how to treat leash aggression in dogs

Leash Aggression or Anxiety and How to Improve Your Dog’s Walks

What is an Unwanted Leash Behavior?

This refers to a dog’s response to something in their environment which is triggered by anxiety, fear, or frustration. Though it is not limited to these behaviors, the dog may express their concerns by barking, growling, lunging, jumping up, and pulling. As much as reactivity can occur in different environments, it is commonly observed when a dog is restricted to being on leash.

Leash aggression in this illustration
Leash aggression in this illustration

Frustration is not solely a human emotion; dogs can feel it too. Owners may become frustrated because they cannot stop the unwanted behavior. Dogs are equally as frustrated that owners do not understand what the dogs are trying to communicate.

Who or what is often the target of unwanted leash behavior or leash reactivity?

This list can be endless! Any person, animal or “thing” in a dog’s environment can become the target of reactivity. What may evoke fear for some, may not for others. It is important to evaluate each dog as an individual and take their communication seriously. We may think their reaction is nonsense, but to them a real threat exists. Let’s take a closer look at a few scenarios to better understand.

Example 1

You take your dog for a walk when you encounter a balloon. It is flying away when your dog spots it. Your dog barks, dodges in the opposite direction, and tries to hide behind you. The body language displayed is fear!

Example 2

You take your dog for a walk when another dog comes racing to the fence, barking intensely at you and your dog. Your dog’s eyes become large. Growling and barking begins as your dog pulls hard towards the other dog. Again, the body language displayed is fear.

In both examples your dog was restricted from gaining access or getting away, causing frustration, making the dog’s reaction worse.

aggressive dog on a leash

What role do humans play in leash reactivity?

Whenever dealing with a behavior problem the number one priority is to keep your pet feeling safe. Step one is identify the motivation for the behavior, so that the best treatment can be applied. Techniques that could harm the animal or make the behavior worse should not be used.

When it comes to animal emotions, avoid making assumptions about their motivation. Rely on body language to understand canine communication.

Short-term treatment of leash reactivity

Avoid triggers

Take a different route, walk on the opposite of the street or walk at different times. Avoidance can become a short-term or long-term solution.

Avoid punishment

Punishment can be unintentional but is still punishment by definition. Techniques such as hitting and using a shock collar are forms of punishment as well as shouting “no” and “leave it.” If the dog perceives the technique as unpleasant, painful or frightening it is punishment. The risks outweigh the benefits.

Use a management tool

Set your dog up for success by using tools that allow you to redirect and increase opportunities to reward good behavior. Tools such as a front-leading harness or a head halter helps maximize leash control and minimize discomfort. Check with a professional for specific instructions, on using these tools.

Use treat rewards

Arm yourself with a lot of tasty treats. When your dog encounters something scary, distract him or her and offer a few treats for free. You are not rewarding their fear, you are making new, happy associations and redirecting their attention.

Long-term treatment of leash reactivity and Medication

Don’t be afraid to get more help

It is important to know your dog and know your limits. If you are struggling with your dog and things are getting worse, talk with your veterinarian to determine the next steps. Medications may be needed or you may be referred to a veterinary behaviorist or other training person for additional help.

Be patient

It can take time as in days, weeks, or months to see changes, especially if the behavior has been going on for a while. Over time you will feel more confident and your dog will be less fearful. The goal is for your dog to look to you for guidance and a treat instead of seeing you react.

multiple dogs behaving on leashes

Set up mock training scenarios

No one can predict all situation, but you can purposefully set up scenarios for behavior modification.
There is no quick fix when it comes to reducing leash reactivity. Have patience for your dog and the learning process. Be gentle and fair as you train. If one day isn’t working well, don’t be afraid to stop for the day and restart the next day.

About the author: Hilary Granson

Hilary Granson, DVM, is a graduate of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine who lives in Houston, Texas. Dr. Granson opened Urban Animal Veterinary Hospital to address the needs of the community. Her favorite aspects of veterinary medicine include internal medicine, anesthesia, pain management, emergency medicine, and immunology. In addition to cats and dogs, Dr. Granson has experience treating avian and exotic patients. In her free time, she enjoys motorcycle riding, target shooting, finding good restaurants, and attending concerts. She has been published in veterinary and human medical peer-reviewed journals and writes for the Texas Veterinary Medical Association.

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