By Victoria Schade
Going for a stroll with a dog is usually a relaxing bonding experience, but if you happen to have a leash-reactive dog, it can be overwhelming. Leash-reactive dogs are triggered by stimuli in the environment, responding with over-the-top behaviors that increase stress levels for the pet parent, the dog and everyone within barking distance. Fortunately, there are straightforward, dog-friendly techniques for dealing with leash reactivity that can help bring peace back to your daily strolls.
Is It Leash Aggression or Something Else?
Leash “reactivity” is a catchall descriptor for behaviors that can range from fear to frustration to true aggression.
A dog that barks, jumps, lunges and growls while on a dog leash might seem like he wants to rumble with whatever it is that’s triggering him, but many dogs exhibit those types of reactions in an effort to increase their distance from the triggering stimulus.
Reactivity can look like aggression, but many leash-reactive dogs are dealing with anxiety or fear, and they use the explosive displays in an attempt to keep away from the stimulus. It’s a defensive strategy used by fearful dogs to prevent further confrontations.
In some cases, dogs that are overaroused on leash are actually frustrated because they’re unable to interact with other dogs they encounter. These dogs are perfectly appropriate when they have the opportunity to greet other dogs off leash, but resort to barky displays when they’re prevented from engaging in normal social behaviors like moving freely around one another and sniffing.
If a dog has a history of inappropriate behavior or fighting with other dogs, it’s possible that leash reactivity is rooted in true aggression.
What Causes Leash Reactivity?
Leash reactivity might stem from any of the following reasons or from a combination of them:
Lack of Early Socialization
Dogs who miss the opportunity to explore the world, meet new people and animals, and have a variety of positive experiences during puppyhood might be more likely to exhibit leash reactivity. This is because they’re unsure of how to process new situations.
Having a Bad Experience During a Walk
If a dog has a negative run-in with another dog or is frightened by something during a walk, like a speeding truck, over time, he might generalize that experience to all dogs or trucks he encounters.
Being Punished for Reacting
Dogs that have been “corrected” for reacting to a trigger during walks with aversive equipment, like a choke collar, might make the connection between pain and the presence of the trigger, and react preemptively.
Some dogs want to interact with other dogs during walks and bark or jump when they’re unable to. Also, if the leash tightens and they’re moved away from the other dog before they’re ready to disengage, that can cause them to become reactive as well.
Dealing with Leash Reactivity Using Gentle Dog Training Methods
The core of rehabbing a leash-reactive dog is changing your dog’s perception of the stressor. Instead of feeling unsure or threatened, your dog will learn to have a more positive association to the stimulus.
To get started, you’ll need high-value treats like tiny bits of chicken, and a “marker”—either a dog clicker or a short verbal marker like the word “yup.” The clicker is particularly effective in leash reactivity scenarios because the clear sound cuts through ambient noise.
Set the Buffer Zone
First, determine your dog’s “buffer zone,” or the distance at which your dog can see the stimulus but not react to it. This step is important, because if you accidentally get too close to the trigger, your dog will likely tip over into reactivity and won’t be able to process the training.
Your goal is to always keep your dog “sub-threshold,” or below the point where he reacts to the trigger, even if that means ducking behind cars or walking up a driveway to maintain the buffer. If your dog is unable to focus on you and refuses the high-value dog treats, you’re probably too close to the trigger.
Associate Treats With the Trigger
The training plan is simple: mark the moment your dog sees the trigger at a distance with a click or “yup,” then immediately give your dog a treat. Continue this process, maintaining the buffer zone and marking and rewarding your dog frequently, until the trigger is out of sight. Remember, you’re making an association between the appearance of the trigger and the delicious teats, so repeat this process every time you encounter the stressor, for as long as it’s visible.
If you’re consistent, your dog will soon figure out that the appearance of the trigger means that something good is going to happen, and will probably look at you the second he sees the stressor on the horizon. This is a positive step—it means that your dog has started to make the association between the scary thing and the food.
Decrease the Distance From the Trigger
At this point, you can slowly begin to decrease the distance between your dog and the trigger during walks, always making sure that your dog is relaxed and still able to eat treats as you get closer.
Keep in mind, if you notice that your dog has trouble looking away from the trigger or refuses dog treats, you might be pushing too hard.
Walking a leash-reactive dog can be embarrassing, and your dog might end up being labeled a menace, even if he’s reacting out of fear or frustration. But by understanding your dog’s buffer zone and increasing his confidence using gentle dog training methods, in time, he might become the neighborhood welcoming committee.