What Causes Leash Reactivity in Dogs [what is a leash reactive dog and why you need to know]
Leash-reactive dogs are usually calm off-leash but bark, growl, snarl, or lunge at the sight of other dogs, people, or triggers such as bicycles when on a leash. Reactive behavior makes walks unpleasant and often scares owners because it looks like aggressive behavior. Leash reactivity is a common problem with dogs but you can train them to avoid this unwanted behavior.
Helping a leash-reactive dog is possible, but it takes time and patience to refocus your dog’s attention and change its reactions to triggers that might scare or frustrate them.
For some people, a reactive dog can ruin their life. Keep reading to learn how to get a well-behaved dog even when on a leash!
What Does Leash-Reactive Mean?
A leash-reactive dog behaves differently on a leash than they do off-leash. Leash-reactive describes how your dog starts acting emotionally and not rationally when put on a leash.
Their behavior often looks like aggression as a dog lunges, they exhibit excessive barking, or even growling at whatever triggered their reaction.
These actions and warning signs may appear anytime you have your dog on a leash.
This includes being out for a walk, visiting a dog park, or simply when encountering a situation outside the dog’s environment they are used to at home.
Other ‘symptoms’ of leash reactivity may include refusing to walk, ignoring treats, or ‘freezing’ instead of moving.
When off-leash, though, these dogs have no issues with their triggers and can be quite playful and excited to engage with other dogs and people.
Why is a Leash Reactive Dog a Problem?
Leash reactivity is a situation-specific type of reaction, as it occurs only when the dog is on a leash. It can be a frustrating, difficult, and frightening experience.
Not to mention potentially dangerous for both the dog and the dog owners, as it’s hard to control a dog that gets so worked up.
There’s also the risk of the dog tripping its owner when the dog pulls, lunges, or accidentally nips or bites its owner in the excitement.
Other people can also misinterpret a leash-aggressive dog as simply an out-of-control vicious dog and view them as a threat.
This can be a problem if you live in an apartment community or one with a homeowners’ association.
Leash reactivity also makes walking your pooch unpleasant. You might walk your dog early in the morning or late at night to avoid the presence of other dogs and people.
Or you might zigzag across the street or duck into alleys to avoid them too.
How Common is Leash Reactivity in Dogs?
Lease reactivity is a common behavior issue and occurs in about 50% of dogs according to some studies. It is easy to understand if you think like a dog!
Heck, you are so excited (your dog) to get outside and explore the world that the result of a surge of energy from being set ‘free’ turns into aggressive behavior that normally would not take place.
What is Leash Aggression?
While they look the same, there is a difference between leash reactivity and leash aggression.
A leash-reactive dog is responding negatively to the leash while leash aggression is usually caused by fear. Dogs only have a few ways to communicate.
They don’t have words to express their different feelings. Your dog’s body language and maybe some barks and whines are their only way to communicate with you.
So, when they feel negative emotions like anger, fear, and frustration, the way they express those feelings is similar: barking, growling, snarling, and lunging.
This is why leash reactivity is often confused with aggression, but really most often it stems from fear and frustration.
What Causes a Dog to be Leash Reactive?
There are two major common causes of leash reactivity, frustration and fear.
While leashes are necessary to keep us, our dogs, and those around us safe, they conflict with a dog’s natural instincts.
Your dog’s fear and uncertainty may result in them being leash reactive as a natural response to an unnatural stimulus.
What is the Fight-or-Flight Reaction?
One of the most important parts of dealing with leash reactivity is discovering the cause, and one of these causes is fear. The cause of fear comes in many forms.
From a blaring car horn to a runner thumping past you to being surprised when you turn a corner and bump into another dog walker, each of these situations can scare your pooch.
A common reaction to fear for all animals is to fight or flee. When you’re wearing a leash, though, you can’t do either.
This puts your dog in a position where they’re forced to react unnaturally.
Normally, when afraid, a dog will avoid eye contact, move away, or cower, but when they can’t do this, they react with typical leash reactivity signs: barking, snarling, and growling.
The closer that fear trigger gets, the more afraid your dog becomes.
Do Dogs Get Frustrated and React Poorly When on a Leash?
Yes! When a dog can’t reach their toy or that treat that fell under the fridge, they get frustrated.
When they’re on a leash and can’t greet an old friend or investigate a new one, they get frustrated too.
That’s why when a leash stops your dog from getting what it wants, that frustration comes out as leash reactivity.
Why Won’t My Dog Respond to My Commands?
If you’ve ever tried to complete a task when you’re anxious, frustrated, or afraid, you know it takes longer than normal or you might not do it at all.
When a dog’s senses are overwhelmed by fear or frustration, they struggle to follow your commands.
Am I Responsible For My Dog’s Poor Behavior?
Not directly, no, but it is possible for your dog to pick up on your mood and attitude based on how you hold the leash.
If you’ve experienced a lot of leash reactivity with your dog, it’s likely that you’ll hold the leash tighter, keep it shorter, and scan the area for any triggers.
Your dog picks up on this and this can set it on edge as it, too, looks out for potential danger.
Other Causes for a Dog’s Negative Leash Reaction
There are other causes of leash reactivity. One is that some dogs are genetically predisposed to being more reactive.
For example, dachshunds and chihuahuas tend to have more aggression toward strangers than many other breeds. This natural instinct also makes them more prone to leash reactivity.
Another common cause comes from a dog’s experiences, especially when young. The experience of fearful, traumatic, or painful situations lingers with us all.
For dogs, it might be that they were bitten by a bigger dog while on a leash or that they learned to associate a car horn with some sort of negative experience.
It can be difficult for us to know exactly what the cause was, but it’s important to remember that your dog may have experienced some sort of trauma that caused its leash reactivity.
What are Leash Reactive Triggers?
A trigger is something that causes an action. With leash-reactive dogs, a trigger would be something like another dog barking, a person shouting, or a perceived threat.
Your dog has learned to respond to these triggers with powerful emotions like fear or frustration and so they react seemingly aggressively.
Remember though, that this isn’t necessarily aggression, it just looks like it.
What Can Trigger My Dog’s Reactions?
When dealing with leash reactivity, it is vital to find out what your dog’s triggers are.
You probably already know what triggers your dog, but it’s important to pay close attention to when they react on a leash. Some common triggers include:
- Seeing a dog
- Seeing an animal like a squirrel
- Hearing a dog bark
- Fast-moving objects like cars and bicycles
- Loud noises like the beep from a truck backing up
- Very loud noises like fireworks
This list is not complete. Every dog is different and may have a negative association with one or more triggers that don’t fall into those categories.
What is a Trigger Threshold?
We all have lines we don’t want to be crossed, and for some, that line is closer than it is for others.
For example, some dogs might only react to other dogs when they’re a few feet away, while other dogs react at the sight of another dog half a block away.
Finding out where your dog’s threshold is will help immensely with training them to respond appropriately to their triggers.
As you walk with your dog, pay attention to how close or far you are to a trigger before your dog responds. This will be important to discover the proper training methods that work for your dog.
Can Leash Reactivity Be Cured?
The word ‘fix’ makes it sound like your dog is broken, but they are not! Leash reactivity is a learned behavior and there’s no definitive ‘cure’.
However, there are ways you can reduce your dog’s stress and negative reactions and turn those reactions into a much more positive experience for you.
How You Can Help Your Dog Overcome Leash Reactivity
We’ve spoken about negative reactions, identifying triggers, and finding thresholds, and these are key in finding ways to help your dog.
Ultimately, we want to change your dog’s negative associations with their triggers into positive associations.
10 Tips to Calm a Leash-Reactive Dog
- Be proactive! Look for signs that an event may happen and stop it before it does
- Avoid your dog’s “triggers”
- Keep your dog’s attention on you at all times and not the other animal
- Be calm and soothing with your verbal commands
- Don’t let yourself get excited as your dog will sense that
- Keep your body language calm
- Don’t approach other dogs in a manner that will startle them
- Leave the area to a quiet environment as soon as possible
- Always be training them even in real-life situations
- Get professional training
Train Your Dog to Respond to Your Commands
The first step in helping your dog with leash reactivity is to get them to focus its attention on you. You are their human, and you are in control of their walk.
How to Walk a Reactive Dog
Your dog should know that you’re in charge and that you’ll reward them for the right behaviors. A great place to start this training is on every walk.
When walking your dog get them to focus on you. Start small and take your time but getting your dog to focus on you and not the surrounding environment is key.
Make time each day to walk with your dog and work on their focus. Teach them to respond when you call their name or use a command of your choice.
For example, work on getting your dog to first look at you, then come to you when you say “here”.
Practice stopping and going while you walk with simple commands such as stop, and go. Look at them when you speak and make sure they are looking at you during the learning phase.
As you practice this command, you’ll want to slowly increase the distance between you and your dog and add a distraction or two when they get the hang of it.
Use the ‘here’ command to keep bringing your dog’s attention back to you. Don’t wait for a trigger to do it. Wait for a minute or two between each command.
Set time aside each day to work on training sessions and be consistent with what actions you reward.
Reward the Actions You Want
Rewarding actions is easy but making sure you don’t punish the actions you don’t want is hard.
It’s a natural reaction to shout “No!” or yank the leash back to stop your dog’s actions, but you don’t want to do this.
Remember, we’re rewarding the desired actions with positive experiences and not punishing negative actions with negative experiences.
Push Their Thresholds
Once your dog consistently and unquestioningly responds to you, you can push its thresholds a bit. Meaning, slowly teach them to control these feelings.
If there’s a dog up the road who sits at the fence and barks, and this sets off a reaction in your dog, try to approach that area a few feet more each day.
Reward your pup every time they keep their focus on you and not on the barking dog.
Remember, you don’t want to unnecessarily put your dog in a situation that’s too much for them to handle, but you do want to try and improve their reactions when you need it.
Keep it slow and only push that threshold when your dog is ready for it.
Keep Working on Leash Training
Practice and consistency are key when teaching your dog proper leash behavior.
Even when your dog responds every time it hears your command, and even when they’re responding to you and not your triggers, keep working on the training!
Just as you retrain your dog to respond positively to your commands, so too can a dog relearn their old negative reactions and associations.
What Not to Do Concerning Leash Reactivity
Don’t Set Your Dog Up for Failure
The most thing to remember as you help your dog with leash reactivity is to not set them up for failure.
This means that you need to keep the steps simple. Reward good behavior and try to correct unwanted behavior.
Don’t Punish Negative Reactions
We all know bad behavior shouldn’t be rewarded, but when you punish a leash-reactive dog for their reactions, you’re only adding more negative associations.
This could act as a trigger that already scares or frustrates them. The best way of dealing with Leash Reactivity (or any negative behavior) is with a positive association.
Associate the desired behavior with a positive response. Your dog will be rewarded with good things when acting appropriately. Negative reinforcement rarely produces the desired result.
Don’t Use the Wrong Collar on Your Dog
There are different collars available with the idea that they can correct inappropriate behavior. Prong collars and shock collars may be something you have heard of.
The problem with these is that they’re punishing bad reactions.
No one wants to be choked, shocked, or poked in the neck when they’re already afraid or distressed and your dog is no different!
Instead of a shock collar that hurts your pup, use a regular collar or, even better, use a harness.
A harness gives you more control over your dog’s movements and it also takes a lot of strain off their throats.
Related Leash Reactivity Questions
How do You Socialize a Leash Reactive Dog?
- Use positive reinforcement techniques.
- Reward your dog for positive behavior
- Keep them close to you so they can hear and see your commands
- Create a routine when you interact with other dogs so your dog knows what to expect
- Keep your dog calm by being calm yourself and issuing commands to keep their attention.
- If you sense your dog is getting too excited exit the environment as soon as possible and try another day
How long should a leash reactivity training session last?
10-minutes is a good baseline for most training sessions. Your dog can only concentrate for so long, and you want them to be engaged so they keep making positive associations.
What are the best training treats for leash reactivity?
This depends on your dog, but there are high value (like meat, cheese, etc.) and low value (kibble, regular treats, etc.) value treats.
Use high-value treats when training for leash reactivity to ensure the best response.
Should I let my dog sniff on a walk or is that a distraction?
Dogs love to sniff, and you should let them do so within reason. Sniffing is both a physical and mental activity for dogs that helps them expend energy.
What is a Veterinary Behaviorist?
A veterinary behaviorist is someone certified as a veterinarian and specializes in animal behavior.
Leash Reactivity Can Be Resolved
It can be difficult and frightening to deal with a dog with leash reactivity, but don’t let it get you down.
By refocusing your dog’s attention on you, and rewarding the behaviors you want, you’ll soon have your dog walking in a much calmer manner.
Remember, though, that practice and patience are key to successfully retraining your dog’s reactions.