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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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?