when a dog goes rear-brained/reactive, he will be totally disinterested in food and other rewards.
At that point, it is no longer possible to redirect the dog’s attention away from the squirrel or cat. Instead, I take Sephy to a quiet, low stimulus area, away from the trigger object, so that he can calm down.
In general, we want to catch the behavior early, and prevent our dog from obsessing over the trigger object (squirrel, cat, dog), before he gets into a reactive state. This is one of the reasons why some trainers suggest walking a dog in a perpetual heel-like position (without the more stringent demands of precision heeling).
Forcing a dog to walk close to us, with eyes ahead, can help to discourage distractions and over-excitement instances. However, it also makes for a more boring walk, that does not fulfill a dog’s need to smell and explore.
Precision heeling demands constant attention from both dog and handler and is not appropriate for long periods of time, like for your daily walks around the block or to the park.
In general, I walk my dog on a loose-leash. At the same time, I stay vigilant and redirect my dog’s attention back to me, as soon as I spot a squirrel or cat. In these cases, distance is our greatest friend. Moving our dog away from the trigger object will help to reduce its potency. I usually redirect my dog’s attention onto me (by calling his name), and move him away from the trigger area.
Retraining behaviors will take time, effort, and repetition. However, if we are consistent and fair, our dog will quickly learn which behaviors are positive and rewarding, and which behaviors are not.