Dog Leash Aggression: Stop It Before It Starts

Sarah Wooten, DVM
By Sarah Wooten, DVM on Nov. 16, 2018
Dog Leash Aggression: Stop It Before It Starts

Your dog might be a super-chill lovebug that’s good with kids and loves hanging with his dog buddies at the dog park. But when he gets on a dog leash, however, he might morph, Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde-style, into a barking, snarling dog who lunges at every dog, bike or squirrel he encounters.

Sound familiar?

This type of behavior is more than just embarrassing—it’s dangerous! Aggressive leash behavior can turn any walk into a nightmare. This blood pressure-raising bad behavior is called leash aggression, and it is commonly reported by pet parents (so if you think you are alone in dealing with this, you’re not).

Leash aggression, also known as leash reactivity, is an undesirable behavioral problem in dogs that causes aggressive, excitable behavior in leashed dogs, including barking, lunging, growling, snarling, pulling and jumping.

Leash aggression only occurs when a dog is attached to a leash, and a dog can display leash-aggressive behaviors to many stimuli, including people, dogs, cars and cats.

What Causes Dog Leash Aggression?

Leash aggression can have multiple root causes. One of the most common causes is that the dog was not properly socialized during the critical ages of 8 to 14 weeks. This time period is critical because it is when the part of a dog’s brain that processes fear develops.

If a dog isn’t properly socialized during this time period, it can lead to fearful behaviors, including leash aggression. Socialization is also important because this is how a dog learns how to politely sniff and greet other dogs.

Overly excited dogs can also develop leash aggression because they have pent-up energy that has nowhere to go.

Can You Prevent Leash Aggression?

The best way to deal with dog leash aggression is to stop it before it starts. You can prevent leash aggression in most dogs if you are intentional with your training, have the right equipment and start early.

If you are training a puppy, make sure to get your puppy out into the world, on a leash, to have multiple positive interactions with things that can cause leash aggression. Include other dogs that are fully vaccinated, other people, cats, squirrels and bikes—anything that might stimulate your dog.

Pair these interactions with positive reinforcement like praise or dog treats to build a good association in your puppy or dog’s mind. You want your puppy to think, “I just saw another dog and I’m on a leash. That means that I’ll get a treat if I sit and pay attention to my human!”

It is always a good idea to have dog training treats with you when you are out with your puppy or dog—the treats need to be something that that is super delicious, small and gulp-able, like Hill’s Science Diet soft and chewy training treats, so you can reward them quickly and often. If your dog is sensitive to chicken, Zuke’s mini naturals peanut butter and oats recipe dog treats provide a good alternative.

Sometimes, leash aggression is just an excess of energy that needs to be burned off. If you have a high-energy pup, then I recommend letting him run and play before asking him to walk politely on a leash. It’s only fair.

If your dog is a puller, then you want to soften the impact on both your shoulder and his neck until you get the behavior under control. I found great success in stopping my dog from pulling by training her to wear a head halter, like PetSafe Premier Gentle Leader quick release dog headcollar. Alternatively, you can try OneTigris training bungee dog leash, which uses a bungee but also has a control loop that you can use to bring your dog in close if needed.

What Not to Do

The main problem with leash aggression is that pet parents often unwittingly reinforce the bad behaviors by pulling on the leash or chastising their dog. This can be frustrating and frightening to your dog and can create conflict between the both of you.

As much as you are tempted, refrain from punishing your dog for leash aggression. Instead, try to identify what is triggering your dog, and then practice avoidance until you have had a chance to work with your dog.

Leash aggression is solved by a strategy called desensitization and counter-conditioning, which is trainer-speak for reducing your dog’s reaction to the offending trigger (other dog, bike or cat), gaining your dog’s attention and training a new behavior instead.

If you think your dog already has problems with leash aggression, or if your dog is frightening you or other people with his behavior, then it is probably time to get some professional help. Talk with your veterinarian, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, or a trainer with CCPDT certification to learn strategies on how to make walks better and more enjoyable.

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Sarah Wooten, DVM


Sarah Wooten, DVM


Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists,...

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