Leash Reactivity

Tuki Talks

Hi friends – Tuki here again from my perch at the Potter League. It’s been a pretty quiet summer here but, there are still a lot of you out there looking for animal companions – and we have plenty here at the Potter League!

We also do a lot of training classes here and one thing I hear dog owners say is, ‘My dog is great at the dog park, but when he is walking on the leash he’s a bit crazy, barking and lunging at other dogs. How can I get him to stop?’ Here is some information that could help. 

Leash reactivity is often thought to be a sign of aggression but most times, it is actually a sign of fear or anxiety. It’s a defensive behavior so a dog can get away from something he fears or perceives as a threat, typically another dog. When dogs are off-leash, they circle around and approach other dogs from the side to allow them sniff each other. When dogs are walking on-leash, they usually meet other dogs head-on, like humans do, and may not be able to turn their bodies so they become anxious and fearful. They may perceive the other dog as a threat and feel trapped because they are on-leash. The lunging and barking is a way to scare away the perceived threat. And when you tighten your hold on the leash because of this behavior, your dog senses that you are stressed, and this makes them more anxious and fearful. 

 There are a lot of causes of leash reactivity: 

Lack of early socialization. Dogs that don’t meet new people and animals when they are puppies may not learn how to behave in different situations, including while on-leash. Typically, adult dogs will start to correct a puppy’s inappropriate behavior, using a bark or growl, when the puppy is around 5 or 6 months old. If a puppy never experiences this correcting, he won’t learn how to behave around other dogs when he becomes an adult.  

A previous negative experience while on leash. If your dog has been scared or attacked during a walk, this may prompt him to think that walks on-leash are something to fear. 

Being punished for reacting. If you punish your dog for reacting to another dog or person while on-leash, this teaches them that other dogs or people cause punishment. It also increases their anxiety and may prevent them from growling or barking in the future. Growling and barking can be warning signs that a dog may bite and if you prevent this behavior, they could bite without warning if they become anxious or frightened. Punishments including yelling, jerking the leash, grabbing your dog, or saying no — increases their anxiety level and can make the behavior much worse. He will begin to associate the punishment with the stimulus that he fears and in his mind, seeing the stimulus such as another dog means unpleasant things happen to him, which promotes a really negative association – approaching dogs equal pain or fear. 

Barrier frustration. Some dogs just want to interact with other dogs while during a walk and being prevented from doing so causes them to become frustrated and bark or jump. 

So, what can you do to help make walks more pleasant, and safer, for you and your dog?

  1. First, practice getting your pup’s attention before you go out. This is a good thing to do for many situations, not just leash reactivity. Start with saying his name and rewarding him with a treat for looking at you. In the beginning, do this in an area where there are no distractions, like your house or yard and gradually practice it in busier areas. This will teach your dog to pay attention to you first, regardless of what else is going on around him. 
  2. When you are out walking and you see another dog approaching, wait until your dog notices the other dog, then get your dog’s attention and give him a treat. This will teach your dog to associate seeing other dogs with something good – a treat! Don’t wait until you are too close and your dog starts to react. You won’t be able to ‘undo’ his reaction. After you have done this a few times, you will start to learn how close you can get before your dog reacts to another. 
  3. Keep your distance from other dogs in the beginning. Getting your dog comfortable approaching others on-leash will take time and you don’t want to undo the progress you’ve made. Don’t allow other dogs to approach and greet your dog. If you come upon another dog, go around them, getting your dog’s attention and rewarding them all the way.
  4. If they bark or lunge at the dog, you went too far, too fast. Or you just didn’t realize a dog was nearby. Simply add more distance and repeat. Don’t punish your dog for barking or you’ll undo the work you’ve done.
  5. Attend training classes with your dog or work with a trainer. We offer “Leash Reactivity” classes regularly in a safe and controlled environment. Our classes can help you get started, give you tips that are specific to your dog, and help with any problems you come up against when training on your own. 

Hope this information helps all you dog parents have more enjoyable walks with your furry buddy! 

‘Till next time, your friend, 


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