Leash Reactivity – Understanding & Fixing It

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There are few things more stressful as a dog parent than the feeling when you’re on a nice, peaceful walk with your furbaby when, seemingly out of nowhere, your sweet little fluff monster transforms into a barking, pulling, actual monster. This behavior is known as leash reactivity, and, as frightening and stressful as it can be for pet parents, it’s probably even more stressful for the pups who engage in it. 

There is good news though: Leash reactivity is a fairly common and very trainable issue—as long as you’re willing to put in the time required to get to the bottom of what’s causing it, that is. Here’s everything you need to know about leash reactivity, from what causes it to how to manage it and even the long-term training strategies that can help solve the issue to save you and your pup lots of future stress. 

What is leash reactivity?

Leash reactivity is a general term that encompasses a range of undesirable on-leash 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 the world around him—from other dogs to people, cars, or anything else, really—there’s a good chance his behavior qualifies as leash reactivity. 

So what causes some dogs to develop outsized and inappropriate reactions to the environment when they’re on a leash? While it’s easy to mistake leash reactivity 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 the environment (fear) or they want to get closer to something they’ve seen in the environment (frustration). 

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

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. Still, when a leash is coming between a pup and his primal urges, sometimes undesirable behavior bubbles up. 

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 and exposure to a variety of people and animals as young pups are more likely to struggle with leash reactivity 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 walk) can lead to leash reactivity. In this case, the dog is probably associating the original bad experience with any similar experience he has in the future, and reacting accordingly. 
  • Improper correction for reacting on leash: There’s a good reason that respected trainers and animal experts the world over advocate positive-only training practices. Not only does punishing a dog for undesirable behavior rarely result in correcting said “bad” behavior, it can traumatize the dog and create new behavioral problems. 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.
Reactivity chart

How should I manage leash reactivity?

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

  • Be patient: 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 reinforce the behavior. 
  • Be aware of your dog’s triggers: If your dog struggles with leash reactivity, pay attention to the specific triggers that set him off and do your best to avoid those things, especially during times when you can’t engage in thorough, positive-focused training to correct the behavior (more on that below). 
  • Stay calm: A reactive dog can be stressful for its human parent too, 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 episodes, even just 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 the reactive behavior. Do your best 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. 
  • 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 behavior you want to see more of, always.
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 correct, especially since correcting the behavior can also mean soothing the underlying issue that’s 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 treats and do a few basic cues—with treats as rewards—before you start walking. This puts your pup in the right mindset to focus on you (and to know that treats are coming as rewards for other good behavior 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 your dog 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 only 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 him 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 his 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 positive-focused trainer in your area for some one-on-one support.

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

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