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Tips for Managing Leash Reactive Dogs

By Emily Scott, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant  |  January 1, 2020

Does your dog pull, lung and bark excitedly or aggressively toward other dogs when you are walking him on leash?  Reactivity toward other dogs while on leash is one of the most common behavior problems that I see as a certified dog behavior consultant.  Unfortunately, owner inattention and lack of management, or even over management, can escalate the dog’s reactive responses to a level where people just stop taking their dog out on leash because it is such a problem.  There are some definite DO’s and DON’T’s when it comes to managing your dog on leash.  First, let’s briefly discuss why this behavior problem is so common…


Why it happens:

  • Dogs just want to be social! Dogs are hardwired to be social with other dogs.  It is the RARE dog that doesn’t enjoy the company of other dogs, either known or unknown.  When your dog sees another dog, he gets excited and will naturally try to pull toward other dog.  When he is unable to get to the other dog, he may get frustrated---we call this barrier frustration--- and he may begin to whine, lung or bark.
  • Conditioned Emotional Response--Unfortunately, if you, the handler reacts to the dog’s excitement and/or vocalization by ignoring it, you are empowering him to be more assertive the next time. Conversely, if you react with stern verbal or physical corrections, the dog may temporarily stop the pulling and barking behavior but you have not stopped the dog’s CONDITIONED EMOTIONAL RESPONSE (CER) toward the other dog.  He will react just as excitedly the next time and will probably even escalate the poor behaviors out of frustration or pain response.
  • Assertive Control Tools---When the handler controls his dog’s poor behavior with an assertive control tool such as a prong (pinch) collar or chain collar, the dog feels pain and then associates seeing other dogs with feeling pain and so his CER becomes fearful and negative and he shows more aggressive behavior toward other dogs on leash.
  • Fear. If a dog is poorly socialized toward other dogs, or has had a negative interaction with other dogs (such as being attacked), he can react out of fear.  His vocalizations are telling the other dog “I’m tougher than you and I’m going get you before you get me!”


What to do….



  • Use a punitive control tool when walking your dog. Avoid any collar that will cause physical pain and may escalate your dog’s emotional response toward other dogs.
  • React to poor leash behavior in an overly emotional or aggressive manner. This will stress out your dog, heighten his excited energy and may escalate the problem.
  • Take your dog to areas with lots of other dogs if your dog is fearful or over-reactive to other dogs. This is stressful for you and your dog.  Flooding a fearful dog with lots of other dogs will NOT help this dog overcome his fears.  It will make his fear much worse!
  • Ignore the problem or hope he grows out of it. Reactivity toward other dogs needs be managed consistently and positively to see lasting positive change!



  • Be Prepared! -  Bring along lots of tasty, high value treats or a favorite toy to use as a distraction.  Pick a time of day to walk when you can be focused on your dog and the environment.
  • Be Vigilant: - Be ever vigilant when out walking and be watchful for other dogs that may be in the area.  If you are distracted or inattentive, a dog may come along and catch you and your dog off guard.  If your dog is over-reactive, avoid walking your dog during ‘peak’ walk hours or in areas where there are lots of dogs.  Stick to quiet, “off the beaten path” areas, until you can get his behavior better managed.

Distance:  When you see another dog approaching, move calmly and quickly away from the other dog---cross the street, up a side street etc.  Give your dog enough distance that he doesn’t feel threatened or overly excited.   Move away BEFORE your dog reacts!  Don’t wait until he reacts to move away!  Some dogs need just a few feet, other dogs may need 500 yards!  Let your dog tell you how much distance he needs.  He should show only mild interest, he should not show any reaction such as intense staring, vocalizing or lunging.

Distraction:  Distract your dog with treats or toys to keep his focus on you and not the other dog.  Play a game with him such as ‘touch my hand’ and give him a treat if he does so.  The goal is to distract the dog from over-reacting to the presence of the other dog.  If he doesn’t show interest in the toys or treats, practice the ‘touch my hand’ game in a quiet environment until he learns the game, before attempting to walk him in areas where other dogs are prevalent.    Use super high value, tasty treats that he only gets when he’s out walking!

Demeanor:  Maintain a calm demeanor.  Don’t become tense, panic, yell or jerk the leash.  Just be calm and ask your dog to perform a command such as a sit or ‘touch my hand’.  If he is not responding, move further away or turn around and walk away from the approaching dog.

  • Consider using a management tool such as a body harness or head collar. Avoid any collar that causes physical pain to the dog’s neck.  Pain = Fear = Reactivity.
  • Call a professional if your dog has significant reactivity to other dogs due to fear or poor socialization. These dogs require intervention to manage and help change their emotional responses toward other dogs.
  • Be consistent. Change takes time and consistent management.  Don’t be discouraged by small ‘back steps’.  If you are diligent and manage your dog with calm distraction and distance techniques, you should see more positive changes over time!

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