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How to Cure Leash Aggression with Leash Reactive Dogs

Aggression By Kayla Fratt 10 min read May 24, 2021 14 Comments

dog leash aggression

Leash reactivity is one of the most common problems seen in dogs today, especially urban dogs. Leash reactive dogs are dogs that bark and lunge at other dogs (or sometimes people, cars, bikes, and more).

Leash reactive dogs are considered different from aggressive dogs because they only display this behavior while they’re on a leash – they may be perfectly friendly off-leash.

Let’s dig into the roots of dog leash reactivity and how to treat it.

Why Are Some Dogs Leash Reactive?

Leash-reactive dogs might behave the way that they do for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Fear. Your dog is afraid of other dogs, and he wants the other dogs to stay away. This is common in dogs who are undersocialized or who have had bad experiences with other dogs in the past.
  • Excitement. Your dog is excited to see other dogs, and the barking/lunging behavior is due to frustration because he can’t “go say hi.”
  • Pain. Other dogs play too rough or have hurt your dog, so he’s decided to bark and lunge to keep them from hurting him. This is especially common in older dogs, small dogs, or dogs with injuries.
  • “He started it!” Other dogs in the area are also leash reactive, so your dog has decided to “yell back.”
  • Bad Handling. Owners sometimes tense up on the leash or attempt to reel their dogs in around other dogs. The added leash tension can make your dog extra nervous around other dogs. This can also lead to leash reactivity that shows up only sometimes, only around scary-looking dogs, or only after the dogs have started to sniff each other – because it’s actually the owner’s tension on the leash that sets the dog off!
  • Ill-Advised Corrections. Some in-person trainers and many online advice-givers suggest correcting a dog for not paying attention to his owner around other dogs. This can lead your dog to associate corrections (via an e-collar, leash corrections, swatting, or a stern “no”) with the presence of other dogs. This often makes leash reactivity much worse!
  • Genetic Predisposition. Poorly bred dogs or dogs whose mothers were sick while they were in utero or nursing may also be at a higher risk for leash reactivity. A stressed-out mother or a fearful grandparent can contribute to your dog’s likelihood of developing leash reactivity. Many breeds are also more prone to leash reactivity – read more about that below.
  • Lack of Adequate Outlets. Some dogs bark and lunge at things because they are terribly bored, under-exercised, and under-trained. Many of these leash reactive dogs can be “cured” by simply increasing their exercise routine and giving them more to do every day. They’re the equivalent of a child who acts out in school because their basic needs aren’t being met at home.
  • Gut Bacteria and Diet. There’s some very interesting research suggesting that dogs with poor gut bacteria are more likely to be fearful, reactive, or aggressive. Talk to your vet about switching up your dog’s diet to something higher quality or adding supplements to help your dog’s tummy feel better. No one is at their best when their stomach hurts!
  • Age. Many dogs come to me for leash reactivity between about six and twenty months of age. That’s because these dogs are hitting adolescence and social maturity. Just like humans get a bit less excited about strangers as they age (you don’t see many forty-year-olds at frat parties for a reason), many dogs get dramatically less friendly to strangers as they age. This can be mitigated with training, but it’s not uncommon to see seemingly perfect puppies transform into snarling, slobbering monsters when they hit social maturity.

Of course, several of these factors can come together to create a really problematic situation. If you’ve got an undersocialized German Shepherd who’s fed low-quality food and given leash corrections when he fails to heel around other dogs, it’s hardly a surprise to see leash reactivity later on.

It’s important to note that leash reactivity is considered an emotional and behavioral problem. Many leash reactive dogs are beautifully trained, yet they “fall apart” at the sight of other dogs.

That’s because leash reactivity is generally a defensive, emotional reaction to something upsetting. It’s like being a sore loser in a sport – you can be a beautiful football player (training) who still falls apart emotionally when a bad call happens (behavior).

That’s why training leash reactive dogs needs to address the emotional root of the problem and behavioral wellness, not just the outward symptoms of those deficiencies.

Are Certain Breeds More Likely to be Leash Reactive?

Some breeds are more prone to leash reactivity, there’s no way around it.

If I had a dollar for every leash reactive German Shepherd that I’ve seen, I’d be rich. Breeds that were developed for protective instincts, such as shepherds, are particularly prone to leash reactivity.

Collies and other herding dogs that are bred to react to movement are also prone to leash reactivity in response to fast-moving objects like cars and bikes.

The thing is, up until pretty recently, many of our dogs were bred primarily for working or protective purposes. If we’re not careful to set up their lives to counteract those tendencies, we’re likely to get a suburban dog who’s trying to fulfill his ancient village guard dog genetic legacy.

leash reactive dog

How to Stop a Dog from Lunging on a Leash: Reactive Dog Training Tips

As discussed above, an important first step for treating leash reactivity is addressing your dog’s baseline physical health, mental enrichment, and physical exercise. Only then can you address training.

1. Address Health Concerns

Ensure your dog is 100% pain-free and that he has a healthy gut, or you’ll be fighting a serious uphill battle. Many leash reactive dogs are afraid of getting hurt, and this fear will only be worse if your dog is already in pain.

2. Ensure Your Dog is Happy and Relaxed

Throw out your dog’s food bowl and feed your dog from puzzle toys every day. Add in some training games during your daily walk and ensure your dog is properly exercised.

dog with kong

An under-exercised and stressed-out dog is not ready for learning! If your dog is a working breed (hunting, herding, guard, or hound), this might require an hour or more per day of exercise.

3. Set Your Dog Up for Success

Change your walk schedule and walk route to avoid your dog’s triggers. This might mean walking during off hours or avoiding the neighborhood park.

Attempting to “socialize” your dog by walking near other dogs only lets him practice the unwanted behavior more! This also requires using the right dog training equipment (see below for harness recommendations). We want to be in control when we do meet your dog’s triggers.

dog-walking-greeting

4. Teach Emergency Behaviors

Teach your dog how to do a U-turn on walks so that you can turn around quickly if an unknown dog comes up too quickly. I teach this as a game – on our walks, I’ll abruptly say “This way!” and turn on heel.

As my student hurries to catch up, I feed him lots of treats and tell him how smart and wonderful he is!

I also teach a “find it” behavior. This is done simply by saying “find it” and tossing a bunch of treats on the ground. You can use this as an emergency distraction if you find yourself cornered by another oncoming dog.

5. Start Counter-Conditioning

Start to seek out other dogs on your walks. It’s best if you know where the other dogs will be, so I like to set up training scenarios near vet’s offices, near PetCo, or along running paths.

Set up yourself far enough away that your dog will notice the other dogs, but won’t explode into a fit of barking and lunging. Every time your dog sees the other dogs, feed him some chicken in a find-it.

Don’t try to just use praise or petting here you need to be paying your dog a hefty treat salary for such a tough job! If he can’t eat or is barking and lunging, you’re too close!

The key here is that your dog gets fed when another dog appears, no matter what his behavior is. This is like Pavlov’s bell – the dogs got meat after the bell, no matter what. Soon the bell predicted food. We want your dogs to have the same realization!

Over time, you can move closer and closer to the other dogs. Continue avoiding other dogs when you’re not in Dog Trainer Mode.

PRO TIP: Many local trainers now offer “Reactive Rover” or “Feisty Fido” classes specifically made for leash reactive dogs. I can’t recommend these classes highly enough! This style of group classes is much cheaper than going with a private trainer. They’re also incredibly successful if you’ve got a good trainer who relies primarily on the methods outlined here (no training collars or corrections, please).

It can take a while to get the hang of properly managing your dog’s distance, treat-dispensing, and leash control while encountering other dogs on other walks, but practice makes perfect!

The below video shows some of the common mistakes owners make when handling a leash reactive dog.

6. Use the Parallel Walk Method for Further Practice

If you can work with another dog and handler, this is my go-to choice for taking your reactive dog rehabilitation to the next level.

Get the other dog and handler to walk slightly ahead of you across the street. If needed, use a multi-lane street or a median to keep the dogs far enough apart. Then start to walk. As your reactive dog notices the other dog, keep feeding him for looking calmly at the “neutral” dog. Gradually start to move the dogs closer together by turning onto smaller and smaller side streets.

Eventually, if things are going well, you can allow the dogs to sniff each other. Check out the video below to see an example of a parallel walk with a reactive and neutral dog.

Of course, reactive dog training isn’t quite as simply as following a six-step recipe. It takes time, especially if your dog has been “practicing” being reactive for a while! Be patient and expect setbacks. Get help from a good dog trainer if you need more help!

Best Dog Harnesses for Leash Reactive Dogs

One of the most important components of rehabilitating a reactive dog is keeping your reactive dog comfortable. He’s already got enough stress hormones coursing through his body!

My Go-To: The Ruffwear Front Range Harness

I generally prefer to use a super-comfy harness, like the Ruffwear Front Range Harness, whenever possible. That said, sometimes you’ll need something that gives you a bit more control.

Most Comfortable

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RUFFWEAR All Day Adventure Dog Harness, Miniature Breeds, Adjustable Fit, Size: XX-Small, Blue Dusk, Front Range Harness, 30501-407S2

Ruffwear Front Range Harness

Comfortable all-day harness

Lightweight, padded harness with front and back clips. Includes four adjustment points as well as an ID pocket!

For Moderate Pullers: The Freedom Harness

If you need more control than the Ruffwear Front Range can provide, I generally reach for a front-clip training harness next.

The Freedom Harness is comfy for dogs and helps reduce pulling (and therefore reduce lunging) without impeding your dog’s shoulder movement.

Most Control

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2 Hounds Design Freedom No-Pull Dog Harness Training Package with Leash, Medium (1' Wide), Black

Freedom Harness

Front clip harness ideal for training

Provides flexibility and control without straining your dog

For Extreme Pullers: The Halti Optifit

If you still need more control after attempting to use a Freedom Harness, a head halter is your next best bet.

Best for Extreme Pullers

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Halti OptiFit Headcollar, Medium

Halti Head Collar

Head halter designed to halt heavy pullers

Padded and adjustable head collar that prevents strong dogs from using their chest to pull.

Unfortunately, head halters require some careful training before heading out for a walk. Most dogs will need conditioning to wear the head halter for at least a few days before they’ll tolerate wearing it.

The Halti Optifit is my go-to head halter. Head halters allow you to control your dog’s head, making it much harder for your dog to pull while wearing it.

Should I Use an E-Collar on My Leash Reactive Dog?

In a word, no. Most leash reactive dogs are struggling with an extreme emotional reaction to a stimulus (a strange dog). An e-collar might show results, but it doesn’t help teach your dog that other dogs are good.

E-collars are generally used to interrupt or punish behaviors. This means that they introduce extra stress into an already stressful situation for your dog.

Again, they might show results because your dog stops behaving – but they can also cause your dog’s negative emotions towards other dogs to worsen, leading to aggression down the road.

You can read about some of the research behind e-collar training and its effects on dogs in UK government-backed study and this 2006 study from the Department of Clinical Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol.


Reward-based training methods might take a bit more time and effort, but their results are generally longer-lasting and are much kinder to your dog. Plus, they work with all dog breeds and sizes and will never cause your dog burn injuries (unlike e-collars, which have been known to seriously injure dogs).

Do you have a leash reactive dog? What has your experience been like?

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Written by

Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is a dog behavior consultant and freelance writer. She is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and is a member of Dog Writer’s Association of America. She travels full time with her border collie Barley and her boyfriend, Andrew. Before coming to K9 of Mine, Kayla worked at Denver Dumb Friends League as a Behavior Technician. She owns her own dog training business, Journey Dog Training and holds a degree in biology from Colorado College. When she’s not writing or training Barley, Kayla enjoys cross-country skiing, eating sushi, drinking cocktails, and going backpacking.

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14 Comments

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Diana Hobbs

Thank you so much for posting the video about common mistakes when working with leash reactive dogs!!! It’s very helpful to see exactly what behaviors to look for like the disinterests in treats. I would have never picked up on that without seeing Remy look back for the treat, take it and, look immediately back and then you calling out that this behavior is the start of disinterest.
I have been working with my dog for a few weeks and not seeing any progress. Now from watching your video I see that I am pushing her a bit to far and that I need to put much more distance between her and other dogs, cars, people etc. than what I have been. I feel that there is hope in working with my rescue dog!

Thank you!!!
Diana

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Ben Team

Super glad you found it helpful, Diana!
Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to see other videos from Meg & Remy!

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Barnaby Linet

I have a Siberian husky dog, and she is very good on the leash; I attribute this to a number of factors.
1) I took her to a professional dog trainer for 10 sessions when she was about 6 mo. old. We worked on training her for walking. The trainer stressed positioning the dog by your side for eye contact. A good handler makes all the difference with a dog.
2) I started her out on a very short leash, only about 1 ft long, which limited her mobility and gave me excellent control. After about a year, I got a longer leash to allow her some freedom.
3) She gets a long walk in the morning, and another one in the afternoon or evening (if it is too hot). Excellent exercise for both of us.
4) I have taken her to dog parks on occasion to socialize with other dogs, and a few trips to doggy daycare.
Doggy daycare is the better option, sometimes bad dogs show up at the dog park, and your dog may pick up some bad behaviors. A good daycare has handlers that will correct your dog when she is with other dogs.

When she sees other dogs, she pays attention to them, but does not bark, exhibit aggression or pull.
Spend time with your animal, try everything, but most of all, BE PATIENT AND SUPPORTIVE.
My service animal is a true asset, and a great physical therapy partner.

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David Miller

A properly sized and fitted prong collar when used as intended and recommended will more often than not solve leash pulling and reactivity issues relatively quickly These collars in spite of appearance and propaganda to the contrary do not cause pain, ruin relationships, increase fear in a dog or most of the other bogus claims that +R-only advocates commonly regurgitate. I personally have used these collars to solve leash pulling, train command obedience, and to solve behavior problems with dozens of rescue dogs without any issues. There are a few dogs percentage-wise that are reactive to a prong collar. For those few something else must be used. A harness is a worthless tool for dealing with leash pulling – a fad and marketing gimmick for gullible but well-meaning people. Sled dogs pull using a harness. Why? Because harnesses make it easier for a dog to pull. It is true that an e-collar is not the best first tool for dealing with leash reactivity problems. However, an e-collar can be used to greatly improve the reliability of the dog once the dog has become calm on the leash using other means.

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Meg Marrs

Hi David – no prong collar (or any harness, for that matter) really solves the issue of leash reactivity or pulling. The only way to do that is through training and teaching your dog to relax around other dogs through counter-conditioning.

Harnesses are not useless for controlling pulling, as front-clip harnesses and head halter make it easy to prevent your dog from using his chest strength to pull forward. The harnesses for mushing that you are describing are designed differently and use a back clip for pulling. Back clip harnesses are indeed not great for preventing pulling.

Prong collars may not cause serious damage for experienced trainers who take the time to properly fit and position the collar, and know how to use on properly. But the vast majority of owners will not position a prong collar safely, will jerk and correct with a prong collar, and potentially will cause very serious injuries to their dogs. This is why we don’t recommend them. I’ve seen plenty of owners using prong collars and 90% of them are positioned unsafely where they could do serious damage to a dog’s neck.

The other issue is, whenever you are using pain to direct a dog, you take a big risk. Maybe you think a painful pinch from a prong collar will teach a dog not to lunge at another dog. But the dog may be learning to associate that other dog with the painful pinch of a prong collar, in turn making the dog more fearful and aggressive.

If you have any scientific studies to support the use of prong collars, do drop them here, we are always up for reading through the material!

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Dotty

I should have added my yorkie Russell is one year old

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Dotty

Adopted a rescue yorkie Russell. Some abuse was involved in the past. We have had him two months and he is healthy and becoming happy. Working with him and his fears but he is doing well. Other dogs while on our walks are a problem. I am doing most of the items you suggest but he is so on alert all the time when walking that he will not accept treats. Even when there is no other person or dog around. Any suggestions?

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Ben Team

Hey, Dotty. Glad some of the info above has proven helpful.
If your pooch won’t focus on you, you should probably try to keep more distance between him and the other dogs. I know this isn’t always easy, but if he starts to get overstimulated when dogs come within say, 50 feet, you may need to keep him 100 feet away until you can desensitize him a bit. You may also want to try using more delicious treats (cheese, cooked chicken, etc.).
Best of luck!

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Dotty

Thanks. I am keeping the distance as possible and letting him get gradually used to our neighborhood. Also walk him when few are out walking. Laughing as I have offered chicken, salmon and things he loves but too focused on what might spring up around him. When small dogs have been involved, he does make friends with them when possible. Socializing a dog who has not been socialized has been a bit difficult during Covid days. We will get there. If not, when things are a bit more normal I will seek a trainer. I think he has come a long way in barely two months and remind myself he requires time and patience.

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Zoe Franklin

Thank you!! We adopted a beautiful Rottweiler 13 months ago (she is now 3) and she is an angel with us but reactive on the leash especially. We also have some problems with her (Tinker) being fearful of loud things (trucks, garbage trucks) and anything that she does not see often (kids running around or playing…. she barks). I found this article really helpful because we are wary of trainers at this point. We tried adopting a sweet pitbull that we were told was ok with cats….. that turned out NOT to be true. She had a high prey drive and was so reactive we couldn’t walk her. She ultimately found another home. We tried a trainer with her, that I now feel made the issues worse. He was highly recommended but was into choke chains and yelling. This cost us 650$.

Thanks for the truly helpful advice!

Zoe

Reply
Ben Team

Glad you found the article helpful, Zoe!
But don’t let your experience with a bad trainer stand in your way of working with others — there are tons of great trainers out there. Just be sure to select one that uses positive, science-based strategies (the dominance approach has largely been debunked).
Best of luck with your Rottie!

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Tracy

I have a lead reactive dog. He is 5 years old, I adopted him when he was 10 months old. He had received no training and was kept in a crate by his previous owners.

I am told he was kept away from other dogs from an early age. When they saw another dog on a walk, they would pull him away. Unfortunately, this has stayed with him teaching him that dogs are something to be concerned about.

He never learned to socialize during his most vital time of life.

Fast forward to now and he will meet and greet most dogs off lead ok. However, sometimes he will decide to be a ‘bully’ and he will try and force them to play chase with him.

He tends to stalk dogs at first, then run up to them and be the ‘big guy’ I think as a defense, because he is unsure of himself.

He will play really well with dogs if they want to, but some don’t and he doesn’t like to take no for an answer. So I have to end up either keeping him away before he does this and putting him back on the lead is making it worse and giving mixed messages.

But, I have taught him so much, he loves learning, we play scent games, we do Agility and Parkour. He learns very quickly, but the reactivity has been by far the hardest.

He has a great diet and is generally a happy, healthy dog.

I think while I am writing this, that some confidence building exercises should perhaps be the next thing to look into. What do you think?

Thanks for a great read and giving me some ideas. I thought your article was great and it went over everything, that most wouldn’t think about.

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Tracy

I forgot to say that when he is on the lead he barks and lunges at other dogs. So he’s better off lead mostly. If caught early enough and the other dog isn’t too close, he can be distracted with food, even low value now or his ball.

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Kayla Fratt

I agree, confidence building exercises are a great next thing to try!

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