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Dog Leash Reactivity: What it Is and How to Treat It

Learn the signs of leash reactivity in dogs and what you can do to calm your pup's leash-related nerves.

A man stands behind his leashed dog who looks at something off-camera.

Learn the signs of leash reactivity in dogs and what you can do to calm your pup's leash-related nerves.

By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant

If your dog yells at everyone as though he intends to avenge their presence with a severe throwdown; if you find yourself face-planting on the asphalt and being dragged down the sidewalk like a sack of potatoes; if your dog has made such a commotion on the street that every eyeball within a twenty-yard radius turns in your direction, this article is for you.

If any of this sounds familiar, don't resolve yourself to a life of being a shut-in with just you and your canine companion. Leash reactivity can be extremely frustrating and even dangerous for you, your dog, and others around you. However, there are solutions to improve the situation for both of you. This article will explore why leash reactivity occurs and what you can do about it.

What Does Leash Reactivity Look Like?

Leash reactivity is a response that occurs when a dog is leashed or tethered, such as pulling, barking, lunging, and snapping, that does not occur when the dog is off-leash. While aggression is a form of reactivity, reactivity isn't necessarily always a form of aggression. Knowing the difference between reactivity and aggression can help you better understand why your dog has these big emotions and work through solutions more effectively.

Sometimes, leash reactivity is caused by a lack of social training as a puppy; sometimes, dogs are more genetically prone to this condition due to underlying anxiety; sometimes, we aren't even really sure what sparks it. We do know that even though reactivity is clearly an undesirable behavior, it is a form of communication with an explicit request to be heard.

Most leash reactivity is driven by fear, whether of another dog or a person they are sure is a Hydra in disguise. It may also be due to frustration in seeing someone they are excited to say hello to but can't get to fast enough. The leash (the restriction) is the part that tips them over due to the constraint or the feeling of being trapped.

Non-aggressive reactivity is often treated by working with people or animals in the environment as a form of positive reinforcement. Aggressive reactivity is triggered by people or other animals in the area. Treatment for this kind of leash reactivity is rooted in building confidence and decreasing stress related to those triggers.

Reactivity is often driven by impulse, a sudden strong and unreflective urge or desire to act; your dog is not making a fully conscious decision because they are not thinking through the situation, merely responding to it. Sometimes, even confident dogs may use aggressive communication to let someone know when they are too close to their person. For the focus of this article, we will exclude those situations and look at the majority of dogs affected by leash reactivity as an undesired behavior.

Non-Aggressive Leash Reactivity

Leash-reactive dogs that are overly excited may not initially use their teeth, as their intent is not to cause harm to mitigate a threat. However, left unchecked, these dogs may develop displacement behaviors, wherein they take their frustration out on the leash ("biting up the leash") or the closest thing to them (often the person holding the leash). They begin using their teeth to try and get a response when pulling or barking doesn't work. Underlying anxiety makes it significantly more likely that your dog will eventually make poor choices with their pent-up energy.

Spending quality time training with a dog that is not necessarily reacting out of aggression can go a long way and help to resolve their leash reactivity. Go back to basics and implement a Learn to Earn strategy with your dog, where they learn to look to you for guidance rather than acting without thinking. Use the things that excite them in their environment (other dogs, other people) to get desirable behaviors in exchange for closer access to those rewards.

For example, with slack in your dog's leash, walk toward a friend sitting on a bench. Right before the slack runs out, call your dog back to you. If they do not return, do a u-turn, and walk in the opposite direction of the friend. The longer the leash remains loose, the closer they get to the person - the positive reinforcement. The more they walk the leash into tension, the further away from that person you go - the negative reinforcement. Only turn and walk the other way for as long as it takes for your dog to return to your side on a loose leash. Try not to always turn in the same direction to avoid forming an unintended behavior pattern. 

A curly dog on a leash looks fearfully at its owner.

Aggression-Caused Leash Reactivity

Aggression is the intent to mitigate a threat and escalate accordingly if the message's recipient does not change their behavior. When getting to the root of any aggressive behavior, it's essential to take an empathetic approach to better understand why the dog may be reacting the way they are. A reactive dog feels threatened; whether there is an actual threat or not, perception is their reality. Often, they will continue their reaction until the danger goes away or they are removed from the trigger. 

Leash aggression is not just exhibited by unfriendly or aggressive dogs. In fact, it can make an amiable and social dog seem unfriendly or aggressive. Many dogs do not appreciate another dog running into their space and making physical contact without a proper introduction or being petted by a stranger before getting to know them. Well-meaning dogs with well-meaning owners are often the culprit behind severe altercations, even when both dogs are friendly, all because of an offensive introduction. This is one of the many reasons it is critical to abide by local leash laws. Being a responsible dog owner is one of the easiest ways to not just be a good human; it also plays a role in preventing reactivity and helping dogs work through behavior modification in public to reduce or extinguish reactivity. Dog walking should be safe and enjoyable for everyone - not just "well-behaved" dogs.

How to Treat Reactive Behavior in Dogs

First, be honest about your expectations. Success often takes months of routine practice. With a professional, you may go through an eight- or twelve-week program to help you gain the skills to work with your reactive dog. However, your work doesn't end after your behavior modification sessions. An excellent behavior professional will give you the tools to continue your progress with your dog long after those sessions end. Most behavior professionals are there to support you if you encounter challenges, new behaviors, or questions long after your final session because they know just how long it takes to really help a dog experiencing that level of stress.

Second, break the training down to a level where you know your dog can succeed. For example, don't expect your dog to pass right by a trigger on the same side of the street without reacting if they haven't been able to pass by the trigger from across the road first.

Participate in observation and exploration outings with your dog at a safe distance where you are simply observing and learning the mannerisms of people and animals that might be overwhelming up close. There's no expectation or skill involved; it's just watching and encouraging the observation while offering positive reinforcement when your dog makes eye contact with you or checks back in for comfort. This helps normalize the abnormal without pressure and encourages them to lean in on their person more.

A corgi on a leash makes eye contact with its owner.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Leash Reactivity

Be purposefully repetitive so your dog can rely on the predictability of what happened before to have the courage to handle what's to come. As you gradually increase the difficulty of the work (closer and more frequent contact with triggers), you'll also increase the difficulty of earning positive reinforcement to strengthen their resilience. Session to session, as you make things more and more challenging, give your dog easy wins or breaks to help keep them motivated. Try practicing one to two sessions each day with a day off once or twice a week. An example of what this might look like under the direction of a behavior consultant is as follows: 

  1. Session One: If the trigger is 50 yards away, and you know that your dog will react at 25 yards, start working with your dog on a leash 50 yards away from the trigger with either short skill drills or even simply playing with a toy. Then work them to 45 yards, then 40 yards, then 35 yards, and then back to 50 yards. 
  2. Session Two: Start at 45 yards, work to 40 yards, then 35 yards, then back to 40 yards. 
  3. Session Three: Start at 45 yards, then work to 35 yards, then work to 25 yards, then work from 30 yards, then work from 20 yards, then work from 35 yards. 
  4. Session Four: Start at 35 yards, then work to 25 yards, then 15 yards, then 40 yards. 
  5. Session Five: Start from 40 yards and work at 40 yards the whole time. 
  6. Session Six: Start at 30 yards, work to 20 yards, work to 15 yards, work back at 20 yards, then work at 10 yards, then go back to 15 yards. 

Body language that says your dog is beginning to relax is the most significant indicator of when to take the next step. Fixation behavior, such as an intense stare down with a trigger and a stiff body, is your dog's way of communicating, "I'm not quite ready to advance yet; I need to feel more comfortable with this step first." If your dog is tense or struggling when they hit the 15-yard mark, for example, go back and forth between 20 yards and 15 yards until they exhibit the same behaviors they did at 45 yards when they did not react to the trigger in the distance. 

This example helps build the confidence in your dog to succeed through systematic desensitization so you can eventually layer in counterconditioning. Counterconditioning is a process in which you form a new, emotionally positive association with something your dog has a pre-existing, emotionally negative association with. Often, reactive dogs are too overstimulated to enjoy their toys or treats when approaching triggering stimuli. Beginning with desensitization - diminishing a negative emotional response - opens the door to building a positive correlation to previous triggers, such as playing with a favorite tug toy or enjoying a favorite Kong recipe. Over time, when the dog sees what used to be a trigger, they now experience a happy response from learning that being around that stimulus means something good for them. 

If you find desensitization exceedingly difficult for your pup, it's time to talk with your veterinarian. Learning under severe stress is an incredibly complicated and sometimes impossible ask. An all-natural calming supplement given as a treat 40 minutes before a training session may help take the edge off enough to facilitate learning. Depending on the severity of contributing factors like fear and anxiety, your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may recommend adding a more potent medication to help curb more severe underlying behavior issues.

A poodle on a leash is fed a treat.

Other Ways to Reduce Leash Reactivity

Practice games under little to no distraction that help them disengage, such as Leslie McDevitt's 1,2,3 game, with part of your dog's meal. Then, when walking your dog, if you see another person or dog approaching, practice the game but with something extra flavorful such as cut-up hot dogs or freeze-dried chicken hearts. Successfully pulling your dog's attention away helps them see that nothing scary happens when disengaging from a potential trigger, only something safe and fun. Clicker training sessions can have a similar effect by involving a particular sound, which can also be a great way to work with your dog under distraction. 

Tension breeds tension, so if your dog is a puller, practice loose leash walking to avoid spring-loading your dog with leash tension before you start your walk. Get this down at home without distraction before venturing into the outside environment. If Fido has to be walked for potty breaks due to apartment or condo living, be selective about your route and choose times when triggers are unlikely until you can work through behavior modification. 

If your reactive dog has learned leverage (what pulls you off your feet), try temporarily conditioning them to a head halter, such as a Gentle Leader. The equipment doesn't teach the dog; it simply helps prevent the dog from lunging forward quickly. Increase your training and relationship-building to optimize your training, no matter the equipment. 

Normalize the leash-wearing by having your dog wear the leash while engaging in activities that they would not typically do while wearing a leash, such as eating a meal, enjoying an enrichment game, or playing tug-of-war. Also, try the opposite. Involve them in activities they would typically wear a leash for, such as skill work in the home or fenced-in yard, but occasionally, leave the leash off.

Avoid flooding. Flooding is an outdated technique where the dog is exposed to the trigger in an intense capacity. For example, taking a leash-reactive dog into a dog park on a busy day, or taking your stranger-wary dog to a bunch of strangers for an extended period, to eventually "get over it." You can't fix fear with fear. This training technique can be traumatizing, increasing the likelihood of more severe aggressive behavior. 

How to Prevent Leash Reactivity

Preventing leash reactivity is exponentially easier than treating it - both for you and your canine compadre. This prevention process starts before you bring your puppy home. During the first 9 weeks of life, puppies need lots of socialization - not to be confused with physical interactions - with other animals of varying species, dogs of varying ages, humans of varying ages, and novel environments. This helps set your puppy up for a confident life. Continuing these exposures once your puppy is with you can help them build on those experiences, making for an even more mentally well-balanced, beautifully social dog. Puppies should ideally stay with their mom and littermates through 9 weeks of age. In addition to cultivating a well-behaved canine companion, this is a critical time for learning good bite inhibition (how and when to appropriately use their teeth). 

Start working with a dog trainer immediately to prevent behavioral problems when you bring your new puppy home. Bring your puppy to group training classes to learn from other puppies around them in a social setting. A professional dog trainer can give you training tips to help your puppy feel comfortable with other animals and people. 

Don't follow the pull. While it may seem harmless to let your 15-pound pup feel like it's conquering the world, your puppy (and eventually full-grown dog) will do what it is most practiced at. That includes pulling you toward everything it sees.

Set your dog up for success by rewarding the behaviors that you want to see repeated. When your pup looks toward another dog but hasn't lunged, pulled, or barked, offer positive reinforcement such as a tasty treat or "good girl." If your dog makes eye contact as a stranger approaches, have a piece of kibble ready from your pouch. Consistent, early dog training can significantly positively impact how your puppy will respond to novel stimuli in the future.

A man hugs his leashed dog while smiling at the camera.

Key Takeaways on Dealing with Leash-Reactive Dogs

Remember that a dog's reactive behavior is usually involuntary and is a form of communication that requires attention. An increasing number of dog owners deal with leash reactivity, as it has become more common due to various factors stemming from lifestyle changes that occurred post-pandemic.

Give yourself grace and be patient with your pup as you work to alleviate the stress causing your dog's seemingly volatile behavior. Whether due to frustration, fear, or even protectiveness, consistency, confidence, and trust-building exercises can help calm even the most explosive of beasts. 

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