Leash Reactivity in Dogs


This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Ivan Duong DVM

Does your dog become reactive to other dogs as soon as you pop the leash on? Dogs can be reactive towards some external trigger that they have a negative association with. If your dog is reactive on the leash, you may see your dog lunging, barking, growling or a fearful response from the stimulus that is upsetting them.

Why are some dogs reactive on the leash?

Leash reactivity can stem from a variety of reasons. Reasons behind why dogs may be reactive while on a leash may be due to:

  • Dog is fearful or aggressive towards the approaching dog
  • Dog is frustrated as it can't approach the other dog to greet or play
  • Dog is warning other dogs to stay away as a protective behaviour

Broadly, these reasons can be categorized as protective behaviour, frustrated greeter or fear behaviour. Understanding the flight or flight response can be useful to understanding why your dog may be reacting in such a way. In an off-lead situation, if an approaching dog comes too close, your dog has the option to turn the other way and run (flight), or perhaps they might choose to bark, growl and warn the other dog to stay away (fight). However, when your dog is on leash, the flight option is taken away from them leading some dogs to become hyper aware and may be quicker to engage in their 'fight mode'.

How to Stop Leash Reactivity

There are a few different things that can be done to address leash sensitivity. However, it is worth noting that there are no quick fixes. It will take time to identify the triggers to the behaviour and slowly desensitize and counter-condition your dogs to them. The goal is to gradually expose the dog to a situation that your dog has previously found to be stressful, and help them become less sensitive to it and also teach them to associate said situation with a pleasant feeling.

Threshold distance

In order to effectively counter condition and desensitize leash reactivity, it is important to determine what your dog's threshold distance is from the trigger. If your dog reacts to another dog on leash, this will be the minimal distance your dog can be from the other dog before he starts reacting. If your dog can focus on you and remain calm while being 100m away from another dog but going any closer will elicit a reaction, 100m is your dog's threshold distance. For best results, you should attempt to do this training in a controlled environment, where you are able to control the distance between the dogs well. For example, approaching a fenced dog park where the other dog isn't able to come freely towards you.

How to Train a Reactive Dog on the Leash

Aim to keep sessions short and sweet. Use treats that are small and easy to consume such as roasted chicken, cheese, devon for example, keep them a fingernail's size. Once you have found your dog's threshold distance, you can start decreasing the distance gradually and asking your dog to perform an action, such as sit and treat them. Treat your dog steadily as long as they are not showing any signs of distress related to the stressful trigger. This process is called 'counter-conditioning', where we train the dog to associate movement towards the trigger with positive rewards. As soon as your dog shows signs of distress, stop the treats and move farther away from the trigger. Once your dog consistently does not show any signs of distress or reactivity, you can gradually close the distance between the trigger and your dog. Remember to do this gradually each session or there is a risk of being overwhelmed and losing all the previous progress.

Eventually, the idea is that your dog will be able to associate the sight of the trigger with a happy event, such as getting a treat and become less reactive to it. The ultimate goal is to work to close the distance between your dog and the trigger without your dog reacting in a negative manner. If you find that these methods are not effective for your dog or you're not sure how to properly start the counter conditioning process, it is a good idea to consult with a professional qualified trainer for the first few sessions to get you started.

Remember, this is not a process that can be rushed. A little patience will go a long way for your dog!

The Yellow Dog Project

Finally, if your dog is leash reactive, there is a movement started by dog owners who have dogs that need more space called the Yellow Dog Project. This is a project with the aim to raise awareness and to allow dogs to have the space they need. You can do your part by adding a yellow ribbon on your dog's leash if you would like your dog to be allowed more space and if you see a dog with a yellow ribbon, to respect the dog's space.

Further reading

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