Why Are Dogs so Brave on Leash?

You’ve probably witnessed this scenario before:

I’m walking my dogs, who are walking calmly side by side, when I see a dog lunging toward us pulling hard on the leash, growling and barking. Sometimes the dog is so worked up he’s snarling, digging his claws into the dirt, even dragging his owner closer. I hear the owner calling out, “I’m so sorry, he’s not like this off leash!”

Frightened Dogs Tend to be Leash Reactive

When a dog lunges on the leash, pulling, dragging his owner, barking, growling, and even snarling, the dog is often labeled aggressive, usually “leash aggressive.” This could be true, and sometimes is, but behaviorists prefer to use the more appropriate term “leash reactive.” An aggressive dog wants to do something: he wants a fight. A leash reactive dog, however, is usually reacting to a situation that makes him uncomfortable.

Although some dogs who are leash reactive are aggressive, the vast majority of these dogs are worried or afraid. Some leash reactive dogs begin their scary routine when they see strange things; a statue, for example, or balloons. A few dogs are worried about bicycles, skate boards, or baby strollers. Many, however, are afraid of other dogs.

No matter the cause of the fear, dogs who are leash reactive have decided their best response is to try and chase away the frightening thing. When a dog is afraid and is on leash, he can’t get away. Hence the lunging, barking, and aggressive appearing behavior.

Don’t Tighten the Leash

When I see leash reactive dogs in a training situation or while out on walks, when the dogs begin to act out, most owners tend to reel in the leash, tightening it so they can restrain their dog. I know many owners tighten the leash because of past bad experiences. One owner told me she felt that her dog needed to meet other dogs but she wanted a good grip on the leash just in case something bad happened. Unfortunately a tight leash can make a fearful dog feel like he has no way out of this situation; he’s being forced to greet this other dog, and he has no escape.

On the other hand, some dogs feel braver on the leash because they feel their owner’s strength and weight behind them. It’s as if they can say, “Yeah! We’re stronger together.”

Strive to keep some slack in the leash if at all possible. If you can’t because your dog is pulling hard, just turn around or turn him away, and get out of that situation. Don’t allow your dog to continue to pull and escalate the situation. On the other hand, don’t follow your dog into the bad situation just to keep slack in the leash; that’s not right either.

Don’t Allow Dogs to Approach Yours

If your dog is even a little bit leash reactive, don’t allow him to greet other dogs when out on a walk—and stop other dogs from approaching your dog. If you allow him to meet other dogs and it doesn’t turn out well, he’s just practicing a bad behavior that will turn into an automatic reaction.

In addition, don’t fall for the idea that going face to face with other dogs while out on walks is good socialization. It’s not, especially if your dog is already worried. Actions on leash are not normal. The dogs can’t greet each other as they would off leash and as mentioned previously, neither dog can escape from the situation. Socialization to other dogs occurs in other situations.

My dogs are not leash reactive and I still don’t allow strange dogs to come up to my dogs to greet them. Not only are leash greetings not natural for the dogs, and it could potentially put them in a compromised position, but if these are unknown dogs, I don’t want my dogs to be in a perilous situation.

If the owner of the other dog insists on approaching you and your dog, tell them, “No!” Or as a friend of mine says, “The vet says he’s just a little contagious!” No one is going to protect your dog but you, so do what is needed to prevent on-leash greetings.


Don’t Correct

Correcting a leash reactive dog who is anxious about the situation he’s in will not solve the problem. Yelling, screaming, yanking on the leash, or other techniques of trying to tell the dog he’s wrong will only escalate the problem.

Your dog needs to know you can be trusted to keep him from harm. Turning on him forcefully or angrily will instead tell your dog that you can’t be trusted; he’s on his own.

In some instances, if a dog who is already leash reactive is corrected forcefully, he may turn his actions toward you. In his mind, if he can’t chase away that other dog he’ll bite you instead because you’re attacking him, too.

Since anxiety and fear is the cause of most leash reactivity, lessening those emotions is your goal. Your dog must believe that you are to be trusted, so if you’ve been making any verbal or leash corrections in these situations, stop. In addition, for the time being avoid other leashed dogs completely; even if you have to make a U-turn and walk the other direction.

“Look at me” Not the Other Dog

My goal with my dogs is for them to look to me for guidance when they are in a situation they don’t know how to handle. For example, when playing with friends’ dogs, my dogs can handle the friendly play and they don’t need my help. However, if we’re out in public and a dog is dragging his owner towards us, I’d prefer my dogs look to me for guidance rather than try and deal with this on their own.

The first step in teaching this is to teach your dog to look at you. At first you’ll ask him to do this when you say his name and later, he’ll learn to do it on his own.

Start with your dog on leash in the house. Have a handful of high value treats (bit of chicken, small pieces of Honest Kitchen’s Beams, or other treats your dog really likes). A favorite toy can work too, especially one with a squeaker. Holding the dog’s leash in one hand and treats or toy in the other, say your dog’s name in a happy tone of voice, “Sweetie!” As soon as he looks at you say, “Good!” and give him the treat or toy. After a half a dozen repetitions, release him, and play with him.

After several days, go outside to practice; maybe just in the back yard. After several more days go out in the front yard; gradually increasing the distractions.

Then go for a walk with your pocket full of treats. Stay alert and when you see a dog a block away or behind a gate, say your dog’s name and reward him with a treat. When he’s aware of the other dog but before he reacts, turn and walk the other direction. As you walk away, say his name again and reward him.

After several training sessions like this, say his name and reward him at the sight of another dog but instead of turning and walking away, take a few steps closer to the dog. Say your dog’s name and reward him. If your dog is relaxed and focused on you, awesome. If you see him tighten up and get tense, turn and walk away. Your goals are to teach your dog to trust you and to associate other dogs with awesome treats and praise but to remove your dog from the situation before he reacts.

Training is On-Going

It’s going to take time to alleviate your dog’s worry and anxiety and to change his mind about the things that frighten him. Don’t expect him to be bold, confident, and able to ignore his fears in just a few training sessions.

Instead, think about one of your fears. If you’re afraid of spiders, it would take considerable desensitization to allow you to take a shower when there is a spider in the shower stall.

Protect your dog from being in a situation where he feels the need to react, even if you have to cross the street or turn around during your walk. Continue to teach him to look at you when you say his name; and should he look at you without your cue, praise and reward him lavishly.

If your dog’s reactive behavior continues, or gets worse, or if he threatens you, or he bites you, get professional help.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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