Leash reactivity in dogs is a common problem even though it may not feel like it; your dog might bark and lunge uncontrollably for no reason at random people, kids, skateboards, dogs etc. I’m guessing you’ve got a wonderful dog right? However, this dog isn’t that great with some first impressions…sound about right? If you want to help your dog with their reactivity problems then you need to first understand the problem itself so you can make a solid plan from there!


beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs

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The Importance of Understanding Leash Reactivity In Dogs

Dogs come in all different shapes and sizes; big and small, brown and black, non-reactive and reactive. Of course there are other variations but in this guide I am going to walk you through the basics of this problem.


What is Leash Reactivity in Dogs?

It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, if we break down the two words it makes crystal clear sense…

Leash – dog leash, dog on the leash

Reactivity – reacting to a certain stimuli

Leash reactivity – Your dog reacting to a certain stimuli/trigger while they are on the leash.

Your dog may be reactive to kids, cars, bikes, dogs, other animals, skateboards, cats , people with hoods, males etc.

Aggression vs Reactivity – What’s The Difference?

Leash aggression and reactivity can be classed as the same – reacting to a certain stimuli while they are on the lead. HOWEVER, not all reactive dogs are actually aggressive and that is why you need to understand this issue.

Aggression in dogs is more wanting to actually attack the trigger either as a prey drive or in protection mode. If you have a dog you feel is aggressive then getting professional help is the easiest option to deal with this issue. Aggressive dogs can be dangerous to the public, others and themselves! Without help this could become a worse problem.


What Causes Leash Reactivity In Dogs?

Most dogs will be suffering from some deeper mental problem such as anxiety, nervousness, excitement, afraid etc. This is why it is harder to train out and some people just don’t have the patience for it with busy schedules.

This can be from lack of socialization with various stimuli when they were a puppy, bad problems in the past with other dogs or these triggers, injury or they just don’t like their triggers at all. There will be an underlying cause!

Yes it might seem at the time that your dog growling and barking and lunging and exhibiting all the other leash reactive warning signs does seem aggressive but they are wanting the trigger to go away whether it be naturally (the trigger going past) or by your own hand (walking in the opposite direction). Either way your dog starts to associate that if they don’t like a trigger then they can kick up a fuss and it will go away which works for them right?

But it doesn’t have to…


How to get started with Leash Reactivity in Dogs?

If you are just starting to deal with this issue or you now want to take some action on it then the first thing to think is what do you want to achieve out of this?

Know Your Goals

know If you know what you want to achieve then you will be able to see yourself make progress, you can tailor your own leash aggression training plan etc.

For example with Jasper I’m not bothered about him making other dog friends apart from those of my friends. I want him to be able to acknowledge another dog maybe from about 5 meters and be absolutely fine. Now this doesn’t mean interacting and being playful but either a simple walk past or being able for him to sit and focus on me.

Once you know your goals you already have half the battle because you know what you want, write it down and move onto learning what triggers your dog…

Know What Triggers Set Off Your Dog

This is important! You need to figure out what is going to set your dog off, you might be lucky enough to only have one that causes the drama however sometimes you’ll find various triggers.

Write them down and then see which one has the strongest reaction. Figure an order of which ones you’d like to work on first. If you have multiple triggers don’t try to juggle them all at once, work on one and then on the others. You don’t want to flood your dog with triggers because this can push them over the threshold!

triggers of leash reactivity in dogs

Make a note of what you think the triggers are, next time you go on a walk check to see what catches your dogs attention. Do different times of day effect this? For example a lot of people who are having problems with their dogs reactivity say they walk them at unsociable times of the night…WARNING – you aren’t the only person thinking of walking their dog at this time! It just becomes a mess of heated emotions, loud barking and a lot of frustration. If you can make sure you avoid walking your dog at unsociable times, what you need is a leash aggression training plan so you can start working on desensitizing them from their problem.


Warning Signs of Leash Reactivity in Dogs

Unfortunately, dogs can’t talk to us, instead they rely on us to understand them through body language, just like we do when we speak to them and ask them to sit down and behave etc.

You might not have noticed but your dog is giving you signals that they are uncomfortable in the situation. These signals can be split into two sections…

Below Threshold

These are the signals that are given when your dog has noticed the trigger, these are the signals you will receive telling you “hey, let’s go the other way” or even “I just want to go say hi”.

  • When your dog will notice a trigger their body language becomes more stiffen, all the way up to the tail and ears.
  • You will struggle getting their attention at times or you may find it harder than normal
  • Growling
  • Heavy panting or even holding of breathe
  • And Jasper’s favourite – holding your ground

leash reactive warning signs of dogs

Above Threshold

Here we get into more of the danger zone, you will find your dog breaking this threshold point if you get too close to the trigger. Sometimes you can’t help something approaching and sometimes there’s no way to go. Or maybe there are too many triggers for your dog and they explode. This is the bite territory! (regardless of your dog being friendly or never biting anyone, I recommend keeping under this threshold when possible and avoid punishing your dog as this could make things worse for you in the long run or could cause a bad outburst in the short run!

  • Barking
  • Lunging
  • Baring Teeth
  • Inability to regain attention at all
  • No treat zone

The way I find most effective with leash reactivity in dogs in to actually dip my toes into the below threshold point, allow the dog to notice but be far enough away that they aren’t necessarily bothered, that their attention is going to be on you.

Once you figure out this distance you can start working your way to success! This distance is where you will start and slowly work in and you will be able to measure your progress off of the change in distance!


Tips for Success in Leash Reactivity in Dogs

If you want to be successful in helping reduce leash reactivity then you have to be ready for the journey you are about to go on. Yes it might be frustrating but imagine the feeling of walking past dogs knowing that you managed to get to this point, a feeling of self-achievement! The following 4 are some of my beginners tips for helping you out!

Leash Skills

First thing is first, improve those leash skills! For me, I have Jasper in a heel position on walks more than half of the time. This means no interaction with others (if it can be helped), no stopping to sniff around (I have designated stop spots where I let him break his heel and be a dog. It involves a lot of starting and stopping work and and lot of U-turn work too.

The thing with improving leash skills is that you increase the dogs focus on you. You let them know you are in control of the walk and I guarantee life will get easier.

Maneuvers like the U-turn is great for when you find yourself entering the threshold zone, a quick spin and you’re off the other way resetting the distance again.


leash training for dogs

Discover more about leash training for dogs


Equipment

How can you expect to be successful if you don’t have the right equipment?! There are 3 products to help leash reactivity in dogs that I would recommend and I will tell you why I made the swap to each one.

(You can find out more on products for leash reactive dog training here).

  • A Harness

This firstly makes it easy on your dog, swapping from a collar to a harness will relieve a lot of pressure from their neck especially when they have a reactive episode or even if they are just pulling on the leash.

You can get different harnesses, you have to decide which is best for your dog. I have about 3 for Jasper ourely from trial and error. I rotate between two depending what we are doing; one is great for if he reacts as its padded and clips around the stomach and the other is made by straps basically and I feel the material must be slightly uncomfortable for him.

Have a look around and see what would be best for your dog, if they are a serial “lunger” you will need to get one with a lot of padding to just make it easier on your dog.

  • A Training Leash

I used to have a retracable leash for Jasper until I found out how bad it really is for him. If you have a larger dog then a retractable leash will not give you the best control. Think about it, if you dog picks up speed and runs then you’ve got to stop them or something is going to happen. Your dog running fulll pelt and then being stopped will not be any fun for EITHER OF YOU!

I now own a 15 meter long line which is an absolute godsend! I control how much I let out which is great for bigger walks and its great for helping my with Grisha Stewards BAT technique (if you haven’t already check out behavior adjustment training which is a strong method of working with your dogs reactivity and empowering them to make the right choices).

  • A Muzzle

Regardless of what anyone says a muzzle is essential! You don’t have to wear it all the time but I carry one on Jasper’s bag in case I ever need it. Dog muzzles prevent biting and serious injury, you may be able to keep your dog under control but you can’t always account for other peoples dogs!

A muzzle has become a sign of responsibility and honestly it takes the edge off so much! An issue me and Jasper had would be off lead dogs approaching. Nothing has happened but with a muzzle I feel 10 times safer and confident!


products for leash reactivity

Have a plan

You will want to make a plan of attack! You need to be prepared, you can’t just walk your dog and hope for the best! Have a leash reactive dog training plan that lets you know what you are going to be working on every day. This will help keep your mind clear and work towards goals without being frustrated. If you try doing it all in your head you won’t know whether you are making progress or not!

Make sure to check out my blog for a variety of skills to master and methods I’ve found effective and bring them all together into a solid plan!

You need to make sure you ask the essential questions though…

  • When are you going to walk your dog?
  • Where are you going to walk them?
  • For how long?
  • Are you going to do any obedience training on the walk?
  • Distraction training?
  • Have a goal of how many triggers you want to cross today.
  • Are you going to exercise them before hand?
  • Compare progress to last week.

Distance

The last key to success is to understand the distance that you are working with. Learn what distance your dog is comfortable with but then increase it by 10 metres – this is your safe zone!

Slowly work your way into making this distance smaller but make notes on progress. Is your dog reactive to dogs but getting better with smaller dogs? You might find that a “watch me” method isn’t effective because you’re dog is too distracted which means you will have to work on something else (or treat better etc).

Distance is important but if there is nothing you can do and an encounter is imminent then just ignore your dog. If you shout, yank the leash, correct them etc it could lead to bigger explosions next time or even masking the problem.


Common Questions/FAQ About Leash Reactivity In Dogs

1 – Can you cure leash reactivity?

Yes! Over time as your dog gets older they will most likely react less to their triggers but they may also get worse. Leash reactivity in dogs can be cured if you are willing to work with your dog. If you just wait and hope things work out you could end up waiting a long time! Take the first step and learn what you need to do to achieve success!

2 – How to stop dog barking and lunging?

The best way to stop reactive behaviours is to give your dog the option of another behaviour to perform. Teaching them a sit and stay or to “watch me” for example. Your dog barks because they don’t know what else to do at that moment, barking and lunging has always worked to remove the trigger. You need to teach them another option that allows them to redirect their usual approach. Master various obedience skills to help reduce reactivity! Check out the video below where teaching a dog to leave it can be very effective!

3 – Does a harness stop dogs from pulling?

A harness won’t stop a dog from pulling unfortunately. If you want to learn how to stop your dog pulling you need to improve your leash skills and the dogs focus on you. By incorporating leash skills such as “heel” and performing maneuvers such as starting and stopping and U-turns you can build this focus so your dog is always anticipating your next move!

4 – Why does my dog growl at other dogs on walks?

Growling is one of the warning signs of leash reactivity in dogs. You need to figure out what distance this comes across and then start working on desensatising your dog or teaching them new behaviours instead of growling. Remember that your dog is most probably anxious, nervous or scared and not to punish them if they have an outburst as it could make things worse!

5 – Should I use aversive methods?

This is quite a big question when it comes to training dogs and honestly I don’t really believe in it. For me using equipment such as prong and shock collars might help in the short run, but in the long term of things it could get messy.

As mentioned these problems your dog has are on an emotional level and they are just expressing their concern to YOU to handle. The problem is at the moment you can’t.

If you start using aversive methods who’s to say you don’t mask up the reactivity warning signs? Who’s to say that now your dog won’t bark but instead just go to bite when they can’t deal with it? Who’s to say they won’t direct their reactivity to you after a strong leash pop?

6 – How do I keep my dog under threshold?

Find a motivator for your dog – whether it be high value treats (no kibble, you need the big guns), play, sniffing around etc. You can’t go out and just expect them to focus on you with all the distractions around. If you work properly with your dog within the threshold you should be able to keep them focused on you!

Try to keep under the threshold as much as possible keeping an eye out for other triggers that might be approaching too.


The Last Thing You Need to Know about Leash Reactivity in Dogs

You should now have a little bit more of an understanding about leash reactivity in dogs. How important it is to know your goals and to have a plan in place. One thing I would like you to take away however is the importance of keeping calm when training your dog!

I know it can be frustrating dealing with a reactive dog, however if you don’t stay calm then it is not going to be fun for either of you. You could even deteriorate the bond between the two of you and make going on walks something they aren’t bothered about.

Once you’re all set and have the best products for leash reactive training, it’s time to begin!

You Aren’t Alone!

Don’t forget to leave a comment whether to ask a question, give your own tips, give feedback etc and check out the leash aggression training blog for more information and resources on dealing with leash reactivity in dogs. The worlds a better place when people help each other!

Resources

  • 3 step plan for reactive dogs – http://careforreactivedogs.com/start-here/
  • Causes of leash reactivity and how to use counter conditioning – https://www.petmd.com/dog/training/these-dog-training-tips-can-help-your-pup-overcome-leash-reactivity