Are You Making This Mistake With Your On-Leash Dog?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog reactive on leash

Story at-a-glance -

  • Leash reactive dogs bark, lunge and/or growl in response to the presence of other dogs (and sometimes, people)
  • Leashes restrict dogs’ ability to greet each other in normal canine fashion; for many dogs, this creates frustration, fear and/or a protective instinct
  • Many dog parents attempt to “pre-correct” leash reactivity in their dog, which often results in a vicious circle of unwanted behavior
  • The keys to calming a leash reactive dog are building trust and a bridge of communication, and focusing on creating confidence in him so that he makes more appropriate choices

In the world of dog trainers, “reactivity” is defined as “barking, lunging and/or growling in response to the presence of a particular stimulus.”1 For many dogs, a leash is the stimulus that triggers their reactivity when coupled with the presence of other dogs. And there’s actually a good reason for this when you understand how our canine friends communicate with each other.

Dog-to-dog greetings, when allowed to take their natural course (off leash), involve giving each other space, circling and sniffing each other, and then deciding to play, keep a polite distance, or run away. A leash hampers these natural behaviors in a number of ways, and depending on the dog, can provoke an unpleasant reaction.

A Typical Scenario for Leash Reactive Dogs and Their Humans

Brittany Fulton, owner and operator of Dances with Dogs, a positive reinforcement dog-training business, describes a typical scenario involving a feisty 15-pound terrier mix named Rocket, out for an evening potty walk:

“We’re on the streets of Washington, D.C., in a heavily populated area. Since Lisa [Rocket’s human] has just returned from work, we’re taking Rocket outside for bladder relief.

We begin discussing the pup’s reactivity as Rocket happily struts ahead of us on-leash. About two blocks into this evening stroll, I see that Rocket’s body has tensed, his ears are standing up and he’s staring straight ahead. Coming our direction is a hound roughly four times his size.”2

The oncoming dog is clearly eager to greet Rocket, and his human is eager as well. Rocket, no so much.

“The problem in this scenario is that Rocket has no, zilch, notta single interest in meeting Big Hound,” Fulton writes. “In fact, using my canine-body-language-deciphering skills, I’d say that Rocket fears what this dog, with his size and large jaws filled with sharp teeth, is capable of doing to his petite self.

With about four car lengths between the hound and Rocket, Rocket is doing his best to send his message. He is pulling on his leash as forcefully as he can and barking ferociously. Putting his behavior into words, I imagine him saying, ‘Uh-uh! You need to stay away from me! Keep your distance! I said, get the hell away’.”

Lisa (Rocket’s mom) is embarrassed at her dog’s rudeness. Fulton takes Rocket’s leash and tries to politely move him out of range of the oncoming hound, without success. The hound ignores Rocket’s quite clear message to keep his distance and performs a quick but thorough nose-to-tail inspection of the smaller dog. Poor Rocket, tail tucked and barking, is trying to move away.

Meanwhile, the two dog moms chat it up, with Lisa apologizing all over the place for Rocket’s behavior. Once the hound and human are on their way again, Lisa tells Fulton that Rocket’s behavior in this instance is exactly what she hopes to stop. Lisa seems annoyed that Fulton is busy soothing Rocket when what she thinks he needs punishment.

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A Leash Feels Like a Cage to a Leash Reactive Dog

Both Rocket’s behavior and Lisa’s response are very common, according to Fulton.

“Rocket did his very best to prevent a situation that made him feel powerless, uncertain and downright fearful,” she writes. “Yet, Rocket’s worst … fears were brought to life right before our eyes.

The little dog was on a leash, trapped and unable to stop a much larger dog from doing exactly as he pleased. Personally, I can’t imagine how scared I would be in a similar situation with a human who was both stronger and larger than me.

It’s important to understand that Rocket doesn’t seek opportunities to embarrass Lisa. He is using the language he speaks to communicate to other dogs that he does not want to mingle. … [Perhaps] he doesn’t like the sensation of being trapped. He may be motivated by an event in his past, perhaps involving a fight. He may simply prefer to have space between him and other dogs.

What Rocket’s behavior should communicate to other dogs is not always respected by other dogs, or other humans, for that matter.”

Escalating Up the Chain of Canine Communication

As my good friend and dog trainer Susan Garrett points out in a blog post on leash aggression, our dogs have only a few options for communicating with us — through their eyes, their posture including their tail, their movements, their breath, the lay of their fur, the way they hold their mouth and ears and finally, their voice.

“Dogs are often ‘forced’ to growl/bark or lunge because their cries for our help/protection from what they are worried about have gone unnoticed,” writes Susan. “Growling/lunging/barking/snapping is the dog escalating up the chain of communication.”3

Owners of leash aggressive dogs are often on high alert for things their pets react to, and as soon as another dog comes into view on a walk, for example, they begin to try to “pre-correct” the behavior they know is coming.

“Once a dog learns that when another dog comes near, you are going to scold him then correct him,” says Susan, “your dog will learn he hates other dogs nearby and will do his best to keep that other dog away (hence more growling/barking/snapping/lunging). Correcting the ‘growl’ is telling your dog he has no right to be afraid. That if he shows fear you will meet his fear with violence.”

This is what we call a vicious circle!

Building Trust and a Bridge of Communication with Your Dog

Here is how Fulton helps the Rockets of the world deal with their fears:

“I decipher their loudly shouted messages and share them with their people. I build each dog’s trust in his people. I create a bridge of communication between human and dog. All of these approaches allow the Rockets to relax a little more with every walk and, consequently, allow their people to relax, too. No need for embarrassment or overwhelming fear. We’re a team and we can do this.”

She recommends first learning to understand your dog’s body language and “spoken” language. Once you understand what your dog is saying, it’s much easier to respond appropriately.

“In reactivity,” Fulton writes, “identifying fear and a dog’s inability to handle close proximity to another dog or human allows us to understand that putting distance between a dog and his feared stimuli provides reassurance. Visual barriers can also calm or soothe a fearful dog.”

When it comes to building a bridge of communication with your dog, Fulton suggests creating a shared language through training exercises.

“My training cue of choice for reactivity is a form of focus called ‘look’ or ‘watch’,” she writes. “With proper education and practice, we can ask for focus from our dog as the two of us enter a questionable situation.

Asking for focus helps prevent further reaction from the dog. If, thanks to shared communication and distraction techniques, the situation never becomes too frightening, there is no need for the Rocket of this scenario to send a loud, barking message.”

Walks with Our Dogs Should Be About Them, Not Us

Susan Garrett sees the job of dog parent/guardian/trainer as all about creating confidence in dogs so that they want to make the choices we want them to make. “What if rather than trying to ‘force’ a dog to ‘get along’ we focused on creating confidence in that dog to get him to choose appropriately,” she writes. “What would that look like?”

  • First and foremost, walks with our dog would be about them — not us. For example, we wouldn’t choose to walk the boardwalk, with its 3-foot walls on either side that create a sense of being trapped inside, because our leash reactive dog would have no outlet if she became worried.
  • Because this is about our dog and not us, we’d forgo our 2-mile power walk to focus on creating 10 minutes of positive experiences for her — 10 minutes to help build trust with her, while simultaneously increasing her confidence in that situation. At the end of the 10 minutes (or less), we’d break off for a game of fetch, tug or a nice petting session.
  • The sole purpose of the walk would be to spot other dogs first and immediately drop a few tasty treats on the ground in front of your own dog, adding more treats so she keeps her head down or focuses on you until the other dog has passed by. And you do this no matter her reaction and behavior toward the other dog.

These three simple steps can go a long way towards changing the experience of walks for your dog, says Susan. It gives her a chance to learn how to behave appropriately while enjoying a walk with you, and it gives her the opportunity to not only tolerate but possibly even enjoy the sight of another dog nearby on walks.