Dog Leash Reactivity: 5 Tips for Helping a Reactive Dog

It can be a mystery to many owners why their friendly dog seems to become aggressive on a leash. Leash reactivity may cause dogs to lunge, growl, and bark whenever he’s near another dog, which can make taking walks stressful and embarrassing.

If this sounds like your pet, here are five steps for reducing dog leash reactivity and having more enjoyable walks.

1. Understand Why Dogs React on a Leash

When two relaxed dogs greet each other off leash, they don’t approach directly. Instead, they take a curved path and sniff each other from the sides. Greetings are short – the dogs will separate after a few seconds – and prolonged eye contact is unlikely.

In contrast, a dog on a leash is forced to greet head-on, often with eye contact, which is considered aggressive body language in the canine world. There’s also no option for the dog to move away, and attempting to sniff the side or genitals can cause the leashes to get tangled.

The result is that a dog may feel the only way to prevent a confrontation is to lunge, growl or bark at the other dog until it goes away. This behavior is often perceived as aggression – but is actually an attempt to prevent a fight.

2. Scolding Isn’t The Solution

Many owners with leash reactive dogs try to punish their pet for these avoidance behaviors. While this might seem like the right thing to do, it could actually make matters worse.

The problem is that shouting, harshly pulling the leash, or other types of correction cause your dog to become even more anxious. Your pup won’t necessarily understand why he’s being corrected, but he’ll associate the anxiety with the approach of other dogs.

Next time a dog comes along, he’s even more likely to display avoidance behaviors in an attempt to get the other dog to go away.

Not only that but if the dog does understand your scolding is due to his growling or barking, he may skip these behaviors and go straight to biting next time.

3. Start With the Proper Equipment

Now we know why dogs react and why punishment doesn’t work, how should you prevent it?

The first step is to buy a high-quality harness and non-extendable leash.

A durable harness is essential for dogs that lunge or pull. Attaching a leash to a collar can cause pain and injury to the throat, as force is concentrated on the windpipe. Smaller dogs are more susceptible to neck injuries, but they can happen to any dog.

You should also avoid extendable leashes when training your dog. These leashes provide less control than non-extendable leashes – especially if you come across another dog while the line is extended – and have an unfortunate habit of “slipping” when you need them most. There are also many examples of serious injuries caused to both dogs and humans when using extendable leashes.

Instead, buy a durable fixed-length leash. Ideally, this should have the option of attaching to both the front and back attachments of your dog’s harness for extra control.

Note: If your dog has harmed another dog, you may need to consider a basket muzzle.

How to Stay Safe When Confronted with an Aggressive Dog

4. Create Positive Associations with Dogs at a Distance

The first step is to teach your dog that other dogs are actually a positive thing – not something to feel anxious about.

Whenever your pet sees a dog in the distance, say his name and reward with a treat when he looks at you.  The key is to get your dog’s attention before he reacts. If he lunges, barks or growls, you’re too close. For this reason, look for ways to create distance as soon as you see another dog.

This process teaches your dog two things. First, he starts to associate treats – rather than anxiety – with other dogs. Secondly, over time your dog will instinctively look at you when he notices a dog, which can also reduce anxiety and gives you more control.

Note: If your dog doesn’t always respond to his name, spend time training in this first. Start by practicing in your home and gradually increase the difficulty level until your dog always responds to your call in any environment.

5. Minimize Negative Experiences

It’s vital that your dog has lots of positive experiences with other dogs during the training process. You’ll need to manage their interactions to ensure your pet isn’t put into situations where a reaction is the only option.

  • Be firm (but polite) with other dog owners. If they want your dogs to “say hello,” inform them that your dog is in training and that they shouldn’t bring their dog closer. Most people will understand and be happy to help.
  • If another dog bounds up to your pet, stay calm and try to create distance. Unfortunately, many dog owners don’t realize that their pet shouldn’t run up to a dog on a leash. Don’t treat your dog if he lunges or barks in this situation, but calmly walk away and regain his attention when he calms down. You may also want to ask the owner to call their dog back.
  • Avoid Walks With Forced Greetings. Narrow woodland paths and tight alleys are a nightmare for a leash reactive dog. It’s best to avoid them entirely during the training process. Instead, look for open fields or wide paths.

Remember, if your dog reacts to another dog, don’t punish them as this can destroy any positive associations you’ve created.


Dog Leash Reactivity: 5 Tips for Helping a Reactive Dog”

Guest Writer: Richard Cross, Chief Editor of

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