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Why Leash Reactivity Isn’t a Sign of a “Bad” Dog – And How Positive Training Can Help

Does your pet lunge, bark or growl at other dogs when on a leash? Or does he strain to get closer to people on the street?

If so, your dog is what trainers call “leash reactive.” While leash reactivity is a common problem, it can be embarrassing and makes walking a stressful experience.

The frustrating thing is that many dogs only behave like this when they are on a leash. This can cause owners to think their pet is misbehaving or being “bad.” The natural reaction is to scold or punish a dog for this behaviour (often to cover our own embarrassment).

Unfortunately, scolding is possibly the worst thing you can do when your dog is reacting. Here’s a quick overview of why leash reactivity happens and what you can do about it.

Leashes Force Dogs Into Unnatural Greeting Positions

If you watch two relaxed dogs meet, they nearly always take a curved approach. This allows the dogs to sniff each other’s genitals without approaching head-on.

The reason dogs do this is that a head-on approach is considered confrontational. Dogs rarely stare into another’s eyes unless they are about to fight.

As you’ve probably guessed, a major problem with leashes is that dogs are forced to approach each other directly. The dogs usually don’t want to fight, so they lunge or growl in an attempt to prevent the confrontation before it begins.

So, keep in mind that when your dog is growling on a leash he probably isn’t trying to start a fight but prevent one.

Dogs Feel Trapped on a Leash

When dogs are anxious, their natural inclination is to increase the distance between themselves and the trigger. This isn’t possible when on a leash – especially if the dog is forced to greet another pet.

Once again, the natural reaction – put the dog on a short leash in-case it starts to fight – doesn’t help. The tighter the leash, the more the dog feels constrained. If it continues to feel anxious and trapped, it may decide that fighting is the only option.

This is why you’ll often get a short moment of calm when two dogs are forced to meet on a leash, followed by an outburst of barking, growling and lunging.

Punishment Just Increases Anxiety

I mentioned earlier that punishment or scolding is never a good idea – but why isn’t it helpful in this situation?

Any form of punishment increases anxiety in a dog. If you punish or scold after an anxious situation, such as being forced into a confrontational meeting, this reinforces the situation was scary. Not only does your pet need to worry about meeting other dogs, he now also needs to be wary of you.

The result is that your dog is even more likely to react the next time he sees a dog. He may also behave more aggressively in an attempt to prevent the situation from developing.

Quick Tips for Preventing Leash Reactivity

In the short term, the primary goal is to keep your dog and others safe. Reactive dogs should always wear a high-quality and durable harness on walks (such as the ones on this page), as collars cause immense stress on the trachea when lunging or pulling. If your dog has attempted to bite another dog, you may also need to use a basket muzzle.

The key to preventing leash reactivity is to teach your dog that the trigger (usually another dog) isn’t something to be scared about. You need to create a positive association that replaces the anxiety he currently feels.

This takes time and patience, but is worth the effort. Here’s an overview of the process:

  • Start by taking your dog to an open park where you won’t be surprised by another dog. When your pet sees a dog in the distance, give praise and a treat, before turning and walking away.
  • As your dog becomes more comfortable, progress to giving a treat when he looks at you after noticing a dog. When you first start, you’ll probably need to say his name, but over time the goal is that he looks at you as a reaction to seeing another dog.
  • Once your pet doesn’t show signs of anxiety, gradually reduce the distance while repeating the training. The goal is to make every sighting of another dog into a positive experience.

The most important part of this process is to avoid situations where your dog reacts or shows signs of anxiety. If this happens, you’ve got too close before your pet is ready.

You also need to be firm (but polite) with other dog owners. During the training period, try to prevent other dogs from greeting him – even if that means saying “no” to another owner. If you come across a dog in a tight space, such as a woodland path, avoid walking head-on and even turn around if there is no other option.


Leash reactivity can be an embarrassing problem – but it’s relatively easy to solve. The first step is to understand why your dog is reacting and to realise it’s not because he’s misbehaving. Instead, he’s feeling intense anxiety due to the unnatural situation.

Once you understand why dogs react, the next step is to replace anxiety with a positive association. This isn’t an instant process, but can make a permanent change to your dog’s behaviour.

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