Beginner’s Guide to Leash Reactive Dog Training

Filed in Dog Training on March 5, 2021

leash reactive dog training

If you’re looking for information on leash reactive dog training, then check out this beginner’s guide to learn more.

Unfortunately, leash reactivity is very common among dogs. It’s much more common than true dog aggression. In fact, it’s often mistaken for dog aggression.

If you have a leash reactive dog, you may find walks to be some of the most stressful times of your day. It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s what you need to know about leash reactivity and how to help your dog overcome it.

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What is Leash Reactivity?aggressive dog on leash

Leash reactivity is the tendency of dogs to over-react to a stimulus when they’re on a leash. In the vast majority of cases, leash reactivity involves your dog’s reaction to other dogs.

Sometimes dogs can also be leash reactive to people, cars, or other stimuli. A leash reactive dog may greet other dogs well when they aren’t on a leash. However, they may display problematic behavior when on a leash.

Many dogs only have the opportunity to meet other dogs when they’re on a leash.

For that reason, some people with leash reactive dogs think that their dogs are generally aggressive to other dogs. In fact, many of these dogs are only leash reactive.

Signs of Leash Reactivity

It generally isn’t too challenging to recognize leash reactivity when you see it. However, every dog is different, and some leash reactive behavior may be less obvious.

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Here are some signs of leash reactivity, starting with the most subtle and leading up to the most dramatic:

  • Evasive behavior. Your dog may put your body between them and the other dog. They may also carry their tail lower than usual. You’ll see signs of anxiety or stress in the presence of another dog when your dog is on a leash.
  • Tense body language and fixed eye contact. When your dog sees another dog, they go stiff. They refuse to take their eyes off the other dog. Their tail is typically stationary or wags very slightly.
  • Hyperactivity. These signals may appear positive, including play bows, but the behavior is more intense than is appropriate to the situation. These dogs may bark, spin, and play bow repeatedly despite no response or a negative response from the other dog.
  • Defensive proximity aggression. While dogs may display any of the three previous signs when a dog is further away, they may act differently when a dog gets near such as bark aggressively, lunge, or nip at the other dog.
  • Defensive anticipatory aggression. Your dog may react even while a dog is still some distance away. This behavior includes barking, snarling, lunging, and snapping towards another dog even while at some distance. This aggression is really rooted in your dog’s attempts to keep other dogs from getting too close.

The Psychology Behind Leash Reactive Dog Training

To reduce your dog’s leash reactivity, you must first understand why your dog is behaving in this way. Leash reactivity is typically based in fear and aggression. Some dogs display these behaviors because of frustration.

Dogs that truly have dog aggressive behavior typically behave aggressively regardless of the situation. By contrast, leash reactive dogs only show this kind of behavior on a leash.

Here are some explanations for the tendency of dogs to show leash reactivity in the absence of other aggressive behavior.

Leash Greetings Aren’t Natural for Dogs

dog sniffing each other’s behinds

Leashes, while they’re an essential component of our lives with dogs, aren’t actually very natural for dogs. Dogs naturally greet each other by circling in a wide arc and sniffing each other’s behinds.

Sometimes they’ll sniff each other’s noses briefly before making the circle. Greetings typically never last more than a second or two. Dogs often take some time to work up to the actual greeting.

By contrast, when dogs meet on a leash, they’re prevented from making a wide arc and delaying the meeting. They often have to meet face-to-face.

Two dogs trotting up to one another and meeting face-to-face means that those dogs are preparing to fight. Therefore, we unwittingly put our dogs into a fight-ready situation when we have them meet on leash.

Because most dogs don’t want to fight, they may react by trying to create distance. This is where we see defensive aggressive behavior like barking and lunging.

Owners Handling of The Leash Can Make Things Worse

To make matters worse, the average pet owner tends to hold their dog on a very tight leash while they’re meeting.

A tense leash makes them feel that they’ll be able to pull the dogs away if the meeting should go poorly. Unfortunately, tense leashes make a confrontation even more likely.

A tense leash communicates your tension to your dog. Furthermore, a tight leash makes your dog feel like it’s even more difficult for them to get away.

An Approaching Dog May Lack Appropriate Socialization Skills

Another reason for the tendency of dogs to display leash reactivity is due to the behavior of the other dog.

Dogs that have not had the opportunity to socialize regularly with other dogs in natural leash-free environments may not develop proper dog behavior.

Rather than meeting politely in a butt-sniffing arc, some dogs act like overexcited puppies well into adulthood. They may charge up to other dogs, jump all over the other dog, or get in another dog’s face.

This behavior is considered rude in the dog world. Therefore, it’s perfectly natural for the dog whose space is being invaded to reprimand the other dog.

The owner of the dog who snaps at the rude dog may think that their dog is aggressive. In fact, really it’s the inappropriate behavior of the seemingly friendly dog that’s causing the problem.

What Not to Do When Training a Leash-Reactive Dog

Unfortunately, most people’s natural reaction to leash reactivity is to do exactly what shouldn’t be done. It’s very common to reprimand a dog for displaying aggressive behavior.

Other people give a command like telling your dog to lie down or sit still as another dog approaches.

Both of these responses are more likely to cause a serious aggression incident than reduce leash reactivity. True, these responses may prevent the barking, growling, and lunging behavior.

However, they won’t change the psychology of the dog experiencing leash reactivity.

Instead, the very behaviors that were communicating your dog’s feelings to you and the other dog are hidden. That means that your dog may feel critically threatened and react by biting without warning.

What To Do When Training a Leash-Reactive Dog

You may be amazed by how quickly you can change your leash reactive dog’s behavior using the right tools. Here are some essential components that you’ll need to understand to get started on reversing your dog’s leash reactivity:

Desensitize

To desensitize your dog to a stimulus means to reduce the excitement, anxiety, and general reaction to that stimulus. For instance, if your dog overreacts to a doorbell ringing, you may ring the doorbell over and over.

Hearing the doorbell throughout the day without a guest arriving will desensitize your dog to that doorbell. Repeated exposure without anything bad happening can also desensitize your dog to leash reactivity.

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Modify Behavior

Behavior modification goes hand-in-hand with desensitization. Behavior modification aims to give your dog a different way to behave in a given situation.

Say your dog always jumps on you when you get home but you’d rather they sit. Behavior modification would involve waiting until your dog sits and then giving them a reward.

Over time, your dog will respond to the excitement of seeing you come home by sitting instead of jumping up.

In the same way, you can modify your dog’s behavior around other dogs. Behavior modification can offer a more positive way to react on a leash.

Understanding Situational Behavior

Dogs often aren’t as easily able to translate behavior from one situation to another as people are. Your dog may know how to sit perfectly well in your kitchen.

However, you may not be able to get them to sit down while on a walk. This is situational behavior.

Dogs must be re-taught the behavior that you want from them in every new situation. This is an important concept to understand when you’re working with a leash reactive dog.

You may be able to reduce leash reactivity with a certain dog, in a particular location, or in some situations. In another situation, however, you may see leash reactivity as though no training had been done at all.

This can be extremely frustrating. It can also lead to mishandling if you expect your dog to behave differently than they end up behaving. Therefore, an understanding of situational behavior is essential in training a leash reactive dog.

Managing Verse Curing Leash Reactivity

A dog that’s truly leash reactive can typically be cured of their leash reactivity. However, it’s essential that you manage your dog safely as you work on their leash reactivity.

Even one negative occurrence like a fight with another dog can set you back significantly in your training. It may also lead to more generalized dog aggression.

Dogs that are able to keep displaying reactivity by barking and lunging are more likely to keep doing that behavior.

Every time they behave in this way, the behavior is reinforced. Therefore, avoid putting your dog in situations in which they display leash reactivity.

Three Techniques for Leash Reactive Dog Training

Here are three techniques you can try to help reduce your dog’s reactivity:

1. Desensitized Exposure to Other Dogs

dog sees another dog

Your leash reactive dog believes that other dogs are threats. They feel a level of stress and anxiety whenever they see another dog. You want to desensitize your dog to exposure to other dogs so that they don’t react.

To do this, you need to have some control over your dog’s environment. Never allow another dog near enough to stress your dog.

Exclusive offer: If you need more advanced help, get 20% off SpiritDog’s Tackling Reactivity Online Class (Use coupon code dogendorsed).

At the moment that your dog is aware of the other dog, prevent the other dog from getting closer. Needless to say, this can present some challenges. Ideally, you can enlist the help of friends with dogs to create a controlled environment.

Without a friend to help, you may spend a lot of time turning around abruptly whenever you see another dog. This may feel a bit strange. However, it’s well worth it. You need to teach your dog that they’re not going to have to confront other dogs on their walk.

If other people continue to approach with their dog, don’t be afraid to tell them to keep their distance. Having your dog wear a vest or harness that says “Please don’t Approach,” can help.

2. Seeing a Dog Equals Rewards

Whenever your dog sees another dog, but before they lose focus on you, reward your dog prolifically. Find out whatever your dog loves best, whether it’s boiled chicken, cheese, peanut butter, liver treats, or something else.

Feed your dog these treats whenever another dog is anywhere near. In time, your dog will learn that the presence of a dog means yummy rewards. They’ll begin to stop feeling stressed and start feeling excited about food.

3. Offer Rewards for Alternative Behavior

Eventually, you want to begin offering your dog rewards for alternative behavior. Look for positive social signals, such as:

  • Your dog looking at the other dog and then looking away
  • Relaxed body language
  • Sniffing towards the other dog without signs of aggression

Reward all of these behaviors enthusiastically while continuing to get closer and closer to the other dog. If at any time your dog reverts back to aggressive behavior, increase the distance and work your way closer again.

Once your dog is able to be calm near another dog, allow them to very briefly sniff another dog’s behind. Call your dog away and give them an enthusiastic reward for sniffing politely. As your dog gains confidence, you can begin allowing natural, loose leash greetings.

Always avoid initial face-to-face greetings. In time, your dog will be able to have a complete natural interaction on leash before getting their reward.

Tips to Manage Leash Reactivity

If your dog is aggressive towards dogs in most or all situations, curing leash aggression may not be an option. You may need to manage their behavior throughout their life. If you’re not sure whether your dog is generally aggressive or just leash-aggressive, management will also be important.

Here are some tips for managing a leash reactive dog. These tips work well whether you’re working on training or you’re managing a lifelong dog aggressive dog:

1. Use the Right Equipment

Good equipment is absolutely critical for the protection of your dog and the community. Here are a few essential components:

Martingale Collar

A martingale or limited-slip collar is a collar that tightens enough that it won’t slip over your dog’s head. It doesn’t, however, tighten enough to choke your dog.

These collars are even looser than a standard buckle collar when the leash is relaxed. They tighten immediately when pressure is put on the leash.

When your dog is on a loose leash, they won’t feel any pressure or tension. If they pull against the leash, they won’t be able to escape.

Harness

Dogs that lunge against the leash can do damage to their neck even on a martingale collar. Therefore, it’s a very good idea to use a sturdy harness. With a harness, your dog won’t hurt themselves when they’re pulling.

Attach the harness to the martingale collar using carabiners. This step is important because there’s no such thing as a truly escape-proof harness.

You may be amazed by the way your dog can slip their legs out of a harness. Escape is especially easy when there’s tension on it from the lead.

By attaching the harness to the martingale, you can eliminate tension on your dog’s neck. Simultaneously, you prevent any possibility of escaping the harness.

Bite Proof Leash

dog biting their leash

In the frenzy of trying to get to another dog, some dogs turn to biting at the leash. You may be stunned by how quickly a dog can chew through even a fairly sturdy leash. Dogs can chew through a leash even quicker when there’s tension on it.

It can be very hard to stop this from happening since your dog will likely be lunging away from you. A leash that your dog can’t bite through is essential. A retractable leash should never be used when managing a reactive dog.

Basket Muzzle

A basket muzzle isn’t necessary for most leash reactive dogs. However, if your dog has ever bitten and drawn blood, it’s a good idea to have them wear a muzzle. There’s always the possibility that another dog may break free from their handler or approach you off-leash.

A muzzle can prevent your dog from biting another dog in these circumstances. It can also prevent a serious fight from breaking out. Basket muzzles are designed to be worn for long periods and are humane and comfortable for your dog.

Police and military dogs often wear basket muzzles throughout their workday without any problem at all.

Dogs can pant, drink, and generally live life normally while wearing a basket muzzle. To acclimate your dog to the muzzle, smear peanut butter on the inside.

Allow your dog to lick it off. Gradually increase the time that your dog spends wearing the muzzle. When they’re comfortable wearing it, you’ll be ready to take them for a walk in it.

2. Control the Environment

Your dog will have setbacks if you take leash walks in places and at times with lots of other dogs. Therefore, it’s important that you control the environment that your dog is exposed to on leash walks.

Take walks early in the morning or late in the evening when there aren’t many other dogs around. You can also drive to places that offer more distance between dogs, such as hiking trails.

3. Utilize Evasive Strategies

dog looking at the treat

Distracting dog with treat

During the instances when you inevitably encounter another dog, you can use these essential strategies to reduce your dog’s stress:

  • Take a U-turn. When you see a dog while you’re walking a leash reactive dog, turn the other way. Walking quickly away from the other dog will show your dog that a confrontation isn’t imminent. This should immediately reduce your dog’s response. It’s much harder for your dog to fixate on another dog when they’re being pulled in the opposite direction.
  • Increase distance. If a U-turn isn’t an option, increase the distance as you pass the other dog. Try going to the other side of the street or putting obstacles between you and the other dog.
  • Make a distraction. Many dog aggressive dogs can’t be distracted while they’re fixated on another dog, but some can be. Offer a high-value toy or tasty treat to reduce fixation on the other dog.

FAQ

What is the difference between leash reactivity and dog aggression?

Dogs that experience other kinds of aggression in addition to leash reactivity may not be able to be completely cured of their leash reactivity.

If your dog typically does well with other dogs in situations that don’t involve a leash, such as when friends come over with dogs or you go to a dog park, you have a leash reactive and not a dog aggressive dog.

However, if your dog behaves aggressively at dog parks or with other dogs when not on a leash, it may be dog aggression and not leash reactivity behind your dog’s behavior on walks.

Dog aggressive dogs may operate out of a fearful desire to keep other dogs away, similar to leash reactivity, or your dog may be acting out of an instinctual desire to fight other dogs.

Some dog aggressive dogs can overcome their dog aggression, while others are likely to display some level of dog aggression throughout life regardless of training.

Can my adult reactive dog be cured?

Has your dog been leash reactive since puppyhood? Have you recently adopted a dog and found them to be leash reactive? If so, is there any chance of changing your dog’s behavior so late in life?

If your dog is truly leash reactive and doesn’t have underlying dog aggression, there’s an extremely high probability that you’ll be able to cure their reactivity.

Leash reactivity is nearly always founded in fear, frustration, or an inability to understand dog language. You can teach your leash reactive dog that there’s nothing to fear.

You can also equip them to have appropriate social interactions on leash. With patience, you have an excellent chance of overcoming their leash reactivity.

Conclusion on Leash Reactive Dog Training

Well, hopefully this beginner’s guide gave you a good overview of leash reactive dog training.

If you’re struggling with walking your dog on a leash, you will learn signs and reasons for leash reactivity, plus steps to manage or reduce this behavior.

While these tips and steps may make a real difference, you should also consider hiring a dog trainer if you don’t see any improvement.

I hope that you have more relaxing and enjoyable walks with your dog in the future.

I also wrote a blog post on 9 Tips for Reactive Dog Training if interested.

Comments (1)

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  1. patty eastman says:

    Thanks much for this guide. My dog is friendly but hard to handle when she sees another dog. Not aggressive but really pulls on leash. I’m going to try clicker and treats.

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