Leash Reactivity: A Comprehensive Training Guide


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 on 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.

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 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.”
  • When your dog sees a trigger, you simply say “yes!”, your dog will turn back to you, and you will reward.
  • If your dog ignores you, you are simply too close to the trigger. Move away and try again.
    • If you’re struggling with this step, do the same thing but with a toy or other uninteresting object. Practice your timing in saying “yes” as soon as your dog looks at the toy.
  • 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? 

We will be offering an online course on leash reactivity soon, so be sure to check back for updates! If you’re in the Atlanta, GA area, we offer both private and group classes specializing in leash reactivity.

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