Understanding Leash Reactive Dogs

A dog barking at other dogs on leash has become so common, that trainers have coined the term “Leash Reactive” to describe the behavior. As a trainer that has been working with the public for the past 14 years, this is probably by far the most concerning behavior that is becoming more prevalent in companion dogs.

Experiencing your dog go berserk every time they pass another dog on leash leaves you feeling frustrated and often embarrassed.  

Resolving this type of behavior takes time and training. As discouraging as it may feel at times, there is hope. I have personally worked with hundreds of leash reactive dogs and have personally owned multiple ones that were leash reactive when I adopted them. In fact as I am writing this article, my wife Corday and I are working through some leash reactivity with our newest owner-surrender dog, Sonny.

The first step in resolving this type of behavior is to try and diagnose why your dog is behaving in this manner in the first place. 

Below, I list the most common emotional causes that leash reactive dogs experience when they encounter another dog on the street. Keep in mind that many dogs are reactive due to a combination of these causes rather than only one.

This article will give you some insight into understanding your dog and how you need to proceed with resolving this behavior.

1) Your Dog Feels Frustrated Caused by the Restraint of the Leash

Dogs that begin barking at the first sight of any dog often feel frustrated because they are unable to make contact with the other dog. When greeting the other dog is restricted by the leash, the dog vents their frustration through barking.  These dogs are often capable of getting along with other dogs just fine off of the leash. 

Behavior Clues for Frustrated Dogs

  • The dog’s bark often rises in pitch at the sight of the other dog.
  • Dog may be able to go the dog park or doggy daycare without much of a problem
  • Dog often bullies other dogs when allowed to interact off leash

Common Causes

  • Lack of opportunity to interact with other dogs on a regular basis which builds desire to meet other dogs creating an intense drive to interact at the sight of another dog.
  • Often relates to a developmental period that dogs go through between the ages of approximately 8 to 24 months when many dogs really want to engage with other dogs.
  • Lack of experience interacting and greeting other dogs on leash.
  • Lack of proper leash walking training.

Trainer Tips

  • Keep socializing and start training your dog to respond to useful commands such as sit,stay, and heel.
  • Place a heavy focus on teaching the dog to give attention to you upon request.

2) Your Dog is Afraid to Interact With Other Dogs

These dogs often look anything but fearful with their reaction. Sometimes they look like they would kill the other dog if giving the opportunity. With fearful dogs however, they really don’t want to make contact or interact with the other dog at all. In most cases the behavior of barking and lunging on leash has become a learned strategy to keep other dogs away.

Fearful dogs learn fast that erupting into fierce barking displays keeps other dog walkers away from them. Because other dog owners avoid your dog when they act this way, your dog gets exactly what they want (the other dog stays away) and this becomes your dog’s strategy to handle future encounters.

Behavior Clues for Fearful Dogs:

  • Tail tucking occurs often in the presence of other dogs.
  • Low growls are often mixed in with barking at the sight of other dogs.
  • Some dogs explode like a volcano which is often confused with wanting to fight with the other dog.
  • Dog avoids dogs when off leash and/or away from their owner.

Common Causes:

  • Dog was attacked by another dog while on leash
  • Dog has not received appropriate amount of socialization with balanced dogs
  • Dog was genetically predisposed or experienced stress/ malnutrition in early development

Trainer Advice:

  • Start creating positive associations with other dogs. This should include food rewards and toys being offered right after the sight of other dogs.
  • Teach your dog to trust that following your lead will lead to safety.
  • Begin obedience training to improve your dog’s skillset. Training provides a way to learn how to communicate with your dog so you can teach them to trust what you say works out for their best interest.

3) Your Dog Lacks Proper Social Skills

Often when I do a dog evaluation with a dog that has been labeled leash reactive, it simply comes down to a lack of experience meeting and seeing other dogs. Anytime I am diagnosing a leash reactive case I want to know how many dogs the focus dog has met in the past few months. For many dogs, a few month period lacking in social meetings with other dogs causes a regression in their social skills. This is especially true in dogs under one year in age.  

Then there are the dogs that only interact with the same few dogs and have no experience with other dogs outside their close social circle. For some dogs, this is just not enough for them to learn how to be savvy in canine language, especially with the diverse sizes and body types we have created among dogs.

Behavior Clues for Socially Awkward Dogs:

  • Dog seems to switch between emotions of fear and excitement throughout the interaction with another dog.
  • Dog makes poor body posture decisions during the approach and greeting ritual which causes the other dog to go into a defensive emotional state which in return causes your dog to become reactive.
  • When the dog is interacting off leash with other dogs, they either come on way too strong or conversely, act extremely timid when other dogs approach them.

Common Causes:

  • Owner lacks the opportunity/resources to provide adequate socialization
  • Dog did not have opportunities to interact with other dogs in the early months of development.
  • Dog’s natural disposition is to bully other dogs which causes the owner to avoid social outlets for the dog.
  • Dog’s natural disposition is to be fearful around other dogs

Trainer Advice:

  • Enroll in a training program to build up a skillset of commands including proper leash walking techniques.
  • Work with a trainer that can work with your dog among other dogs in a controlled setting.
  • If possible, enroll your dog in a doggy daycare that places a focus on appropriate playmate matching.

4) Your Dog is Guarding You

Owners may confuse this behavior with protective behavior. Although a 90lb German Shepherd guarding you would no doubt keep others away, it is a different emotional state in the dog.  A good protection dog does not guard their owner when unnecessary. These types of dogs seem to guard the owner as if they were a food dish.

Behavior Clues:

  • Dog jumps on owner often
  • Dog is not leash reactive toward other dogs when owner is not present
  • Dog demands attention from owner often in various forms such as barking at owner, placing toys in owner’s lap, nudging owner when wanting to be pet, jumping on owner during greetings.
  • Dog is exhibits excessive jealous behavior when the owner gives other dogs attention.

Causes:

  • Lack of Leadership and communication between dog and owner
  • May be related to fearful behavior.
  • Dog is insecure around other dogs in general

Trainer Advice:

  • Begin training to improve skills. Implement leadership exercises such as hand feeding.
  • Do not let your dog dictate your behavior around the home.
  • Make it clear to your dog that this type of behavior is unwanted from you.
  • Enroll in a training program.

5) Your Dog is Displaying Territorial Behavior

There are some dogs that are only leash reactive within a specific radius around the home or property.

Behavior Clues:

  • Dogs bark at other dogs while being walked in the neighborhood, but are not reactive when the dog is driven to a new place several miles away from the home.

Causes:

  • Often breed related. Herding, livestock, and guarding breeds are notorious for territorial behavior.

Trainer Tips:

  • Begin obedience training to gain better control over your dog.
  • Don’t let your dog develop territorial behavior into its main focus in their life. Leaving your dog outside and allowing them to charge fence lines will promote territorial behavior. Inside dogs should not be allowed to stare out windows for long periods of time while inside the home.

6) Your Dog is Seeking out Conflict

Dogs that are seeking conflict are willing to fight if given access to the other dog. Because they are restrained by the leash, they erupt into barking, lunging, and growling.

Behavior Clues

  • Dog has a history of fighting with other dogs.
  • Dog acts in a highly assertive manner by kicking up the ground, high tail wagging, intense staring, growling, and barking.
  • Dog lunges toward the face or neck area during attempted greetings.
  • Creeping forward movement with head lowered-(This behavior is easily confused with a play style of some dogs)

Causes:

  • Often related to fearful behavior that has developed into an attack first mentality
  • Natural disposition the dog has to want to fight with other dogs. Directed aggression may be gender specific and dog only targets males or females.
  • Dog has not received adequate socialization with a wide range of dogs.

7) Your Dog is Actually Acting Appropriately

There are times when your dog barks at other dogs because the other dog is sending aggressive signals. Although, we all wish our dogs would never bark at another dog on leash, this makes no sense to our dogs.

This behavior is most evident when an older dog is introduced to unruly younger dogs especially unaltered juvenile males.  You dog can spot other dog’s intentions with just a glimpse of the youngster’s body language which causes them to become defensive to warn the other dog to stay away.

Summary

Owning a leash reactive dog is full of exasperating moments. You can work your way through this behavior by focusing on training your dog and trying to understand the world through your dog’s point of view. Try to figure out why your dog is participating in this behavior and then begin training. Finding a good professional trainer that can help you diagnose the problem and set up a training plan for you is the fastest way to start making progress.