Leash reactivity in dogs is a common problem, even though it may not feel like it; you may find your dog barking and lunging 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 and your dog 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

A barking and lunging dog is usually thought to be an aggressive dog, wanting to do harm. You may experience glares from other owners and maybe even some sour words about how you have a “bad dog”…you may possibly even believe it, but this is more likely far from true, you just have to understand it from your dogs perspective.


What is Leash Reactivity in Dogs?

Let’s break it down very simple here

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 cause harm to the trigger, where reactivity is reacting due to fear and excitement.

(If you have a dog you feel is aggressive then getting professional help is the best option to deal with this issue. Aggressive dogs can be dangerous to the public, others and themselves! A trainer will be able to give you a plan for your dog to overcome this).


What Causes Leash Reactivity In Dogs?

The reason it takes so long for dogs to overcome reactivity is because you are trying to change an underlying issue with your dog. I believe you can split reactive dogs in two categories; fear and frustration.

Fear

For those dogs who are afraid of certain triggers, the reason they react isn’t aggressive, but to create distance between the trigger. It’s the fight-or-flight reaction, they can’t run away (because they are on the leash), so when the trigger comes too close, they lunge and bark and growl to make the trigger ‘go away’ and it does and unfortunately, the dog starts learning….”If I start reacting, the trigger will go away” and so this habit strengthens and becomes the default pathway.

Common causes for fear reactivity include poor/late socialisation (especially in rescue dogs) and also bad experiences with other dogs too.

Frustration

The other side of the coin is frustration, they aren’t afraid of the trigger (or want to cause harm), instead frustrated reactivity is when a dog wants to get a trigger but can’t because they are on the leash. They get so excited and aroused at the sight of something that they want to go and interact with it now! Your dog may seem crazy, intent on doing harm, but they just can’t control themselves at that point in time.

Common causes for frustration can be too much socialisation, but how can you have too much? If your dog spends a majority of time at the dog park and playing with other dogs, they will learn that dog = play.

Both of these issues if not properly handled can become out of control and cause frustration and stress for both you and your dog. I do recommend seeking help of a trainer as they can find what works better for your dog and they can also show you what you are doing wrong too.


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

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.

Many people with reactive dogs get into situations because they don’t know what goal they are aiming for. If you have a clear goal set in your head, every time you are out you will think “will this situation bring me closer to my goal?”. For example, your dog might have passed 2 dogs this week and you know that is the usual limit, you have a chance to make it a third but you think “will this situation bring me closer to our goal?”

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.


Warning Signs of Leash Reactivity in Dogs

Believe it or not, your dog gives small signals when their internal state changes. To the untrained owner, hypervigilant behaviour such as walking in front on alert and looking around may seem like a “dominant dog”, but to the trained owner we know the dog is just worried about an imaginary threat and in a high state of stress.

Understanding your dogs body language can let you know how they are feeling inside. Learning about certain head, body and tail positions will let you know whether the dog is happy, afraid or becoming nervous or anxious, these are the warning signs of a leash reactive dog.


leash reactive warning signs of dogs

Reactivity Distance

With the information on your dogs triggers, it is time to figure out what is referred to as ‘Reactivity Distance’ – the distance your dog can stay under threshold, the safety bubble that surrounds your dog.

Under Threshold

This is where you want all the training to happen, you have more chance of getting the attention back from your dog if they are under threshold. This means the trigger is at a safe distance for training.

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 (referred to as trigger stacking). When your dog is over threshold (whether it be from fear or over excitement) they are less likely to listen to you no matter what high value treat you have. Understanding doesn’t happen here and your dog won’t be able to learn the lesson due to stress and frustration rushing through the body.

Staying under the threshold is very important with reactive dogs, you need to know the reactivity distance of a trigger, so that you can train your dog efficiently. You also need to start thinking about variable factors, these are factors that can spark your dog over threshold such as a kid for example. Your dog may be fine with kids up to 10ft away BUT that kid starts running or throwing a loud tantrum, that distance increases and suddenly the kid is in the safety bubble which pushes your dog over threshold.


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

Having solid leash skills will change your life! You will not only enjoy your walks more, but you also will have a more engaged dog, one that you can get under control and out of a sticky situation quickly.

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 which takes any pressure off them, they just have to enjoy the walks.

By having leash skills that can create distance also helps your dog trust you more! If you have a dog that is afraid of a trigger, picking up on the body language and creating distance will help your dog know they aren’t alone.

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 Treat Bag

Investing in a treat bag was one of the smartest things I have done. When it comes to leash reactivity, timing of the reward is crucial so your dog learns to create a positive association with their trigger. Even though I did carrry treats, I’d normally just carry them in my pocket and I would fumble around my keys trying to get at them.

With a treat bag you can quickly deliver treats for your dog plus hold all your walking essentials as you go as well. There are many benefits but for me, the ability to quickly reward your dog to reinforce positive behaviours is important!


  • 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, in fact it can be pretty dangerous. 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 full 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 me 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!

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?

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. Create distance, wait for them to calm down, gain their attention, reward and move on.


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, I personally don’t use them.

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? Who’s to say you don’t create a negative association to the trigger?

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!


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!


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