Downeast Dog News

Leash Reactivity in Dogs

By Christine D. Calder DVM DACVB | Mar 01, 2021

Leash reactivity is a common behavior in dogs. Often characterized by barking, growling, lunging, snapping, and biting, this behavior can be directed towards people, other dogs, or objects (i.e. bikes, cars, strollers). Often reactive dogs have poor social skills resulting in fear, anxiety, and frustration directed towards others on walks.

Steps to reducing leash reactivity in your dog.

Step 1: Have the right equipment: The right equipment matters. Having appropriate tools to manage your dog improves safety for both you and your dog.

These items include a:

• harness that clips on the front (not a back clip one).

• head-collar (some dogs).

• 4-6-foot leash (never a retractable leash).

Step 2: Watch your body language: On the other end of the leash, you send signals to your dog every time you tense up on the leash, yell, or pull your dog closer. Over time, your dog can become sensitive to your behavior resulting in an increase in reactivity.

When walking your dog remember to:

• breathe deeply.

• keep a loose leash.

• hold the leash with two hands not one. Never wrap the leash around your wrist.

• use a waist leash to give you stability and make walking a hands-free experience.

Step 3: Avoid triggers and keep moving: Creating distance between your dog and triggers is a necessity. Emergency U-turns, crossing the street, stepping off the trail, or even hiding behind a parked car or tree can keep your dog feeling safe. If avoidance is not possible, keep moving and engage your dog. Don’t forget to use your “jolly voice” when engaging your dog to encourage eye contact with you.

Step 4: Carry the squeeze cheese. A can of squeeze cheese goes a long way. When working with leash reactive dogs, we need to find something they will eat when stressed, is easy to carry, and provides a constant delivery of food. A can of squeeze cheese with the lid off fits all these criteria. Some dogs are more motivated by play therefore a squeaky toy, favorite ball, or collapsible flirt pole may be more motivating on walks.

Step 5: Long term change is possible. Working with leash reactive dogs can be challenging but also rewarding. With time and practice, many dogs will learn scary triggers actually predict good things. Therefore, your dog will start to make better behavioral choices on walks.

Step 6: Getting help from your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist, or trainer may be needed when working through the treatment plan for your dog.