Why is my dog leash reactive, and what can I do about it?

Firstly I want to address what is usually meant by “leash reactive” or “lead reactive”. Basically it’s a term used to describe over-the-top behaviour from a dog when the lead is taken out of the cupboard or wherever it’s kept, in readiness to walk them.  This behaviour could include one or more of the following things:

  • Jumping up at you
  • Trying to grab or bite the lead
  • Grabbing at or biting you
  • Barking and/or whining
  • Running away from the person with the lead
  • If there is more than one dog in the household they might get a bit funny towards one another at the sight of the lead.
  • Running forwards and backwards to the front door (or wherever you leave from) and the person with the leash.

If you dog is leash reactive it means one thing:

Your dog is not feeling okay about this whole walk thing.

This is a problem.  Well it’s not a problem if you just stop trying to take them out for walk, then it’s problem solved.  No more doing battle with them about something they don’t feel okay about, right?  Easy!

Oh wait, sorry.  We’re British aren’t we.  Which means we absolutely MUST walk our dogs, no matter what, even if it’s hailing golf balls and we have a broken leg…

Okay, enough being really light hearted about this.  I know us British dog owners want to walk our dogs, in many cases that’s the reason for getting one, to give us a reason to get out and about every day.  I do want to clarify though that as a population, we have only been taking out dogs for walks for a few decades, despite having had a relationship with these lovely animals for thousands of years.

Why would my dog not feel okay about the walk?

The walk can be seen to be very stressful from a dog’s perspective.  There is a lot more to it for them than just a walk around the park, or the local streets. Simply put, they have the potential to see ‘going for a walk’ as a military style patrol through no mans’ land.

Dogs are pack animals who have an understanding of territory.  Your house and garden are your pack’s territory. What they are not so clear on is public property and communal spaces – is this ours, or are we invading someone else’s?  So when you walk them, they have the potential to be worried about other dogs, who they think may not take too kindly to their presence in this unclear territory; or they think the outside world is an extension of their territory, and they are alarmed by the number of other beings out there.

Therefore there is a lot for them to be thinking about, this is stressful.  These thoughts lead to the release of a lot of adrenalin, ready to take any action that may be necessary.  The lead triggers this adrenalin reaction, because they have an association that the leash means you are going out into no-man’s land again.

Some dogs will really resist going on the leash, as the last thing they want it to be on a restrictive lead when they are out and about.  Others will think, “Okay, I am pumped right now, let’s do this, come on hurry up”.

What should I do about lead reactivity

The first thing to do is empathise with your dog.  Understand that they aren’t behaving this way to wind you up, they are behaving this way because they don’t know any better and they are quite stressed about what is going on.

The next thing to do is to remember that you don’t have to walk your dog! So when things aren’t going very well, don’t do it!  Put the lead away and everyone can relax. Yes exercise is important, so that’s why I would advocate that if you haven’t been able to walk your dog for a while, make sure you engage in a bit of play with them and get them moving in a space they feel safe in.

And the third thing is to patiently desentise them to the dreaded lead.

Desentising a leash reactive dog

Get the lead out multiple times, without any intention of taking them out.  Remember, picking the lead up creates an adrenalin response, so once you’ve picked the lead up sit back down, put the kettle on, read a book etc, don’t do anything else with them until they are calm.  You can put the lead on the side, and gently push them away if they jump up at you.  Ignore barking, whining etc.  If it all gets a bit too much, but the lead away again and wait for calm before interacting with them again.

Repeat this activity a few times each day, and you will notice that the reactivity will subside over time, and you can start progressing to the next stages, but remember to be empathetic.  Do not push it until they are ready, so focus on exercising them at home in the meantime.

Next you will need to practice calling them over once the lead is out and they are calm.  It doesn’t have to happen every time you get the lead out, and whether you put the lead on them will depend on whether they come over calmly, or whether their reactivity happens at this point.

This may require several tries until you can even stand up without them kicking things off to the next level.  Patience is required.  Persevere – you will help them.

Of course this is a bit more to why your dog is behaving in this way, and it’s an overall understanding of leadership.  For more information on that, check out my home page.


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