Managing a leash-reactive dog

It can be embarrassing and stressful if your four-legged friend lunges, pulls toward, or barks at other dogs while on-leash. 

Dog on leash

Here are some behaviors to watch out for:

1. When off-leash and in their own environment, dogs naturally greet from the side (in an arc) and sniff each other’s genital area. They don’t approach head-on and make hard eye contact unless a fight is about to start. Greetings typically last only a few seconds.

2. When our dogs meet on leash, they are typically forced to approach head-on and are often unable to turn their bodies. Their forced body language, and our own, tell our dogs that we want to fight with one another. Most dogs don’t want to fight, so they display a number of behaviors designed to prevent it. These distance-increasing behaviors includes barking, lunging, or growling — anything to make the threat go away.

3. If the dog owners decide to visit, or let the dogs say hi, the problems may get worse. On-leash, both dogs feel trapped, unable to get away from each other. Often, owners have their dogs on tight leashes, thinking this will help if anything happens. Unfortunately, a tight leash tells your dog you're stressed, making your pup more stressed in return. As a result, both dogs may start barking, switching from their flight instinct, to fight.

Dog, Persephone, outside on a leash

4. Many owners don’t recognize rude behavior in their dogs, thinking they’re just overly friendly. They may let their dog charge up to another one, get in their face, or jump on them. This is extremely rude behavior among dogs and is sometimes the result of a lack of socialization past the puppy stage.

Adult dogs, while patient with puppy antics, will usually start to discipline puppies once they reach 5-6 months. The discipline isn’t violent and usually takes the form of a bark or growl. If a puppy never experiences these corrections, he may continue this inappropriate behavior in adulthood. When an adult dog inappropriately greets another one, the other dog will react with a loud bark or growl. It can be embarrassing and you may assume that the reaction means your canine companion is aggressive, while the dog’s inappropriate behavior was the issue in the first place.

5. Many people correct their dog for any perceived display of aggression. Some may force them to sit or lie down in an approaching dog’s path thinking this will help correct the behavior. ​​​​​

    This can be dangerous for many reasons:

    • This teaches your dog that other dogs, and potentially other people, cause punishment. Remember any punishment — yelling, jerking the leash, grabbing your dog, or saying no — increases their anxiety level.
    • Correcting a dog for growling or barking may prevent them from growling or barking in the future. Growling and barking are warning signs that the dog may bite. If your dog is afraid to bark or growl, it may mean they’ll bite without warning when they’re stressed or uncomfortable.
    • Correcting a dog who is highly aroused or stressed may cause them to redirect their aggression to the handler.
    Teaching dog to walk on leash

    Here are some steps to help your dog feel better on-leash:

    1. Practice getting your pup's attention before you go out. Say their name and reward them for looking at you. Start in a low-distraction environment, like your living room. Gradually move to busier areas as you're able to get your dog's attention regardless of what's going on around you. This will teach your dog to look at you regardless of the environment.
    2. Don't wait for your dog to react. When you're out on your walk, as you see another dog approaching, wait until your dog notices them. When they do, get their attention and reward. This will teach your dog to associate the presence of others with something wonderful. When they look up at you for more, go closer and repeat.
    3. Don't rush your dog. If they bark or lunge at the dog, you went too far, too fast. Or you just didn’t realize a dog was nearby. Simply add more distance and repeat. Don’t punish your dog for barking or you’ll undo the work you’ve done.
    4. Manage your dog’s environment for everyone’s safety. Keep them at a comfortable distance from other dogs. Don’t allow others to greet (at this time), or let them invade your dog’s space. Every negative experience will set your progress back, so it’s best to avoid them if possible. If you live in an area with lots of dogs, consider taking your friend somewhere less canines are present.
    5. Avoid approaching other dogs head-on. If you find yourself approaching another dog head-on, simply go around them in an arc, keeping your dog's attention as suggested above. If the other dog starts to lunge and bark, keep your pup's attention and reward more often. As soon as the other dog is gone, so are the treats. This will reinforce the idea that other canine companions mean good things, like treats!
    6. Consider a basket muzzle for walks. If your dog has harmed another person or dog, we recommend using a basket muzzle for walks. This will keep everyone safe while you're working on this behavior. We also recommend seeking professional assistance. Please call our free Behavior Helpline at 763-489-2202 for additional information.

    Did you know AHS offers reactivity dog training classes?

    AHS offers a variety of specialty dog training classes, including our Reactive Rovers program specifically for dogs struggling with reactivity. You can sign up for our free reactivity seminar today to learn about next steps.

    For more information on our training program, call 763-489-2217 or send us a message.

    For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

    Contact the Pet Helpline