Several months ago at one of our regular walking spots we came across a lovely, although very boisterous, pup. It was clearly playful and keen to interact with our dog and, as we got closer, it started trying to pull towards us. At this point the owner violently jerked the leash several times, the pup was wearing a prong collar. Over the next few months we witnessed this same process every time the pup crossed paths with another dog.
A while later I was running our dog at the same walking spot, we spied the now much larger pup up ahead and gave it a wide berth to spare it any punishment. As we passed, the once playful pup lunged, barked and snapped in a very distressed way, despite the distance between us. The pup appeared to have developed a reactivity issue, most likely from the aversive punishment that was being dealt out on a daily basis.
The lesson this situation brings to light is that using punishment of this kind to keep your dog from interacting with other dogs brings with it an unacceptable level of risk, but why?
The thinking behind this kind of training is that the dog will learn not to pull because of the risk of punishment. It’s a form of operant conditioning where the act of pulling or lunging is associated with a punitive consequence (in this case a leash jerk on a prong collar). One of the major problems with this (besides being unethical and stressful for the dog) is that the dog can easily associate the punitive consequence with other stimuli that are present, for example other dogs, rather than the act of pulling. When this happens the dog being punished can develop a fear of other dogs which in turn can manifest itself in reactivity/aggression. The harsher the punishment and the more sensitive the dog the worse the outcome is likely to be.
So what are other ways to go about this?
Operant conditioning works the other way round too, rewarding a dog for desirable behaviours will reinforce those behaviours and your dog will start to offer them more and more. For example, positively reinforcing calmness in the presence of other dogs (behaviours like sitting, walking calmly or look backs at the owner) will help the dog see a more rewarding alternative to pulling and getting overly excited. Reward doesn’t have to mean treats, although treats can be an important part of the process. Rewards can also include allowing an interaction once your dog offers the desired behaviour, after all this is what the dog in this scenario was most motivated by (http://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/the-premack-principle).
A combination of reward types is usually the most effective way to go (e.g. food and life rewards) depending on the dog’s motivations. Ultimately the goal in this instance is for your dog to behave in a calm manner while in the presence of other dogs whether you allow them to interact or not. Remember, happy dogs are more responsive to training so you’ll get more out of your dog and avoid contributing to the risk of behavioural issues.