Understanding and Managing Lead Reactivity

Handsome Simba was abandoned as a puppy, it is important to start socialisation and lead training at a young age.

Lead reactivity can be very confusing for dog owners.  You have a wonderful dog who is friendly and completely lovable but as soon as you put a lead on them their behaviour changes and suddenly they become unrecognisable.  The good news is there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  This is a very common behavioural problem that can be rectified with the right tools, understanding, training, patience and time.

Having a lead reactive dog can be extremely frustrating for the owner and embarrassing too.  You love your dog but hate the reaction you get when walking your dog, sometimes even attracting disapproving looks from others.  On top of that it is also immensely difficult to walk when your dog’s lunging and barking is out of control.  It is important however to determine whether your dog is in fact lead reactive as it is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood.

An important point to note is that your dog’s reactive response to the lead doesn’t mean your dog is aggressive.  Reactivity is responding to a stimulus which could be a dog, a person, a car, a bike among others.

Is Your Dog Lead Reactive?

Your dog is likely to be lead reactive if they do one or more of the following:

Your dog whines or barks at other dogs, people, cars for example when on a lead;

Your dog lunges of pulls excessively on the lead when they see a stimulus such as one of the above examples;

Your dog redirects onto the leash, onto you by nipping, biting or shaking;

Your dog engages in similar behaviour when behind a gate, fence, window for example.

What is Lead Reactivity?

The main two forms of lead reactivity are:

Dogs who are reactive on the lead but enjoy other dogs company and are fine with dogs when not on the lead.


Dogs who are reactive on the lead and do not enjoy other dogs company when off the lead.

Socialisation – Introducing dogs to children from an early age and teaching them the correct way to behave on a lead

Causes of Lead Reactivity

Fear or Insecurity

Dogs just like us humans have an intricate body language of which many of us are unaware. Dogs, just like us, don’t suddenly launch into a strong reaction to something, there will have been a build up of subtle signals (which may have gone unnoticed) where they will have been telling you they are not entirely happy or comfortable with a situation.

If a stranger is standing too close to you, the likely response is that you would move away or politely ask them to give you some space.  Others may shout or make more of a fuss but you wouldn’t turn and hit the stranger.

A dog does exactly the same using body language.  They will for example avert their eyes, turn their head and/or body away, licks their lips and yawn to show they are not a threat.

Yes, your response may escalate if the person continues to be a nuisance and doesn’t respond to your polite requests, but only when you feel seriously threatened would you perhaps resort to anger or a violent act.

This is the same for a dog, they will go through their repertoire of warning signals to show an approaching dog they are not comfortable with a situation, they are not a threat but please can the approaching dog stop now.  If ignored, which they may well be, as neither dog owner is seeing the body language or understanding it, the dog will see no other option than to go into shouting and attacking mode.

So when we are walking our dog and another dog comes into view, we are putting them in a difficult and fearful situation.

Added to their fear, one of the most common mistakes dog owners make is to consciously or unconsciously tighten their grip on the lead which understandably sends the wrong messages to the dog.

They are telling their dog, they are anxious and are pre emptying something may happen; by tightening the lead they are also preventing their dog being able to display any of their body language to the approaching dog.

Frustration – Over Friendly Dogs

Some dogs never really learn how to pass other dogs politely on the street. They may spend time in puppy classes, and dog parks playing beautifully with other dogs. Their well-meaning owners let them pull over to “go say hi” when they’re little. Then their owners stop letting them “go say hi.” They see another dog (another playmate!) and want to go over. But they can’t because they are on a lead! Frustrated, they bark. The next time, they see another dog they get upset again. This problem can happen whether their owner lets their dog say hi some of the time or most of the time.  It can also happen if they used to let their dog say hi but no longer do.

These dogs are typically highly social and get on well with other dogs or people once they are allowed to greet them, either on the lead or off the lead.

We make our dogs meet every other dog they see in the street (and very often head on). Yes, it might be cute while the puppy is still very young but once the ‘puppy license’ has expired there will be trouble, as older dogs will not put up with out of control puppies in their face.

We incorrectly assume this is positive socialisation and a proper way of meeting dogs. It is not!
If dogs meet unrestrained by leads they will do the ‘bum sniff’, use circular motion or meet side wise, they won’t meet head on!

A head-on approach is confrontational. To make things worse often a dog owner will reprimand a dog, who is a bit unsure about other dogs and wants to get away or growls. This will quickly escalate and the dog might find meeting other dogs on a lead scary.

This is key to remember when we start to explore ways to help you help your dog with lead reactivity.

Tigre didn’t know how to walk on a lead until he was 4 years old – he had never been walked or socialised.

Lack of Socialisation

Some dogs just don’t quite know how to interact with other dogs. This can make them extra-nervous around other dogs. When under socialised dogs learn that being on a lead means they can’t get away from the other dogs, they are more likely to be reactive. This ties back into the “fear or insecurity” reason for barking and lunging.

Unrealistic Expectations

There is this notion that all dogs should cheerfully greet other dogs and humans.  This is unrealistic and unnatural.

Do you greet all humans you meet on the street with a big and happy smile and attempt to strike up conversation with them?  Others may find your behaviour strange, so why should it be normal behaviour for a dog to act in a way that would attract strange looks from humans doing the same?

Desire to Seek Out Conflict

It is exceedingly rare but there are highly confident dogs with a “come on then” attitude towards other dogs that is not rooted in fear or insecurity. They may redirect onto their lead or their owner by nipping or even biting.These dogs will generally pick a fight the moment they meet another dog on or off the lead. For the safety of your dog and for the dog owner it is recommended to seek professional help from a dog trainer or behaviourist in this instance.

Smiley Nora during a fun lead training session

Stopping Lead Reactivity

So how do we fix lead reactivity?

Identify the Triggers

Make sure you know exactly what causes your dog to bark and lunge. Is it people, children, dogs, men in hats, bikes, cars?

Make sure you know how intense that thing has to be to cause problems. For some dogs, a sleeping dog across the street is okay but a running dog in the park is a massive deal.

Distance, speed, number, and volume of the “bad things/triggers” can all change how your dog thinks about them.

To start with you need to avoid those triggers until you have gone through a de sensitising process and back to basics lead training with your dog (explained later in the article).  

You might need to change the time and route of your daily walk. Start paying attention and crossing the street when you see the triggers. Turn around if you have to.

Remain relaxed and calm at all times, use a positive tone of voice and do not tighten the lead. 

Back to Basics – Lead Training

This training needs to be carried out without any other dogs around.

The dog needs to be taught to walk on a loose lead and an attention cue to manage the passing dogs.  Other dogs should eventually become a cue to go into a close (or heel) position) and focus on the owner.

What is an attention cue?

A cue is like a green light that tells the dog that now is the time to execute a behaviour (focusing on the owner and walking to heel) for the chance of a reinforcement (a treat, a key word, a clicker).

Important – you must stick to the same reinforcement, so if it is a treat, stick to that; a word choose one and stick to it.

Once they are on cue you can then start far away from other dogs so the dog remains under threshold at all times.

Remember to have fun training your dog. If you are relaxed and enjoying yourself, your dog will sense this and relax too!

Click here to read our guide to “Basic Lead training“.

Toby used to react to dogs when off lead and on a lead

Desensitising Process

The aim is to change the dog’s behaviour when encountering other dogs in addition to loose lead and cue training.  Regardless of the dog’s trigger, the aim is to change the dog’s perception when meeting other dogs.

The dog needs to go through a desensitising counter conditioning process in addition to the walking on a loose lead and attention cue training.

The aim is to change the dog’s perception of the other dog.  The other dog’s appearance needs to predict a good outcome for your reactive dog.  It basically means that every time a dog appears you give your dog treats.

The treats are subject to the stimulus being present not your dog being good. It also needs to happen at a distance where your dog can cope with the other dog.

If at any time your dog appears stressed, does not take treats, or starts to lunge forward, you need to increase your distance until your dog calms down. 

Once you have established the starting point to your dog’s reactive behaviour on a lead you need to maintain that distance for a few ‘sessions’ when walking your dog.  Watch their body language carefully and then gradually start increasing the distance.

It takes patience, planning and careful attention and observation towards your dog.  

Common Mistakes

  • Dog is over the threshold.
  • Steps are too big or too small (meaning we either do not make progress or the dog is over the threshold).
  • Too low or high value treats, it is important to find a middle ground as not to override the emotion.
  • Paying for being good. This is not operant conditioning this is respondent or classical conditioning.
  • Giving the treat before the dog sees the other dog, this will cause the dog to sensitise and the treat will become the predictor of the ‘bad’ thing. This is the exact opposite of what we want.
  • Lead tightening or verbal cues such ‘it is ok’ predict the other dog and the dog will start scanning the environment and start to display nervous body language.
  • ‘Anxiety’ of the owner which travels right down to the dog. As difficult as it may be the handler needs to be calm, cool and collected.
  • Not working with set ups. Walks at random in the beginning will not work.

It is important to not shout at your dog in an attempt to stop lead reactivity.  You may suppress the behaviour but you will not have corrected the underlying behavioural emotion that causes your dog to react on a lead.  

Your dog may still feel the emotions that causes them to react this way in the first place: fear, uncertainty, unsure of themselves amongst others and suppressed emotion is not positive.


Correcting the behaviour of your lead reactive dog does require time patience and understanding.  As the dog owner you need to spend time observing your dog, the triggers to their behaviour and the distances for these triggers to occur.  Training needs to take place to help your dog conquer their fears which in turn will change your dog’s reactive response when walking on a lead.  A happier dog and a happier dog owner!