Leash reactivity: What it is, how it happens and what to do about it
November 10, 2020
Leash reactivity can be a complicated problem to tackle. Emily Stoddard, owner of Canine Sports Dog Training, talked to Susan Frank on Raising Your Paws Episode # 70 about the different ways this behavior can manifest. With this blog, we wanted to go more in depth on the problem, including how you can work with your pup to change their behavior.
What is leash reactivity?
Broadly speaking, leash reactivity is when a dog reacts in an unwanted manner toward a given stimulus while on a leash.
One of the most common examples is a dog that, when leashed, barks or growls as another canine approaches. However, when that dog is not on a leash, it has no problems. This particular example can be more specifically described as dog reactivity on a leash.
Another common example is when a dog stops walking and won’t move when it sees another dog while on a leash. While this behavior looks very different from the first example, it is also considered a form of leash reactivity.
Other dogs are not the only stimulus that can drive leash reactivity. Stoddard explains that there are many different stimuli that can drive leash reactivity, including:
- Critters, such as squirrels and rabbits
- People in bulky winter clothing
- Wheels on strollers and bikes
- Farm animals
What causes leash reactivity in a given dog can vary. Common issues include prey drive, traumatic experiences and simple frustration. Many pet owners assume their dog has been abused or neglected prior to adoption, but this accounts for only a small fraction of leash-reactive behavior.
What does leash reactivity look like?
Barking and growling are some of the most common leash-reactive behaviors owners experience. These behaviors are loud. In large dogs especially, owners can worry their pet is being perceived as (or actually is) dangerous.
Other common leash-reactive behaviors include:
- Biting or playing tug-of-war with the leash
- Refusing to walk on the leash
- Freezing up while on the leash
- Attempting to run or hide while on the leash
- Lunging or pulling excessively when encountering a stimulus
These behaviors may not be restricted to being on a leash, either. Leashes, at their core, are restraining devices. What the dog is reacting to is the act of being contained, held back or held in place. As such, leash-reactive behaviors can sometimes also be seen when a dog is confined in a kennel, gated in a room or yard, or stuck behind a window.
Training can help
For any dog behavior, once it has been learned it won’t be unlearned without intervention. To that end, careful and consistent training is the only reliable means to stop a dog’s leash reactivity.
Training can be challenging, though. Particularly if the behavior has already become deeply ingrained, it is not uncommon for training to take weeks or months. Staying committed and calm, even during setbacks and frustrations, is key to ultimate success.
It’s also important to remember that not every annoyance on a walk is a leash reactive behavior. For example, a beagle that wants to chase after rabbits while on a leash is probably just as driven to chase rabbits in any other setting. This kind of behavior isn’t fear or frustration based, it’s their overwhelming biological instinct. While these training methods can help address these behaviors on walks, you’re not likely to eliminate genetic instincts entirely.
How to train a leash-reactive dog
Here are the basic steps to training a dog to stop leash-reactive behavior.
- Start at home: Establishing the right mindset before the walk begins is vital. Your home generally has minimal surprises and distractions. Take advantage of this calmer environment to get your dog to focus on you. Reward calm attention (i.e., no barking or jumping) with treats and praise.
- Awareness not anxiety: When you’re on your walk and you notice a stimulus, such as another dog approaching, don’t react. Don’t choke up on the leash or pull on your dog. Instead, wait for your dog to notice the stimulus.
- Get their attention: Once your dog has noticed the stimulus, stop and get their attention BEFORE their leash reactive behavior has started. Use a clicker or command to draw their focus to you, then reward their focus with a treat. The command word “yes” can be a good option because it’s quick and easy for the dog to hear. It also reminds the trainer to focus on positive reinforcement instead of punishment.
- Small steps: Slowly approach the stimulus with your dog, pausing after each movement forward to repeat step 3. If the dog has a reactive behavior, it means you moved too close too fast. Don’t punish; simply turn around and calmly walk back to the beginning to start the process again. Continue to reward them when they look at you instead of at the stimulus. Reacting anxiously or punishing your dog will undo your hard work.
- If your dog is reacting to other dogs, do not allow your dog to meet or sniff other dogs while on the leash. In fact, generally refraining from on-leash meetings between dogs is a good idea.
- Do not use corrective collars that shock, choke or stab. These painful corrections will continue to create a negative association between your dog and the stimulus.
- Be aware of your surroundings when you’re training. Surprises and interruptions may also result in negative associations between your dog and the stimulus.
When crossing paths is unavoidable
When out on a walk, it may be impossible to maintain precise control over your dog’s exposure to a stimulus. If, for example, you cannot avoid crossing paths with an approaching dog, it’s important to continue to reinforce positive associations.
Continue your approach calmly while giving your dog space by moving in an arc around the stimulus. Keep your dog’s attention with treats as you pass the stimulus. Then, once the stimulus is past, stop providing treats. This way, you are teaching your pup to associate calm and positive feelings with the stimulus.
Enlisting a trainer
If all of this sounds a little overwhelming, don’t be discouraged. Training your dog to overcome leash reactivity is a big task, but there are professionals who can help.
Using an experienced local dog trainer can be especially helpful for perfecting your timing. The precise moment when you give commands and rewards is critical. If the timing is off by just a few seconds, it can lead to confusing messages for your dog.
Trainers are also great at helping you identify bad habits you aren’t aware of. Bad habits in how you carry yourself, how you hold the leash, how you speak and how you walk can all potentially undermine the training you wish to accomplish. Expert eyes can help you identify and correct your own problems, making it easier to work with your dog on theirs.
The right rewards
After timing and clear communication, the third essential part of training your dog comes down to the rewards. The right training treats need to be delicious, heathy, and easy to carry and dole out. NutriSource Soft & Tender Lamb treats are a perfect option. They easily attract a dog’s attention, and their resealable pouch makes them perfect for tucking in a pocket for your walk. Best of all, they’re made with real lamb as their top ingredient.
Persistence leads to success
Having a leash-reactive dog can feel like a constant struggle. It’s important not to give up even when training can move frustratingly slow. After all, through perseverance, the ultimate reward is an even happier and healthier relationship between you and your four-legged friend.