Advanced Training Tips for Stopping Leash Aggression

A relaxed and happy Penny. Photo by Kevin Lowery |

A relaxed and happy Penny. Photo by Kevin Lowery |

Last year, I wrote about how I stopped my dog Penny's leash reactivity. Throughout the process of working through this behavioral issue, I have learned such valuable information about what works, what doesn't, and reaffirmed the power of positive training in difficult behavior cases.

This is a follow-up to my prior article, so if you're in the early stages of understanding your dog's leash reactivity, check that article out first and work on those initial steps before using this more advanced troubleshooting guide.

FYI, I do prefer the term "leash reactivity" to leash aggression, as I feel that the former better explains the behavior than does the latter, but the term "leash aggression" seems to be more widely known by the general public. For the sake of this article, I'll be using the the term leash reactivity, but I'm referring to the general behavior of a dog barking, snarling, or lunging on leash. It's extremely important to work with a knowledgable force-free trainer on this issue because there are several potential causes of these behaviors, all of which require different treatment protocols.

Throughout the last year, Penny's reactivity has improved greatly, but I also had some setbacks along the way. If you've got a good grasp on your dog's leash reactivity but feel you're still struggling sometimes, here are some tips for later stages of training that may help you really step things up.

1) Keep moving.

This is a tip that I wouldn't recommend for every dog, but it's something that worked well for me. I found that Penny's anxiety when approaching other dogs dramatically increased when I asked her to sit or stop. The feeling of helplessness that she feels on a leash is only made worse by feeling that she can't escape the situation by moving forward. So when I ask her to "look at that" (again, read my first post to find step-by-step tips on teaching that cue), we never stop moving forward. It helps relieve the frustration and panic she experiences, and it might help your dog as well.

2) Monitor yourself.

This is the biggest mistake I was making during my training with Penny. I noticed that Penny was only reacting badly in situations that I felt she would react badly in. I eventually realized that I wasn't in fact psychic, but rather that my body language was telling her what she should react to and what she shouldn't.

Many dogs that exhibit leash reactivity are highly sensitive by nature and are especially good at picking up on the subtle cues that we intentionally or unintentionally give off. I found that if I acted the way I would without the presence of a "threat" (loose leash, normal breathing, normal pace, not turning my body towards the person or dog) Penny would typically not react. I recommend mentally telling yourself to relax, to breathe normally, and to react the way you would if you were not passing a possible trigger. We spend so much time getting our dogs to stop practicing unwanted behaviors, we forget that we develop bad habits, too! For many of you, that one tip might truly make all the difference. Again, this is not a starting point -- this is a troubleshooting tip for dogs that have already been working on leash reactivity training with a humane trainer.

3) Don't stop training.

This was another mistake I made along the way: I got complacent. Some dogs will take to the training right away and will quickly learn that they don't need to show aggressive behavior on leash. For Penny, this was a deeply engrained behavior that she learned long before I adopted her, and I may always have to manage her environment to some extent. I do everything I can to prevent her from practicing the unwanted behavior, as that can be the first step towards a major regression.

Don't be ashamed to keep high-value treats or a favorite toy along with you on walks. You aren't "bribing" your dog; you're just using a great teaching motivator. Even as your dog becomes more reliably non-reactive, you still want to be prepared in case you run into a trigger. I wear a treat pouch (aka a fanny pack) on every walk, and have long since accepted that walks are for dog training, not for looking stylish!

4) Remember that your dog may never be perfect, and that's ok!  

We all want to have a "normal" dog, but just think -- how many of us would describe ourselves as normal? It's ok to have quirks and to not like everyone you meet, and we should accept the same from our dogs. Keep learning with your dog, keep striving to help your dog feel more confident and secure, and I can promise that you'll see big changes as time goes on.

If you're looking for a great force-free trainer to help you with your dog's leash reactivity, here's a good place to start. 

tweet it post it Share It Plus It Print It

Positively Expert: Alex Andes

Alex Andes is the owner and head trainer of Peach on a Leash Dog Training & Behavior Services in Atlanta, GA.


6 thoughts on “Advanced Training Tips for Stopping Leash Aggression

  1. Susan

    My Finn is a smarty pants.....I've offered him a treat when there wasn't another dog and he looked around first before taking the treat. That having been said he has come a long way. The key with him is to gain his attention before the threshold where he will spazz out!

  2. Anne Springer

    These are some great tips. The Reactive Dogs group on Facebook is a supportive community for people who own or work with reactive dogs. We have over 10,000 members, many of whom are making great progress using force free methods. We focus on CARE in our group and are committed to force free training, too.

  3. sharina

    In veterinary behavior we are calling what a leashed and aroused dog goes through barrier frustration. (includes leashed, fenced, crated, otherwise limited in its movements) This leads to reactivity, on the leash, in the crate, car, or home, as the dog expresses its frustration over its restricted mobility. Confinement prevents the dog from access to all the options for dealing with whatever caused its arousal, and this is stressful and frustrating. Barrier frustration is the cause, arousal and reactivity are the result.

  4. C

    So how does one deal with "leash reactivity" when its happening because the dog doesn't get her way? My Aussie/Dane mix attacks the leash and eventually me when she doesn't get to meet a dog or person on a walk, or if I won't let her chase a bird or squirrel. She stops when she sees another dog and will not move until they have said hello or passed us. Ignoring her when she is acting up makes no difference, I have walked for half a mile before essentially dragging my dog along beside me as she jumped up at my hands and face and at the leash. She has a pretty good bite control and hasn't actually broken skin since she was around 6months old but it can still sting. We are on our 3rd leash in the 5months I have had her.
    My normal mode is to try to get her to give into leash pressure to keep moving, coaxing her, treating her for any movement in the direction I want. I don't scold her or change my tone. When that fails 90% of the time, I will pull her over to the side and ask her to sit and we will watch the other dog pass. Then we wait until they are well past us before moving along. I tend to stop and let her watch because dragging her alone behind me is not really safe, healthy, or good for either of us.
    For the most part I try to get away from the person or animal so that she cannot see them anymore and then I work on getting her to sit, settle or other commands for which I can reward her but which rarely distracts her for long. the minute we start walking she starts up again on the leash. I have the best luck when I make her sit and wait and then only walk when its her idea but even that is hit or miss and I'm not sure its teaching her anything constructive. I've tried rolling her, pinning her, smacking her hind end, jerking her, handling her in a calming way, adjusting her harness and more. She is only motivated by rewards when it suits her- treats, toys, affection, etc. She doesn't display typical herding instinct but is stubborn like nobody's business. When she wants something she will ignore all treats or attempts at distraction.
    We can be walking along beautifully with zero pulling, she will see something she wants which she doesn't get to eat/smell and boom- I'm in the middle of a temper tantrum that most interpret as just cute or play. :S
    She is not displaying fear, and in fact is the friendliest dog anyone in my area has ever met. She is submissive to everyone but me so they usually think I am being unkind when I (affectionately) call my dog a brat. We are working daily on walking beside me but most days I end up being the one who is getting walked. I use treat training to reinforce "walk with me" but I doubt positively rewarding my dog for stubborn behaviour will have the desired effect.

  5. orfan

    I'd recommend changing your equipment - a leash she can not chew through (usually chain or a chain segment) and either 1) a front-clip harness (so you're not dragging her as much) 2) a head collar (same reason as before, and plus it's harder for her to chew on the leash or you depending on how you hold it), or 3) a run-devue walk with me leash (no pull product that attaches to the top of the dog; the only one I'd recommend). For 1 and 3 I'd also perhaps recommend a hands-free device like a waist belt. I'd also recommend working on a lot of impulse control commands (stay, wait [until I say something else - I always start with a reward in my hand and don't reward the dog until she looks away], leave it [eventually used for these non-scary distractions even while on-leash] down, keep working on settle, etc.]).

    I'd certainly recommend not pinning, scruffing, rolling, jerking, etc.; doing so won't motivate her any more to do what you're asking. Plus trying to punish a dog for not walking nicely on a leash (especially when using ideas "based" on how dogs interact with other dogs - pins, scruffs, etc. [even though they don't]) makes little sense when we realize another dog would never "punish" or "correct" your dog for poor leash walking. I always say you'll never see a dog attach a leash to another dog and go for a walk.

    Practice almost to the point of perfection her walking by your side inside, even without a leash on. Keep your training short and make sure she thinks it's the most fun thing she could possibly do. Use energetic play as her rewards in addition to her food (and treats when necessary) - tug, fetch, chase, etc. Also really practice eye contact and a pivot/about/u-turn command so you both practically spin on a dime and hightail it away from something.

    As she perfects these inside gradually move outdoors, when she's already had some energy expended, and is really motivated. (That's why I like to use mainly her main food as rewards - you can always grab something better). I'd also teach her a look/see/rabbit/dog etc. command - she makes eye contact with the form (not necessarily the eyes) of a distraction: dog or rabbit, and then immediately gets rewarded (before she can rev it into high gear). Over time, the cue and/or the sight of the distracting object will cause her to turn to look at you for her reward/next command.

    Make chasing animals (safely, on a long line or in the yard) part of her reward she earns by walking nicely in the yard for you. Why fight against it if we can change it into a reward instead.

    Go on walks in areas and at times when you are less likely to encounter a distraction. If she's getting to sit and wait for a dog to approach and is allowed to sniff, you've rewarded her 'stubborn' behavior. I'd not call it stubborn, I'd say she's learned pretty well what works for her. If, with the commands mastered, and when she's wearing some of the above equipment, she's unable to follow one of those (well-known) commands, turn around and keep walking. (The devices mean you won't be dragging her for more than a step or two.) Walk until it's out of sight. If you only get to the end of your driveway before you have to head back inside, so be it. The behaviour you do not want to have continue cannot keep working for her (what you may term stubborn), or she's being given reasons to keep doing it.

    The sit-and-wait approach can help a lot as well (since she's not actually getting a greeting) but if she's getting *enough* from the interaction (getting to make eye contact with the dog, to sniff the air after it's walked by, etc.), you may not see a lot of improvement; she may be in a holding pattern. Excitement-sit-pause-sniff-keep walking.

    For my own dog I found 1) off-leash puppy socialization, continued into adolescence and adulthood, 2) a really solid watch (eye contact) and wait (both for food and no not cross a line), 3) only allowing greetings to occur if I and the other owner said so (as someone with a leash reactive dog [not the one in this example] who looks 'normal' or friendly until the dog is 3' away, I highly appreciate it), and 4) him getting a treat ANY time any other dog barked on a leash, regardless of environment, 5) practice a good distance from calm, non reactive dogs (vet's office, pet stores, parks, etc., and 6) a ---- ton of practice were what it took to make and keep him non-reactive on a leash.

    This is a lot easier to implement with professional help; I'd recommend finding a force-free local trainer (who may have a calm nonreactive dog or several) to help. They can also help you with teaching proper greetings (for example - the trainer and calm dog don't move one inch closer to her until she decides to calm herself down).

  6. orfan

    I would agree a lot of these reactions result from frustration or fear.

    However, I believe we can teach our dogs to tolerate some of these frustrations better (and frustrations in general). That's not to say I want training to cause or involve a lot of frustration; it's just that in my life, my dogs do need to travel in a car, be on a leash, pass by other dogs, and are not always able or allowed to greet them or get as far away as they might like. Leashes aren't a natural part of a dog's understanding of his world, and neither are crates, kennels, walls, cars, etc., so let's teach the behaviors and activities we want, and also manage our (veterinary, home, and travel) environments to decrease opportunities for frustration.

    One of my solutions - early off-leash socialization, especially if it's coupled with early on-leash or otherwise contained impulse control. Calm behavior = your owner lets you "go play", your owner interrupts the behavior, your owner takes come calm time for handling and/or focus, your calm behavior or good attention = "go play" again. There's a time and a place to interact with others, but it's not all the time.

    Likewise, I have a rule for my dogs and in my classes that ANY time any other dog barks (in class, outside, on a walk, at the vet, in a passing car [if safe to do so]), your own dog gets a treat. It decreases the conversations (mainly non-vocalised, but barking as well) and distractions and again, helps the dog realise that paying attention to the human holding the leash is as or even more rewarding than ignoring him or her.

    There's a lot of info about stress-free handling and containment in the vet field; sight screens and other visual barriers, calming pheromones and music, methods of getting dogs in and around that don't put them in one another's faces and space, and even calm owners can help a lot. Owners who know how to read their own and other dogs' behavior, and how to properly greet and avoid head-to-head greeting, and to decrease eye contact between dogs are my dream.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Episode 838 - Nicky Campbell

What do the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Long Lost Family have to do with dogs? BAFTA winning radio and TV presenter, Nicky...

Episode 837 – Beyond the Operant

Obedience training has long been the accepted path to teaching dogs’ manners, but the concept of obedience might be doing dogs a...

Episode 836 – Free Work and Adolescent Dogs

What is Free Work and how do dogs benefit? Dog behaviour expert Sarah Fisher joins Holly and Victoria to discuss how Free Work is...

find a vspdt trainer
Schedule a consultation via skype or phone