What is "Leash Reactivity" in dogs? Part 1
with Melissa Dallier of ACanineAffinity, Training Advocate

In part one of this series I will explain what reactivity is and how it may relate to your dog's behavior. I will also introduce some basic management skills. In Part 2 I will discuss some more in depth management skills and some behaviors to introduce to help your dog based on their scenario of reactive behavior.



What is Leash Reactivity?


If you have a dog that lunges, barks, strains at the end of the leash or generally loses control at the sight of: dogs, people, bikes, squirrels, cats, skateboards, motorcycles (or more) when on leash, then you have likely heard the term "leash reactive". But what does this really mean?


Well, let's look at the definition of the word REACTIVE - Showing a response to a stimulus


I love this definition. It is simple and concise. Many assume that a leash reactive dog is automatically aggressive, frightened and afraid. While this can be the case it is not always. Reactive behavior is simply a dog reacting (usually over reacting) to a stimulus in the environment based on their current emotional state. If you have a dog who displays reactive behavior on leash and you aren't sure why, please reach out to me or a positive trainer in your area and we can help you figure out the motivation. However I will discuss some of the possible motivations below.


Dogs who are reacting to stimulus are usually in one, or a combination of the following emotional states before, during and directly following the reactive behavior; frustration, arousal, excitement, fear, anger or possibly physical pain. Not all dogs who are reactive are aggressive. In fact most leash reactive dogs I work with are not aggressive towards people or dogs. The behavior they are displaying is motivated by a display of emotion in the moment but can be informed by past experiences. Dogs who are leash reactive to other dogs range from very dog social when off leash to dog tolerant, dog selective and dog aggressive. Same with dog reactivity to people and other stimulus.


Defining Varying Types of Dog Reactivity


Leash Frustration /Arousal / Excitement - To other dogs


So let's talk for a moment about dogs who are dog social when off leash. These are the dogs who may have several dog friends, get along well with dogs they meet at the park when off leash and can make new friends fairly easily. However when they see dogs on leash they pull and bark and are out of control. Maybe you've allowed some greetings on leash and some go ok but sometimes there is a small scuffle or some growling. These dogs are usually experiencing a lot of frustration, excitement and possibly some conflict when seeing dogs on leash. Often times they really want to get to the dog but the leash is causing a feeling of being constricted from their potential new friend. Different from other types of reactive behavior the function of the barking is acting as a distance reducing behavior rather than an attempt to increase distance from the stimulus. Often times these dogs just really want to say hi and don't know a better way to do it.


What should I not do, to start?


Often times if we have a dog who we know is friendly with other dogs, and they display this type of behavior our instinct is to just get them to the dog to let them say hi so they just STOP IT, right? WRONG!! Imagine this, you're walking down the street and a stranger comes running towards you yelling and screaming. You don't understand what they are saying but they are coming fast with outstretched arms, waving, eyes wide and wild. Then they get to you and embrace you, knock you down and hug you. You didn't agree to this at all. How would this make you feel? Frightened? Angry? Confused? Well this is what you are doing when you allow your over excited dog to greet a strange dog when he is in this emotional state. The dog receiving this greeting may become defensive and bark/growl back, or worse try to snap or bite and a fight may break out. It's not unreasonable, I might take a swing at the person running towards me on the street.


Additionally, if allowed to greet, these excited and friendly dogs are learning that when they act in this manner that they get what they want, the thing they most desire, to greet the dog! All dogs need to learn that other dogs exist, and not only for their enjoyment. So working on some basic management skills can go a long way:


Leash Frustration/Arousal - Non Dogs


If you have a dog who reacts to stimulus in the environment - squirrels, cats, skateboards, bikes, cars etc. This could be arousal/excitement based. We will discuss the other option more in the fear section. But if you cannot link this behavior to a specific negative experience or you are not seeing obvious signs of fear towards these objects outside of the context of wanting to chase a moving object, it could be an arousal based reaction. An instinct in the moment to chase/lunge at this fast moving object, possibly even off leash, is likely an arousal based instinct. There could be a combination of some fear and arousal. Which is why these can be tricky ones. Ultimately I would still recommend not allowing your dog to ever chase a fast moving object that you cannot control as this is a safety issue. Some breeds have more of a tendency to practice these behaviors as well.


Fear Based Reactivity - To Dogs/ People


Fear based reactivity is what we usually imagine when we think of "leash reactivity". These dogs are likely feeling fear, frustration and possible arousal at the sight of another dog or when in the presence of strangers. The leash causes a lot of conflict as the normal behavior is inhibited. This causes many dogs to go into a stage of "fight" meaning they try to create distance by being vocal, barking, lunging to let the dog know they want them to GO AWAY, and fast. Some dogs see a dog from 100 feet away and need to create this distance, some from across he street. All dogs will have varying "thresholds" in which they can be in the presence of the stressful stimulus before they go "over threshold" and react to the stimulus.


This does not mean these dogs are aggressive. However, if put into a situation where they are nose to nose with another dog or too close to a person while in this emotional state, things could go very badly. These dogs are asking for space. They need our help. The function of their behavior is to create space. They are asking, in the best way they know how for our help. We should try our best not to punish these dogs. This will not help. This will likely exacerbate the issue. Try not to yell, pop the leash, hit or otherwise hurt your dog emotionally or physically during these events - or ever. They are already stressed and this will only cause more stress.


What do we do to help reactivity?


Identifying Threshold


When we talk about a dog being "under threshold" this is the state of being in which a dog can be in the presence of the stimulus they may react to, but are not yet too worried or excited by it. Here is what "under threshold may look like


  • Loose Body Language


  • Easily able to respond to cues


  • soft mouth when taking treats


  • aware of stimulus but not reacting


Here are some signs of a dog may be is close to going or "over threshold" or already there


  • Difficult to gain attention in presence of stimulus


  • Dog is overly focused on stimulus


  • Hard mouth when taking treats (bite is harder)


  • Stiff body language


  • Reactive behavior occurs (barking/lunging/growling etc)



Beginning Management Strategies


What can you do right now to begin to help your reactive dog? We want to first and foremost prevent this behavior from happening. It is stressful for your dog (and you) to have reactive incidents, and the more the behavior is practiced the more it becomes habit. Here are some management strategies to start today.


Whenever - Carry Treats, and good ones!


Start carrying yummy treats on all walks. These should be some of your dogs favorite treats, not their kibble. We want to use these in the beginning to distract them when they see a trigger for the reactive behavior. We want the dog to think trigger = food instead of trigger = barking & lunging - this means we need to try to present the treat the moment the dog realizes the trigger is in their environment. But just using food as a distraction is totally ok too while training is in progress!


Create a Visual Barrier or Distance:


Visual Barrier: Sometimes the easiest thing we can do is hide! If the trigger is very close, or you don't have treats or for any number of other reasons, blocking your dogs vision from the think they are likely to react to is always a good option. Cars, bushes, fences and bus stops all make wonderful visual barriers. Turn around and walk the other way if needed as well. Avoidance is always ok.


Distance: Figure out how close (or far) your dog can be to another dog before she is in a state where she cannot pay attention to you anymore (over threshold). This should be before the reaction starts. She should still be able to respond to basic cues. This is the distance you want to create from dogs and other stimulus to keep your dog under threshold.


Walk at quiet times: No matter what your dog is reactive to, or the motivation is, find times to walk when you won't encounter the trigger to their reactivity. This will help your dog learn that all walks don't equal stress and over excitement. Your dog will NOT get better with more exposure. Counter conditioning and positive experiences will be the ultimate solution.


Walking Equipment: Consider using a front clip harness, or at minimum a body harness for your dog so they are not damaging their neck muscles when they are pulling/lunging. Not all harnesses are created equal, so ask me for my favorites if you need. Never use a prong/choke or E-collar (shock) for this (or any) type of behavior issue. Punishment can cause this behavior to increase and cause your dog to find you scary and unpredictable. You should be their safe space.


Join me for Part 2 of this series next week to learn about some additional useful behaviors you can begin to teach your dog to further assist in curbing their reactive behavior!