Leash Reactivity: A Comprehensive Training Guide

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Leash reactivity is by far the most common dog behavior problem we're called in to help with.

If you've ever struggled with your dog's barking and lunging on walks, you know the immense frustration this behavior causes.

Because we've found leash reactivity to be an epidemic problem that's frequently misdiagnosed and misunderstood, we've created a comprehensive guide for determining:

  1. Whether or not your dog has leash reactivity
  2. Understanding leash reactivity's causes
  3. Providing a framework for resolving the problem

Determining If You Have a Leash Reactive Dog 

So, you think you might have a leash reactive dog?

It's important to understand that reactivity doesn't necessarily translate to aggression. At its core, reactivity means a "responsiveness to stimulus."

In your dog's case, that stimulus might be a person, a dog, a car – you name it.

Your dog's "responsiveness" is less than ideal for those of us on the other end of the leash.

You likely have a leash reactive dog if:

  • Your dog whines or barks at people, dogs, cars, etc on leash.
  • Your dog lunges or excessively strains at the leash when seeing a stimulus.
  • Your dog redirects onto the leash or onto you by biting, nipping, or shaking.
  • Your dog engages in similar behaviors behind a window, fence, or gate.

Determining the Cause of Your Dog's Leash Reactivity

There are three primary causes of leash reactivity in dogs.

  1. Frustration.
    In puppyhood, we allow our pups to say hello to anyone and everyone they pass on the street. This is incredibly reinforcing for most friendly and social pups. Then as they age, we take those greetings away, and your pup is left with unmet expectations, leaving you with a frustrated, reactive dog that desperately wants to say hello.If given the opportunity, these reactive dogs would happily greet the person or other dog once they reached out, although their greeting may be less than polite.

    These dogs are typically highly social and do well with other dogs or people off-leash.

  2. Fear or insecurity.
    On the flip side of frustrated dogs are our fearful, insecure dogs. These dogs may have been poorly socialized or had a scary experience with another dog. Typically, this scary experience involves an inability to escape.

    A leash takes away your dog's ability to choose "flight" – which most dogs will happily take when given the opportunity. So when an off-leash dog attacks your on-leash dog, this can cause an immediate desire to use barking, lunging, and other intimidating body language signals to deter other dogs from doing the same.These dogs are typically shy or on guard when meeting other dogs off-leash, although they may eventually warm up to new dogs.

  3. Desire to seek out conflict.
    It is exceedingly rare that we see cases like this, but there are highly confident dogs with a "let me at 'em" attitude towards other dogs that is not rooted in fear or insecurity. They may redirect onto their leash or their owner by nipping or even biting.These dogs will generally pick a fight the moment they meet another dog on or off leash, and we recommend immediately consulting a qualified professional to ensure safety for you and your dog.

Preventing Leash Reactivity

As with most difficult things in life, prevention is easier than the cure. Here are a few tips to prevent leash reactivity in your dog or puppy:

  • Do not let your dog meet other dogs while on leash – ever. Trust us :)
  • Require that your dog sit next to you when meeting new people on leash, and use food rewards to reward appropriate behaviors. You want to be more interesting to your dog than anything else!
  • Avoid retractable leashes – nothing good comes from having a dog walking several feet in front of you.
  • Avoid corrective collars; we work with many dogs that develop reactivity due to receiving corrections in the presence of other dogs, causing a negative association towards other dogs.

Stopping Leash Reactivity

To truly stop leash reactivity for good, you've got to address the underlying cause. Punishing away the symptoms (lunging, barking, etc) is a bandaid at best. See the video below for a visual demonstration!

Regardless of the cause of your dog's reactivity, they must learn better coping skills in the presence of a trigger, and must develop the impulse control to choose those coping skills instead of reactive behaviors.

We recommend working with a professional on this, as your timing and technical skills are important. You can find a well-qualified professional in your area through CCPDT, IAABC, and VSPDT.

Understanding Our Recommended Protocol: 

We like to teach a reactive dog to notice a trigger, and voluntarily look at its handler instead. Engage, and then disengage without reacting. To put it simply, we are teaching your dog a more appropriate response!

Step 1: Practice Indoors
  • To do this, you must first teach your dog a marker word. You may also use a clicker, but we have found a verbal marker to be easier and very effective.
  • We like the word "Yes."
  • First, we need to teach your dog that the word "yes" is relevant to them, and predicts good things. With your dog on leash, practice having a helper lift up a toy or other item near your dog. As soon as your dog looks at the toy, say "Yes" and reward your dog.
  • For your reward, you should be using high-value food such as string cheese, hot dogs, or shredded chicken.
  • Once you're feeling comfortable with your timing, it's time to take this into the real world.
Step 2: Take the Training Outdoors
  • When you see a trigger approaching, add distance. Ideally, you're seeing the trigger before your dog does. Keep in mind – you likely need more distance than you think!
  • When your dog does notice the trigger, you simply say "yes!", your dog should turn back to you, and you will reward. At no point should there be any barking, lunging, or other reactive behaviors.
  • If your dog ignores you or does begin to bark or lunge, you are simply too close to the trigger. Move further away and try again.
  • After doing this with enough frequency, your dog should be able to see the trigger and look back at you, all on his own. You will then mark "Yes" and reward.
  • We recommend doing this in a stationary position for a few weeks before passing in motion.
  • Over time, your dog will need less and less distance from their trigger, and many owners see complete resolution of their dog's reactivity.

Need More Help? 

Need professional guidance on your leash reactivity issues?

We offer a comprehensive online leash reactivity course that will walk you and your dog through our leash reactivity protocol, including mentoring by one of our expert trainers. The course is open enrollment (so you can join anytime!) and can be completed at your own pace.

You can find details and enroll here.

A Few More Links to Check Out:

We also offer private online dog training that's accessible from anywhere in the world. More details here, or contact us.

21 thoughts on “Leash Reactivity: A Comprehensive Training Guide

  1. What if you can't get far enough away? I walk my dog a few times a day and anytime I see a dog, I cross the street, but either side of the street is lined either with houses or the woods. I know crossing the street isn't enough distance because my dog still wants to lunge, even though I'm trying to redirect with treats. If I can, I try to turn around and walk the other direction, but if a dog is following us, even from a distance, my dog will stay fixated. It feels cruel to stop walking him because that's 90% of his exercise. So, what's my best option in a scenario where I can't get enough distance?

    1. Great question! We often suggest that people take a break from walking on their typical routes, especially if those routes are a challenge to get away from triggers. Try starting your training in a less busy park or a wider street where you have distance options. Once your pup has some successes under their belt, you can try again in those more challenging locations.

  2. One of our dogs sometimes reacts to dogs, but recently it’s gotten bad down our road and there’s not even a dog there and she’s basically reacting to nothing (probably is a smell or something). But it’s something that’s not apparent to me so I can’t know what’s triggering her or how to act against it

  3. Hi there – I have a 5 year old deaf dog who is a medium/ large dog and rather powerful that has become increasingly reactive when walking him and he sees other dogs.I walk him with another smaller dog and sometimes when people won’t keep their distance despite me trying to get away from them or asking them to go another way – He will snip and kinda attack the smaller dog, but I think it is more that when Pixel is barking and lunging – Oliver the smaller dog gets in the way. They are actually good buddies. At times I do get him to sit sit still while the other dog that he is reacting to walking past at a distance. But most times he only does that for a few minutes.

    I have watched you video – But obviously I can’t use the word Yes as he is deaf. Any suggestions what I can do as this situation is really getting bad and I am desperate.

    1. If possible, I would strongly suggest professional help here – let me know if you'd like aa referral in your area! I would walk the dogs separately for now, and if you must walk them together (which I would not recommend at this time), utilize a Baskerville Ultra muzzle for your larger dog. For deaf dogs, we utilize a finger tap on the shoulder blade instead of the verbal marker "yes." I'd definitely recommend in-person help, as it's going to be important that the timing is conducted just right!

  4. I’m working with positive reinforcement trainers and this is what they have taught me to do. I am having some success but I have a 1 year old sheepadoodle, who goes to the groomers every 6 weeks (and he is already anxious as soon as he knows where we’re going) and it’s impossible to create distance because the lobby is small and there’s always dogs coming and going. It’s very frustrating and I really don’t know how to get him to stop reacting in that environment. Some owners will let there dogs come very close.

    1. Does the groomer have a back or side door they'd allow you to enter through? Many vets and groomers will accommodate reactive dogs in this way if you ask! Keep up the great work.

  5. We rescued an English Mastiff who reacts to our 2 cats when we try to introduce them, He weighs 175 pds so we end up holding him back by holding onto his harness which makes things worse (plus it’s hard to hold him back). Any suggestions would be great! He seems to wag his tail when seeing one of the braver cats but also will take off after the cat when we put him down and runs up stairs.

    1. This is definitely a precarious situation with such a big size difference! The most important thing to determine is -is it play, or is it predatory behavior? I would strongly advise professional guidance for the safety of everyone involved – we're happy to help virtually, or I can provide a referral in your area. In the meantime, the engage/disengage exercise in this blog is an excellent starting point for building a foundation of calm behavior around the cats. Make sure you have a safe area the cats can go to where your dog cannot access them, their food, or their litter box. Never leave them unattended without two degrees of separation (crate and closed door, etc).

  6. My 16 mth border collie gets frustrated if a dog comes up playing with him…he bites my legs, draws blood and it hurts so much..he's great with dogs off lead

    1. This is a common redirection issue we see in reactive dogs – I would strongly suggest working with a professional. We can work with you virtually or provide a referral in your area!

  7. My question is geared around the "too close" or "move farther away"
    How do you do that if your dog is stiff and fixated? There is absolutely no moving my dog unless I pick her up and physically move her. She is 12 pounds so that's doable but even if she is not barking or lunging yet, she is locked at watching the dog and often shakes. I could use some suggestions around this. Thank you

    1. Great question! Fixation (even without barking or lunging) indicates that you are working too close to the trigger. You will need to proactively move to a greater distance, ideally before she notices the trigger. If you're running out of distance, try starting this at a public park or somewhere with a lot of space to work with.

  8. I live in an apartment and have to walk the dog through the hallway and a couple doors to get out of the building. any tips in those unavoidable situations where a retreat isn’t always possible?

    1. If safety is a concern, consider conditioning to a muzzle. You can also work on a "middle" cue as a way to teach your dog to redirect between your legs when a trigger approaches. There are some good videos online of how to teach this!

  9. I live in an apartment with my dog, so I walk him a few times a day. My dog is reactive only while on a leash but does not show any signs of aggression (growling, hackles, etc). He is frustrated that he can't say hi so he barks and lunges. I have been working on training with my dog, similar to what is shown in your video, except it is difficult to have space where we live and I noticed he reacts mainly when walking past other dogs. Is there something different I can do with this training when walking past dogs?

    1. I'd suggest finding alternate walking places that have more distance initially, until you are seeing improvement with your dog. Many dogs are most reactive in their neighborhood/complex, so it helps to start the training elsewhere. We also often use Leslie McDevitt's Pattern Games to help navigate tight apartment corridors!

  10. My 3 year old German shepherd mix lays down immediately when seeing another dog no matter the distance. Some dogs she’ll lounge and bark at and others she’s totally fine with. We’ve tried treats and sometimes it works others it doesn’t

    1. We see this a lot with the sheps :) If this happens, it's good information that you're too close to the trigger. I know it's challenging, but find some walking locations where you can work at a larger distance and you'll find that this protocol works much easier! You can then decrease distance as she improves.

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