How to Prevent Leash Reactivity in Dogs

shutterstock_273398579One of the most common behavior issues seen with our companion canines is leash reactivity: lunging, barking, snapping and shenanigans that look like a circus act and can embarrass the heck out of us. It may limit where you can take your dog, who you can interact with, and in general cause you anxiety and stress.

First, one must determine whether the reactivity is caused by fear or if it’s frustration. Both can look identical. If it’s fear, (or if you don’t know) then please contact a force-free behaviour consultant that works with fearful dogs.  If it’s frustration, here are some tips to help.

Start Them Young

In my puppy classes and manners classes we work on how to meet and greet other dogs on leash or, if the dogs aren’t interested in meeting, how to calmly walk by other dogs and normalizing these interactions to prevent reactivity. If your instructor doesn’t offer coaching students the How-To’s on meet and greets, you can practice on your own time by using the below as a guide. An ounce of prevention can go a long way and continuing to practice for the duration of your dog's life is well worth it.

Breathe & Loosen Up

You may be tense and stressed so take a few deep breaths and try to loosen up the tension in your body first.

Try as much as possible to not put tension on the leash. Your dog may put tension on the leash but your instinct may be to jerk your arm back, so be aware of that and try and avoid using your leash like a lever. No need to send your dog any messages via the leash.  If your dog meets another dog on leash, keep that leash slack.

Talk to Your Dog

As you approach and through the meet and greet “happy talk” to your dog because this can lower their anxiety (if they have any) and yours! “Good Buddy, have we met a new friend? Well done, let’s move along!”.  Silence isn’t always golden, and your dog may take the silence as a sign something is amiss.

Short and Sweet: The 3 Second Rule

Meeting a new dog on leash can be hit or miss, as no one knows how the other dog will react and sometimes we may not be too sure if our own dog will like the new dog.  Counting to three in your head and then ‘good job, let’s go!", feed your dog a treat and move along. Nothing good usually comes of lingering.

If It Goes Wrong

Turn and go immediately. Don’t get upset no matter who’s “fault” it was. Dogs snark and argue just like humans, so realizing it’s normal and moving along is key. Feed your dog a snack in case they are left feeling put off.  Best to reward your dog for moving along with you to offset a possible bad situation.

Hopefully these tips will be helpful to prevent leash frustration, and gives you a blueprint on how to approach on-leash greetings.


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Positively Expert: Renée Erdman

Renée Erdman is a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer and behaviour consultant focusing on the emotional needs and welfare of dogs and their guardians. She resides in North Vancouver, BC Canada where she runs Bravo Dog (www.bravdog.ca), her pride and joy.


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7 thoughts on “How to Prevent Leash Reactivity in Dogs

  1. Marcia Jean Fastiggi Watters

    What if we get them from the shelter? I am 90% certain the reativity is due to frustration, because he is fine off leash at day care or in a park. but on the leash he turns into the original cujo and scares the heck out of other walkers.

  2. Katt

    My guy is neither frustrated or afraid. He simply gets WAY too excited when he sees another dog walking. Sometime he shows signs of aggression if the dog is bigger but I know that if I were to let the leash go (not that I ever would), he'd go over, sniff butts, and come back. He thinks everyone is his friend and wants to play.

    I try to gently divert his attention by having him focus on me, I block his view of the other dog with my body, I am always calm (I worked in kennels/daycares for years and am familiar with behavioir) and will only use the pinch collar in small, gentle tugs to help get his attention. I speak calmly to him and offer treat for trick if he minds me in such cases (though he rarely does and never cares for treats). He's very stubborn in this area. Otherwise, best trained dog I've ever loved!

  3. Matthew

    This becomes a control issue. If it's ONLY on leash he is reactive it's a control issue and often dominance but not always. The best thing to do is keep your distance and make progressions with neighbors, friends or other willing participants. Reward him through treat or affection or toy for each 5 feet or so that he is calm, patient, relaxed and well behaved. If he has a misstep you should go back to the last successful distance. Repeat this. For some this can be a 5 minute task while for others it could be much longer. Keep in mind all dogs are different. This is a very positive approach to correcting this behavior and showing him the behavior you want will be rewarded.

  4. Tara Wimer

    Hi Marcia! I have rescue kiddos as well and have had the same problem with one of my kiddos. So I did research on barrier frustration in shelter dogs. This is a real thing! I have since learned that my guy lived on a chain before his owners took him to the shelter. So, I've been desensitizing him to leash work on our own with no stimulus. Then I have used counter conditioning to get him to focus on me and not other dogs on a leash or people. We use a special toy to calm down and get his attention back. I also taught him watch so he gives me eye contact when I need to get him to focus on me instead of the dog approaching. We use special high value treats for his counter conditioning as well as his specail toy, "watch" and we do fun tricks or stay in a down until the other dog passes with his focus on "watch". It's been a long road, but he shows so much progress! Best luck to you and your rescued friend 🙂

  5. Marcia Jean Fastiggi Watters

    thank you! I will try it with Duncan. He is a great dog and I would love to bring him out more. I hope this helps!

  6. Diane Coles

    Unfortunately my dog was FINE with other dogs. He's a saluki/greyhound lurcher and unfortunately was brought up in a traveller site where they fought dogs. So he knows all about bites etc and had some on his legs when we rescued him. He was brilliant up until December last year, when he got attacked by a Jack Russell who was supposed to be a friend! There was a new dog there and the JR was having nothing to do with Alfie and the new dog getting along. Now, Alfie has reverted back to his old ways, frightened of most dogs, and he growls to warn them not to come near unless they are going to be good. It's awful. He was doing SO well xx

  7. Courtney Jones

    my guy is 100% fantastic off leash and 100% fantastic on leash except in our neighborhood. he's fine on ferries, at the vet, at the dog park, walking around town... the weird thing is that nothing happened... there wasn't an attack or anything scary that happened. it's literally so out of nowhere that we tested his thyroid to see fi there was an issue there. it has escalated over the last 6 months or so, now he's aggressive to almost every dog in our neighborhood (again, only on leash) and it has even transitioned into barking at cars! I've been working on all of the positive reinforcement and he's been doing great, but I live in a townhouse community and we all tend to walk our dogs at the same early time in the AM when it's dark. half the time I don't see the other dog until he's barking at it... and this am he barked at a car. ugh.

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