Regular on-leash walks are part of being a dog owner and, with the proper training, can be one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling aspects of a relationship between dog and owner.
However, walks can quickly become unpleasant if your dog is leash-reactive; they excessively bark, growl or lunge at other dogs or people while on a leash walk, making every walk an ordeal.
While leash reactivity is behavior that usually looks like aggression, it’s commonly based in fear and is likely the symptom of a deeper problem.
What’s important for every dog owner to remember is that everything in a dog’s life adds up. Every dot connects and nothing is independent. That means for behavioral issues like leash reactivity the root causes are typically complex.
To understand where leash reactivity comes from and correctly fix it, we have to look at every part of a dog’s life and address all areas of concern. Taking band-aid approaches to issues linked with leash reactivity won’t work over the long term and could result in those issues bleeding into other areas of the dog’s life.
The good news is that your dog’s leash reactivity can be fixed with proper balanced training.
Below we’ve answered a collection of frequently asked questions about leash reactivity that can help you understand why your dog is behaving this way and what steps you should take to fix the issue.
What is leash reactivity and what causes it?
Leash reactivity usually happens when a dog is triggered by something they fear while walking on leash. That fear leads to behavior that appears aggressive – often barking, growling or lunging – and is caused by the leash acting as a restrictive barrier.
Dogs have an instinctive flight-or-fight response. When they encounter another dog or person who scares them during an on-leash walk, the leash stops them from removing themselves from the situation. At that point, the dog’s natural reaction is to act threatening to make whatever is scaring them go away.
Not only does this type of behavior make on-leash walks a nightmare for owners but if it isn’t properly addressed it can escalate due to unintentional reinforcement. Dogs learn from their environment so if they behave aggressively and the person or dog their behavior is directed at goes away then the reactive dog will think that acting that way is working.
Another common cause of leash reactivity is a change in how a dog is allowed to behave on-leash as they get older. For example, if a puppy has the freedom to roam on walks but is then restricted to on-leash walks when they’re a full-grown dog, it can result in frustration and reactive behavior. This is one reason why puppy training is such a valuable tool when a dog is young.
Why is my dog aggressive on-leash but not off-leash?
As mentioned above, in typical cases of leash reactivity it’s the leash that’s restricting the dog from behaving instinctively and causing them to act out.
This is where owners understanding and implementing proper leash handling is so important. It’s common that dog owners don’t know how to walk their dogs on a leash, and that can feed into reactive behavior. Dogs have opposition reflex, which is an instinctive resistance to pressure. So, if a dog is allowed to pull on their leash while out for a walk and the owner pulls back, it can exacerbate the behavior. In a situation where a dog is reacting and pulling on the leash, the owner pulling back can lead to the reactive dog’s bad behavior to intensify.
Proper leash handling, which we’ll address more below, is one important part of reconditioning a leash-reactive dog.
Another important part is for an owner to understand their dog’s body language. Just because it looks like your leash-reactive dog is not displaying fearful behavior when off-leash, in a dog park for example, doesn’t mean that behavior isn’t present – it may just be manifesting differently. You need to know what to look for.
When a reactive dog is in an off-leash environment, like a dog park, that fearful behavior is often displayed in ways owners may not recognize, such as being submissive.
Dogs will often roll on their back, become tucked up or simply run away when in an off-leash environment, but instead of being playful behavior it’s often the dog showing that they’re uncomfortable and want to get out of that environment. Then, when that submissive dog is put on a leash, they’re going to react because now they have no opportunity to get away – instinctively, reacting is their only course of action.
How do I get my dog to stop pulling on the leash?
If your dog is leash-reactive, it’s likely a sign of a deeper problem that should be addressed with balanced training. It’s usually the symptom of fear or poor leash handling, so the layers of the dog’s life need to be pulled back to understand why the dog is reacting and address it at the source.
Part of that training, which includes stopping them from pulling on leash, is teaching your dog how to act properly when they’re on a leash walk, which also ensures that you’re not inadvertently reinforcing reactive behavior.
What does proper leash walking look like? We’ve laid it out below.
· The dog’s front shoulder should be in line with your knee as they walk calmly next you, not out in front of you.
· You then release the dog when they need to pee, poop or if you’re allowing them to explore.
· Proper leash walking should be like punching a clock. You tell the dog to “heel” and they walk next to you; you say “free”, and they release; then you say “heel” and they’re clocking back in, walking by your side.
How can I diffuse the situation when my dog is being reactive?
One of the most helpful things you can do while your dog is being leash-reactive is give them space. The closer they are to any kind of trigger, the more likely it is that the reactivity will intensify.
It’s also important to keep moving; get your dog out of the situation and don’t try to force your dog to meet or interact with the other dog or person who is the trigger as that could make things worse.
6 tips for owners of leash-reactive dogs
We recommend consulting with a balanced dog trainer to fix your dog’s leash reactivity but there are things you can do to help your dog.
Here’s a list of six tips for owners of leash-reactive dogs:
1) Work with your dog to teach proper leash walking – Start in an environment with few distractions to show and pattern correct behavior.
2) Never put your dog into forced interactions – Pushing your dog to interact with other dogs will not help to fix leash reactivity.
3) Avoid pulling on the leash – If your dog is reacting, pulling back on the leash will only exacerbate the behavior.
4) Don’t force or push your dog to sit down – Keep moving instead as moving can de-escalate the situation.
5) Switch up your walking paths – Sometimes reactivity can be territorial so switching up the patterns of your walks can be helpful.
6) Contact a balanced dog trainer – A trainer will look at everything in your dog’s life and address the issues causing leash reactivity.
How should I handle someone else’s reactive dog?
Be your dog’s advocate – always stand up for them. If you’re unsure about the motives of an approaching dog, get in between them and your dog and don’t be afraid to tell the other dog’s owner to come get them. Take the steps you need to take to protect your dog.
Additionally, it’s good practice to always put your dog in a heel or on a leash when another dog or person is walking by. You never know how a situation could unfold with another person or dog, and you should always assume that another dog has not had training.