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Leash Reactivity In Dogs

Leash Reactivity

Leash Reactivity

Spending time with our dogs should be something that we look forward to. But, if the entire walk consists of scanning the horizon for other dogs, hiding behind cars, and making rapid changes of direction, then it might be that you’re having to manage a leash reactive dog.

This article will delve in deep to help you understand what leash reactivity is and what causes it. Then we’re going to provide you with some practical advice on how to get back to enjoying exercise time with your dog.

Free Leash Reactivity Plan

What does leash reactive mean?

What You Experience: To consider your dog to be leash reactive means that the unwanted behavior only happens when the leash is on. So, when your dog is off leash, they may happily greet other dogs and people. They may also have no desire to say hello to other dogs, but they’re calm around them, keep their distance, and get on with their own thing.

Why It Happens: The leash is like an on/off switch to your dog. Leash on, here comes reactivity. Leash off, no reactivity. If your dog reacts when they’re off-leash, then they have a more generalized reactive response and are not then considered to be leash reactive

Our Expectations: It is important to understand that, just like us, not all of our dogs are social butterflies. Some will love to meet other dogs and chase around. Others prefer to have a sniff around or spend time with their people.

Managing Goals: This means that you need to set your expectations in line with what’s right for your dog. Success might be that they can now calmly walk past another dog while also accepting that they may never want to go and ‘say hello.’

Spending time with our dogs should be something that we look forward to. But, if the entire walk consists of scanning the horizon for other dogs, hiding behind cars, and making rapid changes of direction, then it might be that you’re having to manage a leash reactive dog.

What does leash reactivity look like?

Imagine for a moment two dogs meeting each other, off-leash. You’ll see that they sniff each other, then back off for a bit, and then come back closer again. Throughout this interaction, body language signals tell each dog what the outcome of their meeting might be if they continue to interact. So, if one dog is very tense or is staring intently, they can back away and create a safe distance between each other.

If we now think of that same scenario, but this time the two dogs are both on leash. Now, the freedom to move forward and then retreat is restricted. The leash prevents your dog from creating a safe distance when they’re unsure of the other dog. Feeling threatened and unable to move away, they now need to escalate their response to get the other dog to leave. And that escalation is likely to be a snap or a growl.

But the other dog is also unable to respond appropriately because they are also on a leash and can’t move away. Now there’s a situation where to prevent things from getting out of hand, the owners move their dogs apart.

The problem now is that our dog has learned how to get a successful outcome. They felt worried about the other dog being close, so they reacted by growling, and the other dog moved away. Success!

 In the future, the cautious dog might growl or snap before another dog gets too close.

Aggression is usually based in fear

Not too surprisingly, the owners will also be concerned by the dog’s response, and so when they hear the growling, they too back away and use the leashes to move their dogs apart from each other. More evidence to your dog that the scary thing, the other dog, moves away when they growl.

And that is how to create leash reactivity.

What is the difference between leash reactivity and aggressive?

Reactivity is often confused with aggression. After all, if you see a dog who’s barking and lunging, it can look pretty intimidating, but it doesn’t mean to say that it’s an aggressive dog.

Reactive dogs

Reactive dogs respond in the way just described because they’re fearful or frustrated and in an over-aroused emotional state. When they get to this level of reactivity, it becomes difficult for them to even hear their owner, let alone follow their cues. Their body is preparing them for a confrontational situation that they’re trying hard to avoid. That means their cortisol level goes up, their breathing becomes heavy, and their heart rate increases.

The reactive dog might begin with a few barks or a growl to let the scary thing know they’re there and to back away. If that doesn’t get the result they’re looking for, then they will escalate their response until they once again feel safe.

Reactive dogs are trying to avoid becoming aggressive. After all, when one acts aggressively, there’s a chance that they might not come out of it too well, so our dogs will generally try to avoid getting into that situation to begin with.

Aggressive dogs

We can define aggression as being a response that’s hostile, harmful, or destructive, with that behavior being directed towards another animal or a person. Many dogs get labeled as aggressive, but that really doesn’t help us to work out what’s going on.

That’s because there are many different types of aggression, and each one has a reason for the dog responding in this way.

Types Of Aggression

When the aggression is directed toward a person or animal by the female dog protecting her pups.

Aggression towards a person or animal which is caused by the dog being in pain or discomfort. After all, we all know how cranky we get with a toothache!

Generally, this is directed towards another animal, but this time it tends to be done without the dog growling or barking. That’s because they are motivated to hunt the other dog as though it were prey, and a noisy dog will not be a good hunter.

When your dog becomes so frustrated that they can’t get to the other dog, then the emotions escalate to aggression. When this happens, they then redirect that aggression onto a person or dog that they can reach.

 If there’s a female dog in season, then aggression can occur between the males in the home as they compete to get access to the female. Sometimes the female dogs can also become aggressive, this time towards each other, to be able to gain access to the male dog.

Some medical conditions can cause our dogs to be aggressive in a way that is both unexpected and out of character. That means that if you see your dog suddenly react in an aggressive manner and there’s no obvious build-up or reason for it, then a visit to the vets is needed first/.

When our dog is feeling afraid, then you might see aggressive type responses towards the person or animal who is causing that fear. And this is one of the most common reasons for leash aggression.

Now you might be wondering why we’re talking about types of aggression when this guide is all about leash reactivity. Well, it can be difficult for owners to tell the difference between aggression and reactivity, but knowing a little about each may make it easier to identify the trigger for why it all started to begin with.  

What causes dog reactivity leash?

In our experience, the most common reason for a dog to become leash reactive is due to poor or fearful experiences with other dogs in the past. One case really springs to mind, and that is of Molly, a Border Collie.

Molly The Leash Reactive Border Collie

Molly’s owner knew that it was important for her pup to go to new places and meet lots of other dogs and people when she was young so that she grew up to be a confident adult dog. One day when out for a walk, a young Labrador ran out of a yard and rushed over to say hello. Even though the Lab meant no harm, his bouncy nature meant that Molly found him to be way too much to cope with and actually pretty scary. She tried to back away but couldn’t because of the leash. When she eventually growled and then snapped, the Labrador backed off, seeming completely confused as to what the issue was.

Thankfully the Labrador’s owner came rushing out when she heard the commotion and dragged her dog back into the yard. From that point onwards, Molly spent her on leash walks looking out for dogs who might come running towards her. If they did, she told them to back off in no uncertain terms, and her display of teeth and hackles was highly successful.
Off leash, Molly could cope perfectly when meeting other dogs. Some she backed away from, unsure of how friendly they were, and others she would have a good chase with around the park

So, as you can see from poor Molly, even with her owner’s best intentions, sometimes unpredictable things happen that create leash reactivity problems.

What is one SMALL thing I can do to change my dog’s behavior?

Keep your leash loose to prevent leash reactivity

Remember we’ve been saying that the presence of the leash is the thing that most often causes problems? Well, what’s actually causing the issue is the tension in the leash. That’s because when the leash goes tight, it means that your dog now has very few options other than to be reactive to resolve the situation.

So, the one small thing that you can do to change your reactive dog’s behavior is always to keep the leash loose. If you feel the tension begin to build, then you need to quickly assess the situation to decide what to do next. While a retractable leash might seem to be the answer to this, if your dog does react, then it becomes tough to quickly get out of the situation if you have 20ft of slack leash to reel in. With a 6ft leash, you can quickly and very easily move away without the risk of getting tangled up.

If your dog’s body language is relaxed and this is a dog and owner that you know, then you could step forward so that they can continue to say hello with a loose leash.  

Is the body language of either dog becoming tense? Then immediately encourage your dog to back away from whatever is causing them to become concerned.

If you’re not sure what’s happening, then calmly create distance. Use your voice, pat your leg, use treats or a toy to encourage your dog to come away in a relaxed and happy way. Remember that the aim is to leave calmly to prevent the situation from escalating, so if your dog tends to become overexcited with a toy, then treats will be a better option.

Why is my dog aggressive/reactive on leash but not off-leash?

Imagine being in a situation where you’re confronted with something that scares you, but the person who’s with you prevents you from getting away. You might stay calm for a moment, but as the scary thing comes closer, you’re probably going to try your hardest to get away.

That’s exactly what’s happening for our on-leash dog. Being on a leash reduces the options available to them to deal with the situation. They can’t run away; the leash prevents that. So, instead, they turn to alternative ways to scare off the other animal or person.

When your dog is off leash, they now have more options. Just like you, when confronted with the scary thing, your dog can now choose to increase the distance and then decide if it’s safe to investigate further. Or they could decide that the whole situation is way too much, and they need to get away as far as possible.

Leash reactivity occurs because they can not flee the situation due to the leash.
3 dogs greeting off leash.

Why is my dog aggressive/reactive to other dogs on walks?

The most common reason your dog is aggressive or reactive to other dogs while on a leash is previous experience. Your dog has learned that this is not a safe situation to be in and that the best way to get rid of those other dogs is to react.

Why is my dog so reactive/aggressive to other dogs?

Most reactive and aggressive responses are based in fear. A dog is never aggressive without reason, but with there being many reasons, you will need to take on a detective role to work out what’s going on.

A visit to the vets for a complete check over and blood test is a good first step. This can identify or rule out pain and disease-related issues

Then you might think back to recent events to see if you can pinpoint something that’s happened or changed that has caused this new response in your dog. Don’t dismiss something that you consider small or inconsequential; it may have been a big deal for your dog.

But, to move forward, you don’t always need to know the cause of the problem. Your behaviorist will assess what’s happening and then put together a plan to help you and your dog. If you’re wondering what you should expect to see in a behavior plan, here’s a snippet from the one devised for Molly the Border Collie.

You’ll see that the behaviorist has already met and worked with Molly and has now designed a plan to help her and her owner.  As a quick reminder, a very bouncy Labrador came rushing over to Molly when she was on leash; since then, Molly has become leash reactive to all dogs.

Molly The Leash Reactive Border Collie: Behavior Plan

 Molly has shown us that she’s not able to cope when other dogs approach her. She reacts by growling and lunging at the end of her leash, and it becomes very difficult to get her away from that situation. 

This means that until she has learned how to be non-reactive, we need to get her out of difficult situations as quickly and calmly as possible. Of course, we want to avoid those situations to begin with, but we also spoke about how difficult that can be while still helping Molly get the exercise she needs

When we worked with Molly in your home, we found that she is much more interested in toys than food. We also found it very difficult for her to concentrate on what we asked her to do when she had her favorite squeaky duck, even for very well-known behaviors like sitting and giving a paw. When we played with a rope tug toy, Molly enjoyed the game but could still focus and listen to what we asked her to do. 

So, when out on a walk, I’d like you to have that tug toy in your pocket. Then if another dog is close by and before Molly reacts, you can have a game with the toy while also moving away from the situation. Remember to keep the game low key, so don’t throw the tug toy or get to the point where Molly is leaping around excitedly. We want to help her to focus on you but not attract more dogs to what looks and sounds like an exciting game!

Management Tools

We’ve already spoken about managing the time between starting to work on your dog’s leash reactivity and it being cured. Our top three management tools for this period of time are:


Providing your dog with something else to think about other than the trigger can be a great way of managing what could be a difficult situation.  For this to be a successful management tool, it needs to be something that your dog loves to do. You can make heelwork a game by introducing changes of pace and lots of turns.

 Make sure that there are plenty of rewards which could be food or toys. You can also keep your dog’s focus by mixing up how many paces of heelwork they need to offer before getting their reward. Sometimes it might be after just two paces, and other times it might be after twenty. 

Avoiding Triggers

Avoiding the problem to begin with is much easier than sorting out a problem once it’s happened. Plan your routes and times to avoid the busiest times of day when it’s more likely to come across the trigger.

Being Vigilant

It’s essential to be present when you’re out with your dog. That means that you’re not on your phone or planning what you need to do when you get home. Instead, keep an eye on your surroundings so that you can avoid problems. Remember to watch your dog’s body language for any signs of tension because that’s likely to lead to reactivity.

Can a dog be cured of leash reactivity issues?

The good news is that in the majority of cases, leash reactivity can be cured. But this does usually require the owner to work with a behavior professional who can accurately assess the issue and devise a plan to move forward.

It will take commitment from the owner too. You might initially need to change your day-to-day routine and where you walk your dog, but that’s just while your dog is learning new ways of behaving.  The aim will be to reintroduce those situations but in a gradual way to help your dog be successful.

It takes time to cure a reactive dog, and that might be months rather than weeks or days. But when you regain the pleasure of taking your dog out on a leash without any reactivity, then it all becomes worth it!

Does leash reactivity go away?

It would be very unusual for leash reactivity to simply go away. The only time this might happen is when it’s being caused by the dog being in pain or due to an illness. Even then, the learning that’s taken place and the success that it’s brought can stay with the dog even when the pain has gone away. This, in turn, then becomes their default way of dealing with a situation.

Can leash reactivity be fixed?

Yes, it can! Do be aware, though, that ‘fixed’ can mean different things to different dogs. For some dogs being’ fixed’ of leash reactivity might mean that they can now walk calmly when another dog is 20 feet away. For another dog, it might mean that they can now walk in busy environments with lots of other dogs on leash, such as you’d find at a dog show.

Every dog is an individual, so what they feel comfortable with and can cope with will vary, along with the amount of time it takes to get there.

How to handle the human emotional aspect of leash aggression?

Having a leash reactive dog can be tough. Not only is it embarrassing, but it can be tempting to jerk the leash or yell at your dog.  That might be because of how frustrated you feel or because it seems that other people are judging you. The problem is that doing those kinds of things will make the situation worse rather than better. From your dog’s perspective, when another dog or person appears, that’s already something to be concerned about. Now, they also get yelled at or pulled around on the lead. If they needed any more evidence for the need to be leash reactive, you’ve just provided it.

Keeping in mind that your dog is worried rather than being difficult or naughty can be really helpful for owners when trying to live with a leash reactive dog. Don’t forget our management tips to help you avoid those challenging situations to begin with.

Do dogs grow out of reactivity?

Dogs are known to have what’s called fear periods as they go from puppyhood to developing into an adult dog. The first fear period usually happens when the pup is between the ages of 8-to-12-weeks. But, because this is the same time that most puppies go to their new home, it’s not often noticed by the new owners.

The second fear period takes place when the young dog is between 6 and 14 months. Smaller dogs often go through this stage earlier, while larger dogs tend to be towards the latter end of the scale.

If your dog was in the wild, then this is the age when they would be allowed to go hunting with the adult dogs. Now the last thing a pack of hunting dogs needs is an unruly youngster who goes rushing in without thinking. So, the logic behind the fear period is that it causes the dog to be less confident in new situations and not to go running up to new things that might put them and the other dogs into a dangerous situation.

Now, the chances your youngster will have to go out and hunt for his supper are low, but the fear period still takes place. This means that your dog may suddenly seem less confident and react to things that caused them no problem a few weeks ago.

How this period is managed will define whether your youngster develops into a confident adult dog or remains fearful of new situations. Suppose they kept on reacting on the leash without the owner avoiding the situation to begin with or helping them to leave it. In that case, there may be enough repetitions for that dog to learn that being reactive is the best and most successful response. In that instance, your dog will not simply grow out of the reactivity; instead, with your help, they will need to learn new ways of responding.

Does dog reactivity get better with age?

Well, if we mean that your dog gets better at being reactive, then yes, that’s a real possibility if they don’t have the opportunity to learn new ways of reacting within a safe environment. But you probably meant will your dog reduce in reactivity with age. Without implementing changes and helping your dog in situations that they find difficult, that’s unlikely to happen.

How do you get rid of leash aggression?

Getting rid of leash aggression takes time. It initially means avoiding the situations that your dog finds difficult and setting them up for success. That’s because every time your dog gets to practice that reactive behavior on the leash, it becomes more and more ingrained into their repertoire. It simply becomes, see another dog and react regardless of whether or not that poor dog is doing anything that should cause such an over-the-top response.

There are two key approaches to help your dog overcome their leash reactivity, desensitization and counter-conditioning. We’ll go into more detail about what each one is and how they can be used to help your dog later on in this guide

How do you live with a leash reactive dog?

There will be a period between starting to help your leash reactive dog and fixing the problem. That then means that you’ll need some strategies in place to help prevent your dog from practicing that unwanted behavior.

How do you handle the reactivity of a leash?

It’s often said that an owner’s nerves and fears pass down the leash to the dog, which in turn causes the dog to also become anxious. That makes sense because if our grip on the leash becomes tight and we pull the dog in close to us, we’ve restricted their options. Now they can no longer calmly amble along, sniffing and enjoying the walk.

 So, one of the essential things to consider is how you can remain calm and help your dog to enjoy a relaxing walk. This might mean planning your walk at quieter times of the day and avoiding areas where your dog is more likely to become reactive. Even if your dog’s reactivity isn’t severe, if they have the opportunity to practice that way of responding to other dogs or people on a regular basis, then it can quickly become a major problem. That means that it’s much better to avoid situations where they may be leash reactive.

 It can be really helpful to go out for a walk without your dog to look for potential triggers. Depending on what your dog is reactive to, that might be the dog down the street who comes flying up to the fence barking as you walk past or an area where children are running around playing. Now, you can plan how to avoid those issues and reduce the likelihood of your dog reacting.

How do I stop my dog from lunging at other dogs on a leash?

The easiest way to stop the lunging is to prevent it from happening to begin with. Remember that every time your dog practices this response, it becomes deeper ingrained and adds further evidence, in your dog’s mind, that this was a successful strategy to take.

Like any skill that we learn, the more we practice, the easier it becomes until we can do it without even really thinking about it. Your dog’s leash reactivity is just the same. The more they practice, the more it just becomes what they do. So, while it’s not impossible to stop a dog from being leash reactive, the more time they’ve been practicing that skill, then the longer it will take for them to learn a new way of responding.

Sometimes, even with the best planning in the world, things don’t go the way you expect, just as in the case of Molly the Border Collie. It might be that you turn a corner in the road or trail and suddenly find yourself face to face with another dog or that a loose dog comes running over uninvited.

If your dog’s reactivity is not at the top end of the scale, then you might be able to use food or toys to get away from the situation.

Food-motivated dogs

In this instance, it’s all about getting out of the situation as quickly and calmly as possible. For some dogs, really high-value and smelly treats might work. That might be something like cheese or hot dog sausages cut into small chunks.  Be aware that when your dog is in full-blown reactive mode, it will be difficult or even impossible for them to consider eating even if they’re generally very food motivated.

That then means that you need to get the treats out as soon as you spot the trigger for the reactivity. At the same time, you can begin to turn to move away from the potential problem. Remember that you need to keep calm and relaxed to help your dog to stay the same.

Sometimes, owners worry that their dog will connect getting treats with being reactive and encourage more reactivity rather than less. Thankfully, there is no need to worry about this happening, and that’s because most leash reactivity is based in fear. Imagine that you’re terrified of heights and you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. If someone then fed you your favorite candy, that would not increase your fear of heights. In fact, you might start to enjoy being up there. Our dogs are just the same; feeding treats will not increase the reactivity, just as being fed candy did not increase your fear of heights.

Wondering when you can stop giving treats? It’s suggested that rather than getting rid of them entirely that you slowly fade them out. That might mean that to encourage your dog to leave a situation where they were just about to become reactive, you give a treat on every step you take as you move away. Then, as your dog becomes less reactive and easier to encourage away, it might be a treat every third step. Finally, you may get to the stage of only rewarding your dog once you’re well away from that potential issue.

Toy motivated dogs

If your dog is usually more motivated to have a game rather than eat treats, you can use a toy in the same way. If the trigger that causes the reactivity is a person, then a squeaky toy can be a great way to capture your dog’s attention for a moment and allow you to move away safely. That makes the toy a way to interrupt your dog’s reactivity; the aim isn’t to have a game that might cause your dog to become over-excited and potentially more reactive. Show the toy, capture attention, and move away.

If, however, the trigger is another dog, do be aware that the squeak of the toy might cause the other dog to come even closer and so escalate the issue. So, this might mean that you show your dog the toy to capture their attention for a moment and cause them to break off their focus on the other dog. Then you can then move away from the issue.

For dogs with high-end reactivity

There may be a situation where your dog cannot be distracted with food or toys, and it’s not possible to avoid the trigger while training is underway. In this case, you might need to avoid going out while you implement the plan to help your dog overcome their reactivity.

As long as you have a yard, then you can plan a whole range of enrichment and training exercises to tire out your dog. Remember that this is a short-term solution while the training is underway to help the reactivity. Many dogs love to get out and investigate the world, so to stop this long-term could be a real welfare concern.

How do I get my dog to stop reacting to other dogs?

So, we’ve already seen that it’s unlikely that the reactivity will just go away on its own. That means that you need to have a plan to help your dog overcome the issue. While many different techniques could be used, one of the most successful approaches is systematic desensitization.

Systematic desensitization comes from the field of human behavior modification, where it’s used to help people overcome phobias and fears. The approach requires that mild versions of whatever causes the issue are presented repeatedly. Then over time, more severe versions are presented. Finally, the process reaches the severity that caused the fearful response – but now with the individual remaining calm and relaxed.

Very often, we combine desensitization with what’s called counter conditioning. Counter conditioning is all about changing our dog’s perspective of something. Usually, that means changing it from causing fear to instead being the predictor of something great, such as food!

Desentization + Counter Conditioning Plan

It’s important to remember that your dog has a history of what they believe to be ‘successful leash reactivity.’ While we can teach them new ways of responding, that history of success is never entirely erased. This can mean there might be relapses now and again, especially if your dog hasn’t seen other dogs or people for a while. The good news is that getting them back on track will be quicker too, and over time, the relapses will become less likely to happen.

Jack, the reactive terrier

To show you how desensitization and counter-conditioning work together, let me tell you about Jack, a three-year-old terrier cross who had become highly reactive if anybody other than his family came near him when he was on a lead.

The reactivity had been caused after Jack’s owner had been mugged and her purse stolen while they were out for their evening walk. Understandably Jack then became very vocal when anyone came close when he was out on his leash, but this was even if someone was no threat at all. In Jack’s mind, his barking and snarling made the scary people go away, and it was proving to be a very successful strategy.

So, we needed to start at a level that Jack could cope with, and that was with a stranger walking past on the other side of the street. We carefully watched Jack’s body language for any signs of tension, and he received his favorite cheese treats. Now, it’s important to know that Jack was not being rewarded for being calm; the treats were just to help Jack perceive people as being predictors of good things happening.

Our responsibility was to set up the training to ensure that Jack didn’t need to react; if he did, we needed to move the ‘scary’ person further away.

All the way through the process, we monitored Jack’s body language and emotional state. If there was a good level of relaxation, then we could move on and ask the stranger to be just one foot closer to Jack as they walked past. If there was a reduction in relaxation, then we need to adjust our set-up. So that might mean that we asked the stranger to increase the distance between them and Jack as they walked by.

This became the process all the way through the desensitization hierarchy, always trying to work at a level where we believe the dog can remain relaxed. Meanwhile, we also gradually expose the dog to increasingly intense forms of the very thing that has caused the fear response; in Jack’s case, a person he didn’t know.

As the desensitization process will take place over several training sessions, keeping accurate records is essential. This will include making a note of what the last successful set-up was along with the environmental conditions – such as weather and the time of day. Also, think about any distractions, such as the noise of children playing, that might have interrupted the training or made it more difficult for your dog to concentrate. All of these can be extremely useful when tracking progress or identifying common factors should the training not progress as expected.

So, you can see that this is not a quick process. If we rush desensitization, we risk causing our dog to react and reconfirm that this is how to deal with the situation. The approach also needs an environment where you control the very thing that causes the reactivity; the last thing you want is for a dog or person to come running over to say hello when you’re right in the middle of training.

How do you desensitize a leash reactive dog?

Now let’s think about the steps involved in using desensitization to help the leash reactive dog.

The trigger is the thing that causes your dog to become reactive. Try to be as specific as possible here. If it’s dogs that cause the reactivity, is it all dogs? Or is it just large or small dogs? What about full-on bouncy or those that are also reactive to other dogs? If it’s people, what type of person causes the reactivity? Or is it if they’re skateboarding or cycling past? When you know precisely what is causing the problem, then the desensitization can focus on those issues

You need somewhere that you can control the environment so that there’s no risk of other dogs or people coming over while you’re working. Not only will that allow your dog to relax, but it’ll also allow you, the owner, to focus on your dog and not on scanning the horizon for potential problems.

It can be tough to find the right place but if other dogs cause the reactivity, look for areas where they must be on a leash, such as public parks. Then, go and visit the area without your dog first. Check if the other dogs are on leash and if there are lots of open spaces allowing you to quickly move away to a quieter area.

This is also where your local dog trainer or behaviorist, with their own facility or land, can really help ou

Depending on what’s causing the reactivity, you’ll need stooges to help with the desensitization. So, this might mean owners with calm, well-behaved dogs of the type that your dog finds challenging to be around. Or it could be a person who will happily wear the hat or walk with a stick that triggers your dog’s reactivity.

It’s essential that these people follow your exact instructions. So, if you ask them to walk parallel to you at a distance of 25 feet, they will do that and not start to move to 15ft because they think your dog is now okay. Remember to brief your helpers and get everything set up before getting your dog out to start training.

First of all, you’ll need to find the distance at which your dog is aware of the trigger but doesn’t react. This varies hugely from dog to dog. Always err on the side of caution. So, if you think your dog can be calm at 25 feet away from the trigger, begin at 35 feet.

It’s important to know that this isn’t a static number. It can very much vary on how your dog is feeling on the day. If they’ve had a stressful 24 hours with a trip to the vets or visitors to the home, then their ability to cope may be lower than if they had a relaxing, chilled-out day.

Watch your dog’s body language closely. Tiny movements can be the start of your dog becoming agitated. Watch for tension in their face, tail, and ears. Look for the white of their eyes becoming more pronounced or for the licking of their lips. All of these are signs that your dog may not be feeling all that relaxed.

You can also check to see if your dog will accept a treat; dogs that are stressed will often refuse food as their body is getting ready for the fight/flight response they may need to use if feeling threatened.

If you see any of these indications before or during the process, then you need to create a greater distance from the trigger.

With your dog and the trigger person or dog at the appropriate distance apart, you can offer your dog a treat. Now you can ask the trigger to move around but maintain the agreed distance from your dog.

Remember to watch your dog the entire time. You’ll be offering treats and ensuring that your dog remains under threshold. If your dog has stayed calm, then you can ask the trigger to step one foot closer to your dog and repeat the steps above.

This process then repeats, with the trigger slowly getting closer to your dog.

Our dogs tend to associate their learning with the environment in which it first took place. So, that might mean that a dog who learns to sit in a training class may not understand what’s required when asked to sit back at home. To help our dogs to understand that the behavior is the same no matter where they are, we use a process called generalization. All this means is that we initially reteach our dogs that new behavior in lots of different locations. It doesn’t take long for most dogs to understand what’s required, and as they learn more behaviors, the generalization process happens faster.

Desensitization will also need generalization. If you’ve used the same stooge dog or person throughout the process, your dog may have learned that these are ‘safe’ but not generalized that understanding towards other dogs and people. They may also consider that where the desensitization took place is a safe area but then not transfer that learning to the local park, for example.

That means that you’ll need to generalize the learning to a range of dogs or people. This is where you will need to find new areas where other dogs are on leash and where there’s lots of space to allow you to move away if there’s a chance of your dog reacting.

The biggest mistake people when desensitizing their dog?

Going too quickly through the stages is the biggest mistake we see.  So, let’s go back to our set-up, where for our dog to be relaxed and calm, there needs to be 30 feet between them and another dog. At this distance, there is success, and our dog is happily and calmly accepting treats.

Then you ask the dog and owner to move 5 feet closer. At that point, your dog launches into a full-blown snarling and barking response. Any belief that they had that the stooge dog was safe has now disappeared.

If, instead, you had asked the owner to step one foot closer with their dog so that they’re now at 29 feet, then your dog may have barely noticed the difference and remained calm and relaxed.

How to fix?

We all make mistakes. If you pushed your dog too hard, too fast, then it means you may have set the training back, and it’s going to take longer, but you can still get a good result in the end. It might mean that you need to take some steps backward and even further than where you first started. So, in our example, that might now mean having the stooge dog 40 feet away before your dog can be calm for the next repetition.

If your dog has become very stressed and over-aroused, you may need to abandon the session. Now give your dog 48 hours of being in a calm environment to let their adrenalin levels come back down to normal, and then start again.

Can reactive dog’s heel?

Reactive dogs can absolutely learn how to heel when out on a walk. This skill can be trained well away from any trigger, which will allow your dog to focus on learning this new behavior.

Is heelwork a good management skill for reactivity?

Heelwork could be helpful but do remember that this is a management skill. That means that it can be a valuable way of getting your dog out of a situation that could cause problems but that it’s unlikely to resolve the reactivity issue on its own.

If you’re trained heelwork to be a fun and highly rewarding thing to do, then asking your dog to join you with some loose leash walking can be really helpful.  In fact, some leash reactive dogs can offer great heeling when another dog or person is nearby yet react when they’re not heeling and the trigger is further away. This is because they now have something else to focus on rather than the trigger.

But you need to use this option the moment you spot a potential issue. If your dog has started to react, then they’re now thinking about survival rather than walking to heel.

What to do when you forget treats on the walk?

When you’re rushing to take your dog out for a walk before going to work or before it begins raining, it can be easy to forget to pop some dog treats into your pocket. If you suddenly find yourself halfway around the walk before you realize that you’ve forgotten them, there are some alternative solutions.

While your dog may think that food is the best thing you can offer, don’t forget that having a fuss can be very rewarding for some dogs. That might mean being stroked or being told how clever they are in your best baby voice!

You might also be able to make the end of your lead into a tuggy so that you can have a game while on the walk. This might be an excellent opportunity to play ‘take it’ and ‘leave it’ so that you don’t then have leash-mouthing problems in the future.

For most dogs, though, food is their number one reward.

What are some suggestions for those who forget them often?

We all have hectic lives, so it can be easy to forget things like treats when taking your dog out for a walk. But for a reactive dog, those treats can be really important as part of the counter-conditioning process. They can also work as a great distraction from something that might cause a reaction.

Four ways we’ve found to help remind us to reach for the treats before we head out of the door include:


If you’ve been to a pet store recently, then you’ll have seen row upon row of equipment for your dog. That can then make it pretty confusing to know what you should be using with your leash reactive dog.

We picked out some of the most popular items to talk through the impact they can have on your dog’s reactivity. Although we would never recommend something designed to cause your dog pain or discomfort, do be aware that every dog will have slightly different requirements. That then means talking with your trainer or behaviorist can be a great way of getting personalized advice for your dog.

Why/Are harnesses bad for reactive dogs?

When your dog reacts, you need to be able to get control and remove your dog from the situation quickly. When using a harness, the leash is attached further back on your dog’s body. That means it becomes very easy for your dog to throw their full weight into the harness and power towards the other dog.

While this might not be a problem with a smaller breed, if you have a reactive dog that’s over 50 lb., then it can be a real challenge to prevent them from getting closer if they’re wearing a harness

Why/Are gentle leaders bad for reactive dogs?

It can be challenging to get the right fit of gentle leader for different breeds of dogs.  When the headcollar doesn’t fit properly, then, first of all, it can be very uncomfortable for your dog. Then secondly, there is the potential for the gentle leader to come off when your dog becomes reactive and lunges forward.

The last thing you need is to try and catch a dog when they are in full-blown reactivity mode; the outcome could  disastrous.

Why/Are buckle collars bad for reactive dogs?

Imagine throwing your whole body weight towards something but being stopped in your tracks by a collar around your throat.  The pain and risk of damage to your throat area is going to be immense. This is what’s happening each time your dog throws himself to the end of their lead when it’s attached to a buckle collar.  

With the trachea, thyroid gland, and esophagus all in the area that the buckle collar sits, there is the real potential for your dog to suffer a severe injury.

Why/Are E-collars, shock collars, prong, pinch collars bad for reactive dogs?

Our dogs learn by association even when we don’t intend for that to happen. Imagine your dog being walked down the street when they see another dog that causes them to react. As your dog begins to pull and bark, you use the collar in an attempt to stop the reactivity.

What your dog does is connect that pain with the presence of the other dog. You’ve now confirmed in your dog’s mind that they were rightly concerned about that dog getting close and that they need to up their game to keep them away.

Equipment recommendation for reactive dogs

When you use both a harness and a collar, you get the benefits of each without their downsides. This means using either two leashes or what’s often called a training leash that has a trigger hook at both ends. Now that you have two points of contact with your dog, one on the harness and one on the collar, it makes it much harder for them to throw their weight into either one. This means that you’ve reduced the risk of your dog becoming injured and of losing control.

It does take a little practice to walk your dog this way, so have a go in the yard before heading out for the first time.

Can a reactive dog live with another dog?

A leash reactive dog is only reactive when they have a leash on. So, it’s unlikely there will be problems introducing another dog into the home, but it does need some planning in advance. You need to consider if there is a particular type of dog that causes your dog to react. That’s because the reactivity may have generalized to situations off the leash as well as on.

 You’ll also need to consider how you can set up initial introductions off the leash while still keeping everyone safe. This might be through a fence so that there’s a barrier in place if first meetings don’t go to plan.

There is also the risk of the leash reactive dog redirecting to the second dog when out for a walk. Leash reactivity often has a degree of frustration involved, so when they can’t get to where they want to be, that frustration can result in redirected aggression towards the dog they can reach.

This doesn’t mean that they are intentionally aggressive, but instead, this is a knee-jerk type of reaction caused by a frustration level that had to seep out somewhere. For the poor dog who becomes the target, they may be less understanding of the situation.

Helping a dog to learn new ways of responding is possible, but it takes time and effort. With another dog in the home, your time is also going to be reduced. We’d recommend getting the leash reactivity resolved first before adding a new canine member to the family.

How do you socialize a reactive dog?

To help the reactive dog, it’s essential to set them up for success right from the start. Turning them loose in a dog park and hoping for the best could end with disastrous results. That’s why starting with a process of desensitization and counter-conditioning develops a strong foundation from which you can build confidence and reliability.

If your dog is only reactive on the leash, there may still be the opportunity for them to play with other dogs. In this situation, you need another dog who is pretty much bomb-proof and who works hard to avoid confrontation rather than trigger it. This dog must be protected from any harm and stress; even if a reactive dog is muzzled, they can still cause serious physical injuries.

So, we would suggest, once more, focusing on the desensitization and counter-conditioning processes to help your dog to learn how to be calm around other dogs. Once that’s been generalized, then you can think about socialization.

Does CBD help reactive dogs?

Right now, the jury is out on whether CBD can help reactive dogs. That’s because we’re getting mixed results from the research carried out over recent years. So, this research was carried out in 2021 to see if CBD would reduce aggressive behavior in shelter dogs. They found that there were some benefits, particularly around reducing aggression towards humans. 

Meanwhile, research carried out in 2020 to see if CBD would reduce anxiety in noise-phobic dogs found little evidence for its effectiveness.

Anecdotally, some owners do seem to find that it helps their dogs, so it can be worth trying in association with a behavior modification plan. We strongly suggest chatting with your vet first to ensure proper dosage and that there is no risk of a negative interaction with any medication that your dog is currently prescribed.

Leash Reactivity Behavior Plan

3 thoughts on “Leash Reactivity”

  1. Hi there! I’m wondering if you offer help with adult/senior dogs, I have a 7 year old chihuahua who I rescued, his anxiety is just breaking my heart and I dont know where to turn

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