Updated November 29, 2020
‘At A Glance (Much More Below)’ What To Do
How To Reduce Leash Reactivity
A good start is to accept it for what it is: common and no cause for shame
- Get help: it’s going to be much easier with expert guidance
- Discover tricks to keep your dog focused or distracted
- Avoid interactions with other dogs when on leash or near fences
Now dive deeper…
Do you have a dog who is hard to walk on a lead, but almost never a problem when off it? If so, you’re not alone. I’ve come to realise from my daily conversations with dog owners that we may actually be in the majority. It’s time we stopped feeling embarrassed and started to look into why our dogs behave the way they do on a leash and what we can do about it.
Here is a typical story. I was walking my Loki to school the other day and met another dog walker going the same way. Her dog immediately started barking and yelping in response. Before too long the behaviour turned to lunging and snapping.
She said (a little embarrassed) “he’s not aggressive”. My kids said (in disbelief) “he’s out-Loki’d Loki”. And it was true. The pipsqueak who has made leash reactivity his signature move was completely overwhelmed and confused.
What happened next I blame entirely on the morning coffee failing to activate my “think it, don’t say it” circuits.
“Well, actually, that’s called on lead aggression, and it’s very common. In fact, my dog normally does it too, but yours got in first.”
What Causes On Lead Aggression?
Leashes limit freedom to move and take options away from dogs. When a dog is in a situation that makes then uncomfortable, they’ll usually want to create space and move. If they can’t, they may think aggression is the best and only control they have left. That’s why using leashes is unpopular in off-leash areas.
Reasons for feeling uncomfortable or anxious may include:
- Arthritis or any other painful condition
- Breed and age (yes, dogs can get crankier as they get older too!)
- Bad previous experiences while walking
- Lack of early, good-quality socialisation
- Being in fear-inducing situations like crowds
- Just being a dog that needs more space (probably the most common)
Leads also cause frustration, like in the example above, that quickly turns into aggression.
The most important thing to know is: many normal, social, friendly dogs are leash aggressive, and it can happen to any dog. The trick is to be aware of your dog’s needs.
How To Stop Dogs Being Aggressive On Lead
Like all problem behaviours, leash reactivity is hard to eliminate but easy to make worse. It’s a case of slow steps forward and giant ones back. It seems impossible at times and must be one of the most frustrating behaviours to fix, but it’s worth it. Dog walking can actually be fun and relaxing again.
Reactivity in dogs varies a lot in intensity. Some are easy to manage, other will be a challenge even to the best trainer. The tips I give below relate more to the milder cases like Loki.
I’ve got to say this: no matter how much good advice I may give you, it’s nothing compared with what a behavioural consultant can give you just by watching your dog. I’m not a dog trainer- this is a vet’s and pet owner’s perspective, so I’ll start by saying: why go it alone? We know so many wonderful positive dog trainers who can walk alongside you and the Animal Welfare League run a class called reactive rover just for fur kids like these.
Any good behaviourist will recommend a vet checkup first. A dog’s anxiety can be caused by pain or vision problems for example. If you haven’t taken Rusty to the vet recently, it’s best to do so before assuming he just has a behavioural problem.
Keep Your Dog’s Focus
The trick is to find a way to keep your dog’s attention on you until the dog is far enough away to be forgotten. The video shows how I manage Loki by always carrying a tennis ball on walks. When I pass a problem house, or another dog appears, I break out the ball. This only works because to Loki, the tennis ball is his greatest obsession. I’ve written about the harm tennis balls cause to dogs recently, so this is the only time he gets one.
You can do the same thing with treats if they work. It’s also great if your dog can sit or drop and wait for a treat until another dog passes. A good dog trainer will, of course, show you how to teach this skill in a far better way but here’s a shortcut to get you by.
Use Better Restraint Methods
The last thing that should happen when your dog sees another dog is for their neck to be constricted. This will make aggression worse. That’s why collars and chains are the worst choice.
Read a full article here about using good harnesses and head collars to stop pulling . Then check out the options at your vet or training school. We use and recommend Perfect Fit®.
An anxious dog needs you to be a calm and confident leader. Most dogs will be more capable of remaining under control when approached if you are as well. If you are tense, your dog will pick it up so even ‘pretend’ to be calm if you have to.
Know Good Dog Walking Etiquette
A few weeks ago I published this infographic on our Facebook. If both sets of owners did this, there would be a lot fewer problems on walks.
When dogs meet, it’s also important that they don’t rush straight in without a sniff first. If you have a dog that charges up to other dogs, you probably already know how much other dogs don’t like it. Try and get them to slow down a bit first and check each other out on a loose leash. If you keep walking two reactive dogs near each other, they usually settle down quickly.
Avoiding Front Fence Access
Another way to prevent escalation is to not have your dogs triggering all day to passers-by. I added a second fence to keep my dogs behind the house and it drastically reduces reactions to street noise. Of course it will also help the poor reactive dog that happens to pass by!
Protect Your Dog
Lastly, a behaviour problem avoided may not get better, but it won’t get worse either. This could include avoiding certain houses where you know other reactive dogs live or just avoiding all dogs on leash. It could also mean being attentive to danger and very blunt with people who say “it’s OK, my dog is friendly”.
If you can read your dog’s body language for signs of conflict or anxiety you will be several steps ahead. Things that may give you early warning include:
- tense and stiff posture
- dilated pupils, eyes darting or looking away
- yawning or lip licking
- panting with the lips drawn back
- ears back or tail held stiffly
If you see these signs make sure you give your dog some space immediately. There may be only seconds to spare.
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.