Leash Reactivity: Causes and Tips on How to Correct
Leash reactivity is a common problem and can make walking with your dog very stressful. Leash reactive dogs become anxious or aggressive as they walk by other dogs and may lunge, bark, and growl as a result. If not addressed, the problem only gets worse and more dangerous. If you are not experienced with dog training, consulting a professional is an important first step in addressing leash reactivity, but here we have provided some information about how you can manage it.
What causes leash reactivity?
Walking on a leash is a strange activity for a dog that can inhibit species-typical behaviors, especially when it comes to walking by other dogs. When off-leash, dogs rarely greet head on. They typically take a wide arc around each other and sniff rear ends. When we walk by other dogs while on-leash, the head on greeting can create stress and anxiety for dogs. Owners also tend to tighten the leash to gain better control but this instead can tell our dogs that we are nervous about the interaction, putting them on high alert. The types of walking tools you use can cause pain or discomfort to your dog while you tighten the leash or pull them away from the other dog. Bad past experiences, where friendly greetings turned into a fight, an unleashed dog invaded their space, or owners deliver corrections or yelled at their dog while approaching other dogs, can increase leash anxiety as well. All these things create bad associations with approaching other dogs while on-leash, causing reactive dogs to lash out more and more until the issue is addressed.
What can I do to fix it?
- Recognize your dog’s trigger zone. There is a threshold when approaching other dogs where reactive dogs go from being calm to being anxious and reactive. The threshold could be 5ft away or 100ft away, every dog is different. Learn that threshold then DO NOT cross it. The best thing to do is to avoid walking by other dogs until you have all your tools in place. You need to be vigilant about seeing other dogs before your dog does. Look ahead on sidewalks or trails so you always know when someone is coming then create a game plan, whether going back in the opposite direction or moving off the path to create a safe distance for your dog. If you see someone off-leash with their dog, assume that dog will come running up to yours and avoid them at all costs.
- Use proper walking tools. Gentle leaders are a great option for reactive dogs because it gives you additional control over where they are moving and looking, while also helping to calm the dogs by applying pressure on the snout. DO NOT use choke, prong, or shock collars on reactive dogs, as these will only exacerbate the problem. Flat collars can also cause discomfort if your dog is a puller.
- If you do cross the threshold or didn’t see a dog before it was too late (nobody is perfect) DO NOT punish your dog. He is not acting this way to embarrass you or to assert dominance over you. He is anxious and asking to be removed from the situation. If your dog is reacting, move in the opposite direction and say something like “OK let’s go!” in a calm, up-beat manner. Reward your dog for coming with you and try to keep his attention on you with treats as you walk away.
- Once you have removed the trigger, you will then work on reversing the trigger. Previously, the presence of other dogs has had bad associations, so now we want to make a positive association. How quickly this will happen depends on how long your dog has been reactive without intervention, but with patience and diligence from you, your dog can overcome it.
- Practice basic behaviors (name recall, touch, sit, down, paw, etc.) while at home so that you can use them to prevent your dog from reacting. When you see another dog, use these tools to keep your dog focused on you while staying behind the threshold of reactivity. Keep the behaviors easy so that your dog is able to focus on you and so that you can keep feeding them yummy treats while other dogs walk by. This starts to create a positive association with seeing other dogs. The more you work on it, the shorter the threshold gets. If you have friends with calm dogs, you can ask them to help you with this.
- Once your dog is on the path to success, keep in mind that they may never love meeting other dogs while on-leash, and there is nothing wrong with that. Continue to walk by other dogs in an arc to help mimic natural greetings. If you think your dog would enjoy socializing with other dogs, set up off-leash play dates (like daycare!).
I don’t have a reactive dog, what can I do to help those that do?
- DO NOT LET YOUR DOG OFF-LEASH UNLESS THEY STAY WITH YOU (no matter how friendly they are!). Many owners let their dogs off-leash in parks even if their dog does not have a good recall. Off-leash dogs bounding up to dogs on-leash are a nightmare for reactive dog owners. One bad interaction could set back months of training. It could also cause non-reactive dogs to become reactive as it is a rude behavior and not appreciated by most dogs.
- Don’t be offended if a dog owner walks away from you and your dog, or turns down your offer to let the dogs meet. Reactive dog owners don’t want to be rude, they are just trying to help their dogs improve.
- If you see an owner pulling their dog off to the side and working with it, try to move your dog by them quickly and quietly. Reactive dogs can be fine with calm, quiet dogs being within their threshold, but dogs that bark at them could trigger bad behavior.
How do I prevent my dog from becoming reactive?
- Keep on-leash greetings optional! Even the most social dogs can have a problem with on-leash greetings. Give your dog some space by walking in an arc around other dogs. If both dogs seem interested in meeting let them do it on their own terms and keep them short. The best way to provide dog playtime is to set up play dates with dogs you know your dog gets along with.
- Be knowledgeable about dog body language. This will help you know when your dog is uncomfortable approaching or meeting other dogs and help you critically evaluate other dogs interacting with yours. You can prevent bad interactions by learning dog stress signs and being able to recognize rude or aggressive dogs before they approach your dog.
- Do not tighten, pull at, and punish your dog while walking by other dogs. Training your dog to walk with a loose-leash and having a reliable heel and recall can prevent a lot of walking stress that leads to leash reactivity.
Loose Leash Training Tips
Before we talk about how to get a well-behaved walking partner, we will address why your dog walks the way it does on a leash. First, we will answer the question “Why does my dog pull?” The answer is because the outside world is so exciting and they can’t wait to check it out! Walking on a leash is a very unnatural thing for a dog. Dogs like to meander around exploring at their own pace, and we ask them to stay tethered to us and walk at our pace. Dogs also pull because they have been rewarded for pulling. As a dog pulls towards a tree to sniff it, they drag their human right along with them and then they get to the tree. They begin to learn that pulling gets them to the scent they are trying to explore and they keep doing it. You may also have wondered why dogs weave from side to side while on walks. This is how dogs track down scents. When odors come off of an item, they dissipate in a cone shape. Dogs weave within the scent cone until they narrow in on the item itself.
Now that you understand why your dog behaves the way it does on leash, we can talk about how to teach them to walk politely. There are two ways you can do this. The first way is called “becoming a tree.” When using this method, you are passively teaching your dog that pulling is not rewarding by stopping every time they pull on the leash. When you feel pressure at the end of the leash, immediately freeze. Don’t say anything or tug or do anything else, just stay still and hold the leash firmly. Wait until your dog takes a step back or turns toward you, so the leash loosens, then continue walking (you can offer a cheerful “yes” or “OK”). Do this every time your dog pulls and soon your dog will learn that pulling is not getting it what it wants. This method can be slow going at first, but if you are consistent, your dog will learn the association.
The second method involves actively teaching your dog where you do want them to be, rather than where you don’t want them to be. The easiest way to do this is with the clicker. Start this training in a small, familiar environment with few to no distractions, like your living room. Have your dog on leash, with clicker and treats on you (you may want to practice a little without your dog nearby to make sure you are able to click, hold the leash, and offer treats). Start by standing so your dog is right next to you (whichever side you prefer, just be consistent). Click and treat in this position a few times. Next, take a step forward, wait for you dog to take a step and is next to you, click and treat. Continue to take steps and clicking whenever your dog is at your side. Start off slow until you feel like your dog understands what it is being rewarded for. Next, start turning around and moving all over, and click and treat when your dog is right by your side. Once your dog is reliably moving into that position, you can start pairing a cue, such as “heel” or “with me.” Start adding more distractions, like going out to the backyard, or around the block. Don’t advance too quickly and revisit easy steps if your dog starts getting confused.
With either of these methods it is important to remember to let your dog be a dog. It is great to have a dog that can walk politely next to us when we need them to, but it’s also important to let them move around and sniff things. Pay attention to their gaze and lead them to items they are curious about. Let them sniff every other tree if they really want to. Walking daily is similar to us checking our email or Facebook. Your dog is exploring their environment and community, looking for new information. Give them the opportunity to interact with their environment and you will have a happier pooch.
Tips for Off-Leash Walking
Most dog professionals in the US encourage dog owners to keep their dog on-leash unless your dog has a 99.9% reliable heal and recall. Our towns and cities are not built for dogs to be safe off-leash. If your dog does not have a reliable recall they typically are bounding up to other people walking their dog which can create more dog-dog anxiety and aggression issues. With hard work and consistency, you can teach your dog to stay with you while off-leash, which could make walks more enjoyable for both of you. Here are some tips on how to teach your dog to reliably walk with you while off-leash:
- Know your dog! If your dog has a strong prey drive, walking off-leash may not be the best option. The sight of a squirrel might send them running even with the best of training. Finding enclosed outdoor spaces for them to run free might be a better choice. If your dog has aggression issues towards people or other dogs, keeping your dog on-leash is your safest bet.
- Train a reliable recall, where no matter the distraction your dog comes running to you.
- Train a reliable heel while your dog is on-leash. Your dog is reliable when they are paying attention to you instead of pulling at the end of the leash to sniff trees, chase squirrels, or greet humans or dogs walking by.
- Once your dog is reliable on-leash you can start working on the same training while off-leash. Go back to the basics of starting in your living room, then gradually increasing distractions as your dog is successfully progressing. After the living room, practice in the backyard, then in a fenced in park, then in a remote area away from all roads. Ask friends with dogs to practice the training while they walk by so you are sure your dog will listen with added distractions.
- Teach your dog to “touch.” This is when they place their nose on your hand. It is a great way for you to keep your dog by your side while people or dogs walk by. Some dogs view “touch” as a fun game and may be more likely to respond to this then asking them to “come” or “leave it.”
- Make sure that YOU are the most interesting thing to your dog. This starts with not always letting them greet other people or dogs on-leash. As you walk by distractions, you should become more exciting and give them their favorite treats or toy.
- If your dog is off-leash and runs off instead of listening to you, do not punish them when they return. This will only teach them to not come back in the future. If your dog is off running around instead of coming back to you, try getting on the ground, running the opposite way, or doing some other crazy activity or sound to get their attention. Chasing your dog will likely make them run faster and farther.
Dogs Have a Biological Need to Walk
Wild dogs and ancestors of our domestic dogs would travel for hours a day to guard their territory and to obtain resources. Up until a couple of decades ago our dogs were working or free to explore outside rather than sitting on the couch all day as they do now. Many of our domestic dogs were bred for a certain purpose, such as hunting, herding, or other types of work. Even mutts will retain biological drives to physically engage in an activity, and walking is crucial for fulfilling that need.
Walking is physically stimulating and provides many of the same benefits that walking does for humans, such as weight loss or weight maintenance, stronger bones, muscles and joints, improved attention, and disease prevention. Just because your dog has the energy to burn, it does not mean dogs will motivate themselves to exercise. Even if you have a large yard, it takes active participation from their owners to motivate dogs to move. It’s great if you engage in other activities with your dog, such as fetch, running, or agility, but a plain old walk can be extremely beneficial as well.
Walking provides mental stimulation, introducing them to new places, people, dogs, scents, sounds, and sights. Being let out into the same backyard does not provide the same enrichment as an active environment like a park. Dogs are motivated to travel and explore. Allowing them the opportunity to do this makes for a happy, satisfied dog. Ultimately, walking is an activity you should be doing with your dog. If you do not have the time or energy, hiring a dog walker can be a great way to give your dog the opportunity without having to add another item to your to-do list.