What is Leash Reactivity?

Dogs who bark and lunge at other dogs when they are out on a leash are often labeled ‘leash reactive’. Many of these dogs are ok with others dogs off leash, but there’s just something about being on a leash that makes it hard for these dogs to cope out in the world when other dogs are present. In some cases, these dogs might also bark at people, passing cars, or other things in the environment.

Why does leash reactivity happen?

The reasons any particular dog is leash reactive will be different, because each dog is an individual. It may have nothing to do with not liking other dogs, or having an intention to harm, despite what the behavior looks like. Here are a few of the more common reasons that dogs are leash reactive:

  1. Fear/anxiety: Many dogs who bark and/or lunge at other dogs are acting out of fear. Barking and lunging serve a purpose – they let the other dog know that they want them to go away. It often works, and so the leash reactive dog continues to engage in these behaviors because they are reinforced by getting the other dog to move away.
  2. Frustration: Some dogs who bark and lunge at other dogs may be frustrated because they want access to other dog, but the leash is preventing them from doing this. In some cases, these dogs may have been allowed to meet other dogs and people on a leash when they were puppies, and now that you have quit doing this with them, they are frustrated by the new rule.
  3. Aggression: In some cases dogs are reactive on a leash because they are truly ‘aggressive’. Their behavior is about creating conflict, and they are not generally good with other dogs off leash either. For these dogs, I recommend consulting a veterinary behaviorist, as these dogs can be dangerous to other dogs and also to you if they redirect their aggression towards you.
  4. Health: If your dog has not recently seen a veterinarian, it is important to get a clean bill of health. This is especially important if the behavior has changed suddenly; there can be underlying medical conditions that have produced the new behavior such as unmanaged pain, thyroid issues, digestive issues, etc. Ask your veterinarian about nutrition – there are some diets that may be recommended to help your dog. Sleep is also critical for good health. If your dog is not getting enough rest, work through a plan for providing a quiet place to rest.

What can you do about leash reactivity?

1. Make an appointment to see your veterinarian to rule out any health issues, especially if the behavior you are seeing is new or has really ramped up in terms of intensity.

2. Do not punish the behavior. Having a dog who barks and lunges can be really stressful and embarrassing, but do what you can to remain calm (I know that’s easier said than done). Punishing the behavior will only make it worse.

3. Work with a certified dog professional or veterinary behaviorist who has experience with leash reactivity. Learning to Dog offers a Reactive Dog Program that might be a good fit for you and your dog.

Does it get better?

Yes! Yes it can get better if you are ready to help your dog! Dogs who are reactive need compassion and patience from someone who is ready to show them how to make different choices.

If you’d like to explore some excellent books on reactivity, we recommend the following:

  1. Help for your Dog-Reactive Dog by Nicole Wild
  2. The New Click to Calm by Emma Parsons
  3. Your End of the Lead by Janet Finlay

Still have questions? Contact us at marsha@learningtodog.com