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How to Understand and Fix Dog Leash Reactivity

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David Adams

July 08, 2020

Dog Reactivity

How to Understand and Fix Dog Leash Reactivity thumbnail

You're out on a walk with your furry best friend after a long day of work. It's one of your favorite times of the evening — we've all had visions of classic neighborhood strolls alongside our canine companions!

All of a sudden, though, your dog transforms. They saw something that triggered them — maybe another dog, or a bicycle, or a fast-moving car, or a stranger coming around a corner unexpectedly — and started barking, growling, lunging, and pulling at the end of the leash.

You're at a loss. This isn't how walks are supposed to go! What's going on with your four-legged family member? What are you supposed to do about these inappropriate behaviors?

We've got you covered. This phenomenon is called leash reactivity — and it's not at all uncommon in pet dogs, especially in our modern human world that's chock full of overwhelming distractions. As frightening and stressful as leash reactivity can be for us pet owners, it's probably even more uncomfortable for the pups engaging in it.

There is good news though: Leash-reactive behavior is often a very trainable behavior among dogs — as long as you’re willing to put in the time (and have access to the resources) required to get to the bottom of what’s causing your dog's emotional response, that is.

Here’s everything you need to know about leash reactivity, from what might trigger this type of reactivity to how to manage the behavior issue in the short term and, most importantly, some long-term training behavior modification strategies that can help save you and your pup lots of future stress. 

What is leash reactivity? What is a leash reactive dog?

Leash reactivity in dogs is a general term that encompasses a range of undesirable on-leash canine behaviors — from excessive barking and growling to physical jumping, pulling, and lunging. Basically, if your pup is on-leash and having a big, over-the-top reaction to something in the world around them (maybe other dogs, people, cars, or anything else, really) there's a good chance their behavior qualifies as leash reactivity.

What's at the root of most leash reactivity?

So what's the reason some dogs develop outsized and inappropriate reactions to the environment when they’re on a leash? While it’s easy to mistake leash-reactive behavior for aggression, it’s important to remember that usually this isn’t the case.

More often than not, leash reactivity is caused by one of two major F-words: Fear and Frustration.

Typically, a dog who is being reactive on their leash has one of two goals in mind. They either want to get away from something they’ve seen in their surrounding environment (fear) or they want to get closer to something (frustration).

Fear-based leash reactivity: Dogs have a negative association with a scary stimulus

In fear-based leash reactivity, your dog’s fight or flight response has been triggered and — no matter which instinct they’re inclined to follow — they feel trapped by their leash.

Even a dog who instinctively wants to run from a perceived threat will often fallback on seemingly aggressive behavior, like barking and growling, if their leash makes fleeing the scene impossible. (Think of this like the classic "fight or flight" response we hear about in almost all animals. If we've removed the flight option by holding our dogs still on a leash, they're left with fight as a go-to fearful response.)

Dogs experiencing fear-based leash reactivity will often seem even more aggressive than their more excitable frustration-based counterparts. Anyone with a tiny dog who becomes a barking machine at the sight of any bigger dog on walks knows this all too well!

Frustration-based leash reactivity: Dogs want to access something in their environment but can't

Frustration-based leash reactivity stems from a dog’s unmet desires. This could be anything from the desire to play with another dog on a walk to a desire to run up and say hi to every human they see to a deeply-ingrained need to chase all squirrels, birds, and other small creatures.

Just because a dog wants to do something, however, doesn’t mean they should — take the all-too-common doggy desire to dart into traffic and chase cars, for example. While using a leash is a fabulous way to manage these situations, it's inevitable that some undesirable replacement behaviors might bubble up when we restrict our dogs from following their natural urges.

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What causes leash reactivity?

All dogs have fears and frustrations, though, so why do only some of them develop reactive behaviors on-leash? Some common root causes of leash reactivity include: 

  • Lack of early socialization: Socialization is a key part of any dog’s development and it’s especially important during the first three months of a puppy’s life. Dogs who don’t experience healthy socialization — which includes exposure to a variety of people and animals — as young pups are more likely to struggle with leash reactivity, either fearful behaviors or rude behaviors, as adults because they’re not sure how to process new situations.
  • Bad experiences on a walk: It shouldn't come as a surprise that negative experiences while on a leash (most commonly while on a neighborhood walk) can lead to leash reactivity. In this case, your dog is probably associating the original bad experience with any similar experience they have in the future — and they're reacting accordingly.
  • Improper correction for reacting on leash: There's a good reason that respected trainers and animal experts the world over advocate positive reinforcement training practices. Not only does punishing a dog for undesirable behavior rarely result in actually fixing said “bad” behavior — things like corrective collars used in non-reward-based training techniques can traumatize your dog and make their behavior worse (or even create new behavioral problems altogether). Dogs who have been punished with things like choke collars on walks in the past are more likely to associate all leashes with pain and react preemptively. Pay attention to your pup's body language if you think this may be the case for them. Chances are they're showing signs of stress as soon as you start grabbing your gear to go on a walk.
Reactivity chart

How should I manage leash reactivity in the moment?

If your dog struggles with leash reactivity, you can take some simple, actionable steps to manage the behavior, including: 

  • Avoid punishment, especially in the heat of the moment: Yelling at your dog or getting upset yourself won't help curtail leash reactivity. If anything, it will feed into the anxiety your dog is already feeling and do nothing to build new positive associations. This can make fearful behavior much worse!
  • Be aware of your dog’s triggers: If your dog struggles with leash reactivity, pay attention to the specific triggers that set them off. At first, do your best to avoid those things, especially during times when you can't engage in thorough, reward-based training to address the rude behavior (more on recommended behavior therapy below).
  • Stay calm: A reactive dog can be stressful for us human pet parents. It's important to acknowledge that! But do your best to remain calm during your dog's reactive episodes. While the main priority is to avoid yelling or punishing your dog during these common behaviors like barking, growling, and lunging at the end of the leash, even more subtle expressions of your anxiety (you know, that frantic, over-apologizing you feel the urge to do to everyone else in view when your dog is having a moment) can fuel the underlying fear or frustration driving your pup's reactive behavior. It's easier said than done, but work on some strategies to keep your cool and casually lead your dog out of the situation when reactive moments happen.
  • Avoid dog-on-dog greetings on leash, since these are common triggers for reactive dogs. We also recommend walking your dog on a sturdy line (probably not a retractable leash, especially in the beginning) to make this type of management more possible.
  • Reward your dog for staying calm on leash: If your dog is anywhere in the vicinity of their trigger and they don’t react, praise them and let them know how amazing that is. Reinforce the replacement behaviors you want to see more of, always!

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REACT chart

What’s the best long-term training plan for leash reactivity?

Leash reactivity is definitely a behavior you’ll want to work to address, especially since improving your dog's outward behavior is usually a sign that you're soothing the underlying issues that are stressing your dog out.

Follow the following steps to train a dog out of reactive behavior on leash: 

  1. Start by getting your dog’s attention before every walk. Stock up on food rewards like favorite treats and do a few basic cues like asking for eye contact — with plenty of rewards and maybe a verbal marker (similar to a clicker) to let your pup know they did the right thing — before you start walking. This puts your pup in the right mindset to focus on you (and to know that treats are coming as reinforcement for other good replacement behaviors on the walk).
  2. Keep an eye out for your dog’s triggers on the walk, whether that means other dogs, other people, or something else entirely. Watch your dog and try to capture the moment when they first notices the trigger. In the few seconds between the noticing of the thing and the reacting to the thing, praise and treat your dog. This is the way to communicate to your dog what the appropriate reaction actually is. 
  3. Don’t push your dog too far too fast. If your dog does great at a specific distance but you know that taking one more step toward the trigger is going to set them off, stay at that distance, praise and treat, and then head home going in the opposite direction. Set your dog up for success and build slowly to getting closer to triggers! If your dogs has an overreaction moment, remove yourselves from the situation, whether that means turning around and leaving or using some kind of visual barrier to help your dog calm down so you can either continue the walk or head home early. 
  4. Keep repeating this process on walks for as long as needed, gradually decreasing the distance between your dog and their triggers until they’re not his triggers anymore (or at least not consistently so). If you find that you’re struggling to make progress, consider enlisting the help of a reward-based trainer or veterinary behaviorist in your area for some one-on-one support.

We've written a lot more about leash reactivity in our "dog reactivity" blog category that compiles multiple related posts. Browse through to find more information to help you and your dog on your training journey!

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Olivia Peterson, CCS
Owner - Sound Connection Dog Training
WSU Bachelors in Animal Science Business Management
Northwest School of Canine Studies (NWSCS) Certification

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

David Adams photo

David Adams

July 08, 2020

Dog Reactivity

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