Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.
What Is Leash Reactivity in Dogs?
As the name implies, leash reactivity in dogs refers to dogs who are engaging in reactive behaviors when they are on leash.
Walking these dogs can become quite a challenge because their behavioral display can be quite dramatic and may put you in some embarrassing or sticky situations.
Leash reactivity may be triggered by a variety of stimuli and situations. Every dog may also react differently.
Regardless of the underlying cause, you may be desperately looking for some solutions so to ameliorate the situation and finally get to enjoy a peaceful walk.
The good news is that there are several strategies you can employ, but if your dog is acting aggressively and you are concerned about the safety of others around you, or if your dog is overwhelmingly stressed, your best option is to work alongside a dog behavior professional.
In this article we will talk about:
- Common triggers for dog leash reactivity
- The signs of leash reactivity in dogs
- The main functions of the behavior
- 10 tips to treat this behavior
What Triggers Leash Reactivity in Dogs?
What triggers the reactive behavior may vary between one dog and another. Acknowledging what triggers the reactive behavior in your dog gives you power because you'll be able to take steps to prevent such full-intensity exposures.
For some dogs reactivity is triggered by passing cars, people on bikes, children on skateboards, while for others it may involve the sight of other dogs, or perhaps people wearing sunglasses or hats.
Some dogs may also become reactive in response to certain objects they are not very familiar with such as flags or traffic cones, excavators and concrete mixers.
Things that move unexpectedly may also trigger a reactive response such as leaves, plastic bags or papers blown by the wind, or unexpected things such as air coming from a vent or the noise of a car engine backfiring.
Regardless of the trigger, the response is generally the same—an almost explosive reaction that makes keeping the dog under control a big challenge!
What Does Leash Reactivity Look Like?
The reactive behaviors may vary from one dog to another. It's important that you learn how to read your dog's body language so that you can readily recognize any precursor signs of increasing tension.
- Hypervigilance (dog looking in all directions, ears orienting to every sound)
- Pupil dilation
- Lowered body
- Piloerection (raised hackles)
What are The Main Functions of the Behavior?
Leash reactivity in dogs doesn't just happen on a whim. Rather, the behavior of barking and lunging has some specific underlying function that fuels and maintains the behavior alive.
It can be said that in general, dog leash-reactivity behaviors can be classified into two main categories: escape and access. Each of these can trigger dogs to display similar reactions.
Escape, as implied, involves dogs attempting to escape from some stimulus or circumstance that they perceive as unpleasant or aversive.
When dogs are on a leash, they become more vulnerable as their choice to flee is removed and often this puts them into the situation to choose "fight" versus flight.
The stimulus or situation causes an arousal effect on the dog's sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) pathways.
Catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) trigger the release of energy along with increases in heart rate and blood pressure, which are typical of the dog's flight and fight reaction.
These dogs are therefore trying to put distance between themselves and the trigger, but since they are prevented from fleeing, they are forced to put up a threatening display in hopes of scaring the trigger away.
For sake of an example, imagine a person is terrified of mice. A mouse makes its way into the home and is approaching the person. The person cornered, will stomp her feet in hopes of scaring the rodent away. The mouse perceives the threat and rushes back to its original hiding spot, a crack in a wall.
Since this behavior "works," this person will repeat this behavior in the future should a similar circumstance happen again.
Among dogs, we see the rehearsal of this behavior quite often in the case of dogs barking at the mailman. Bark after bark, the dog soon realizes that the mailman eventually leaves, and therefore his barking ultimately "works."
Of course, this is from the dog's perspective, we humans know for a fact that the mailman isn't escaping from the dog, but just going on with his postal duties!
Access, as the name implies, access-driven behaviors involve dogs trying to access some stimulus that they find appealing.
At a first glance, it may seem odd for a dog to bark, growl and lunge when they want to reach something appealing, but in reality, those angry vocalizations are triggered by frustration.
These are typically dogs who are social butterflies and have a history of playing well with other dogs at the off-leash dog park, but put them on leash and they will throw the canine equivalent of a "temper tantrum" when they can't go to greet and meet dogs on walks.
This type of leash-reactivity is quite different than the one elicited by fear and therefore requires a different approach. If you think your dog is barking out of frustration because he can't go meet people or other dogs, check out the guide on barrier frustration in dogs.
This article will focus more on leash reactivity that involves dogs who are seeking to escape a stimulus and situation and react through growling, barking and lunging.
10 Tips to Stop a Dog From Being Reactive on Leash
To stop a dog from being reactive on leash, you'll need to take a multi-pronged approach, tackling the issue from a variety of angles. This is because behind the lunging and barking, there are underlying emotions at play.
It can be therefore said that barking and lunging are simply the external manifestations of internal turmoil, and therefore it's important getting to the root cause of the behavior, which is the underlying emotional response towards those evoking triggers and situations discussed earlier.
Following are therefore several ways to "stop" leash reactivity in dogs. The word "stop" is placed between quotation marks because no guarantees can be ever made on the outcome of behavior modification, and because more than stopping, the behavior will be managed.
1) Prevent Rehearsal of Problematic Behavior
Just like actors get better and better in their recitals, the more they practice, the more your dog's lunging and barking behaviors establish and become more and more habit-forming, courtesy of repetitions. As the saying goes, "practice makes perfect."
It therefore goes without saying, that a fundamental part of the rehabilitation process will entail preventing your dog from engaging in barking and lunging behavior.
Here's the thing: even if your dog gets to lunge and bark occasionally, as he doesn't always encounter his triggers on walks, those occasional rehearsals maintain the behavior alive, because escaping from fearful or stress-inducing situations is an adaptive behavior that will persist because it's associated with survival.
Preventing rehearsal can therefore mean no more walks until your dog is better equipped with coping skills and has demonstrated the ability to tolerate low-intensity exposures toward triggers. Taking your dog off the reactivity fog will allow both of you to get some relief.
No worries, this is not a permanent solution and there are many ways to keep your dog active, and happy in the meanwhile through brain games, food puzzles, clicker training, foraging opportunities, fun games in the yard (fetch, treasure hunts, use of large herding balls for dogs), sniffing adventures, canine sports, hikes in rural (if you are absolutely sure your dog's triggers won't show up).
2) Compile a List of Your Dog's Triggers
"Forearmed is forewarned", goes the saying. In other words, knowledge is power. The more you know what exactly triggers your dog's reactivity, the more control you will have over the trigger.
If your dog has multiple triggers, list them in hierarchical order, with the ones causing the most significant reactions at the top.
However, keep in mind that, sometimes your dog has one specific trigger, but once he reacts to that, he may become so hyperreactive that he'll startle and react towards other things too, which normally wouldn't' t cause a reaction when your dog is at baseline.
3) Familiarize With Desensitization and Counterconditioning
These are two very powerful behavior modification techniques that are also used in humans to treat fears and phobias.
Desensitization is simply the process where you expose your dog to his triggers in a systematic manner so that they don't evoke his lunging and barking behavior. This often means presenting them at a distance if the trigger is visual or playing recordings at a low volume if the trigger is auditory.
Counterconditioning is instead the process of creating positive associations with the trigger. The goal is eliciting what is known as a conditioned emotional response, where the dog goes from dreading the trigger to looking forward to it because it leads to wonderful things. The most common implementation of this is through the use of food. Basically, every time the trigger is seen, the dog is fed something high in value.
When desensitization is combined with counterconditioning you therefore get the best of both worlds: low-level, more tolerable exposures to the trigger and wonderful associations with food.
4) Become a Pro In Reading Your Dog
In order to implement behavior modification correctly, it's important to familiarize yourself with your dog's body language. Recognize when he is at an emotional baseline level and when he's starting to rev up.
If you have recordings of your dog's reactive behavior, watch them in slow motion and watch carefully the precursor signs. There may have been a quick lip lick or wrinkling of the skin on the forehead or he may stop panting—focusing on something in the distance.
A good behavior modification plan will have your dog orienting towards the trigger, but without causing him to react. You therefore need to pay extra attention so that your dog doesn't go over threshold.
5) Train Replacement Behaviors
The goal is to gradually train an alternate behavior for your dog to engage in and obtain a fluid response so that it can be then eventually prompted in face of the trigger.
This training should be started in the comfort of the home away from distractions. With cases of reactivity, I have found more success in using dynamic behaviors than static behaviors (like sits, downs and stays) because I find that dogs struggle more to stay still when they are concerned about their surroundings.
One of my favorite replacement behaviors to train is attention heeling (where the dog looks at me while walking past distractions).
You can train this starting in the hallway using kibble, then move to the porch and yard using high-value treats, and then on brief walks back and forth in front of the home when you are sure there are no triggers.
I would also recommend working on conditioning your dog to respond to a smacking sound. Train this by making the sound and then tossing your dog immediately a treat. Smacking sound/treat, smacking sound/treat.
Practice in low-distraction areas, gradually adding in distractions (not the actual trigger though). You want your dog to immediately orient towards you for his treat upon hearing this sound.
7) Acclimate to a Muzzle
When working on behavior modification, safety is paramount. If you are concerned your dog may act aggressively towards other dogs or people in the case people or dogs get too close or should the leash would slip out of your hand, it is best to have your dog wear a muzzle.
I usually recommend a bite-proof muzzle such as the wire basket muzzles from Dean and Tyler and some varieties of Jafco muzzles. These allow you to still feed treats and allow your dog to pant. Consider that children's fingers can fit through gaps so you may need muzzles with no gaps (like muzzles with "stool guards") if your dog will be around children.
Consider that muzzle training takes some time so you want to work on this in advance using desensitization and counterconditioning on helping your dog get used to wearing a muzzle.
8) Keep Your Dog Under Better Control
Just a plain buckle collar attached to a leash in general will give you poor control of your dog.
This can also personally cause you stress and anxiety when going on walks because you be concerned about falling, or your dog dragging you too close to the trigger or tugging strong enough that the leash slips through your hand.
Your dog may sense this stress, and this can travel down the leash to the point where you are both feeding each other's emotions.
By having a better sense of control, you may feel more confident. For more control, I recommend using a front-attachment harness where the leash attaches to the front ring of the harness. For security, I like to attach the leash to the dog's regular collar and the harness's front ring so I have a backup in case of equipment failure.
For cases where I am particularly concerned about safety, or there are struggles in walking the dog, I may even invest in a head halter. One of my favorites is the Gentle Leader. Consider that this requires an acclimatization process like the muzzle.
I do not recommend prong collars, choke collars or shock collars as these do the total opposite of what I am trying to achieve since they cause discomfort/pain.
6) Start With Easy Systematic Exposures
Once you have learned how to read your dog's body language, the basics of desensitization and counterconditioning, how to keep a dog under threshold, acclimatized your dog to the muzzle (and other training gear) and practiced a replacement behavior, it is time to start working with systematic exposures.
These are again low-intensity exposures where you can control the intensity of the trigger through set-ups (like volunteers walking back and forth at a distance).
You won't ask for trained replacement behaviors yet, because it's not easy for a dog to perform operant behaviors when they are concerned about a potential trigger (think about trying to focus when a big spider is about to crawl on your arm!), and on top of that, you want your dog to focus on the trigger so that you can pair it with good things.
There are several games and exercises that use desensitization and counterconditioning that come in handy when working with reactive dogs.
These exercises/games are rather easy for the dog to perform since they don't involve much thinking but just looking at triggers and forming positive associations with them.
A great game to play to create positive associations with a trigger is the Look at That Exercise. In this exercise, you just feed treats when your dog sees the trigger, aiming for a positive conditioned emotional response. If I have a dog who isn't very territorial, I can even start this exercise indoors, by looking at the trigger from a window at a distance.
If you want to make things crystal clear, you can use the Open Bar/Close Bar method, taking advantage of visual obstructions. For example, if your dog is reactive towards other dogs, have a helper walk a dog parallel to parked cars. Feed treats when your dog sees the other dog, stop feeding treats when he no longer sees him (as the cars block the view).
The Engage Disengage game is another helpful method that also incorporates desensitization and counterconditioning.
Another helpful game that aims to provide positive associations is a "Treasure Hunt game." Upon noticing the trigger at a distance, toss a handful of treats and say "find it!" in a happy tone as you point towards the treats.
A Treat Toss game instead consists of the dog noticing the trigger at a distance, I then make the smacking sound then tossing the treat a little ahead on the road for the dog to catch. I have found some dogs respond better to tossed treats rather than hand-feeding as it stimulates their prey drive and allows them to release some energy too.
7) Progress to Actual Training
Once your dog has shown signs of associating the trigger with tasty treats and he is in a calmer state, you can start asking for the replacement behaviors.
Right upon passing by the trigger, make your smacking sound, hold the treat at eye level and ask your dog to do some steps of attention heeling, looking at you as you feed him treats every step. Once past the trigger, no more treats. Make it clear that the trigger is what starts all the fun!
8) Have a Plan for Setbacks
If at any time, your dog becomes reactive, take that as a sign that you have progressed too fast or the trigger was at a too intense level.
End the session on a positive note, feeding treats as your dog sees it from a distance that doesn't evoke a reaction, and call it a day.
Once home, make a mental note of presenting the trigger at less intense levels. It could be the trigger was presented too close or for too long or was too animated. Each of these elements should be presented one at a time, too many elements presented at once can easily push a dog to the edge.
It could also be that your dog has endured other stressful events at home and due to trigger stacking his threshold for feeling reactive has temporarily lowered. Maybe he is not feeling well, or the exposure was just too many various elements at once.
9) Consider Calming Aids
For cases of reactivity that aren't too responsive, you may need to add some calming aids. Examples include calming supplements, DAP collars, calming sprays, etc.
In certain cases, where the dog is a bite risk or reactivity occurs across various contexts, or when the triggers are difficult to manage and there is no improvement, the use of medications prescribed by the vet may be recommended.
10) Consider Professional Help
It goes without saying that ideally, reactivity in dogs should be tackled with the help of a professional for safety and the correct implementation of behavior modification.
It is important to seek help from professionals committed to force-free training and behavior modification.
Professionals to seek out include dog trainers specializing in reactivity, board-certified veterinary behaviorists and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.
Importance of Improving the Dog's Emotional Wellbeing (And Yours Too!)
On top of working around the reactivity, it's important to not forget to also tackle the dog's overall emotional well-being.
Improvements can be made by decreasing the overall stress in the dog's life, increasing the dog's confidence and helping the dog develop coping skills.
Particularly beneficial may be adding enrichment under the form of brain games and food puzzles, adding an exercise regimen, promoting positive experiences, shaping, clicker training, impulse control training, letting the dog explore the world at his own pace, building frustration tolerance, splitting exercises into easy steps, teaching the dog to relax.
Another important aspect is controlling our own behaviors. Most likely if you own a reactive dog, you are emotionally charged as well.
Learn to feel more relaxed, breathe deeply and avoid tightening the leash the moment you notice a stimulus that your dog reacts to. This reflex-like action will alert your dog of danger, traveling all the way down the leash and making him reactive as well.
By taking baby steps, to some extent, you are also "rehabilitating" yourself as well along with your dog and learning how to "read him better" and be more in control of certain situations.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli