On Lead Dog Reactivity … want to understand more?

Want an insight into “How to prevent your pup/dog from developing on-lead dog reactivity”?

We all so want our dog to be social, to be everything we dreamed of.

Often, we push them to grow up too quickly and train too hard. We don’t see the dog in front of us and their needs. We are not reading them and their unique needs.  Not going at their pace.

Some puppies can exhibit “reactive” behaviour early on, which can shock guardians.

So, let’s look at the function that these behaviours, barking, lunging, growling, snapping, and biting have for your dog.

The function of these behaviours for most dogs is to keep the other dog away from them. To clearly identify the other dog as the target of the communication and clearly signally a wish for more distance from them.

For a few dogs, the function of these behaviours is to draw attention from the other dog and to hopefully draw the other dog closer or be allowed to get closer to the other dog. I saw allowed since this type of reactivity only occurs when this dog is on-lead or behind a fence.

How does a dog develop reactivity of either type?

Simply, from their experiences and HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT THEM.  I have capitalised that since it is not about how we feel our pup or dogs should feel about a situation and the dog/people in it.

It is about how they feel, and it is clear from the number of dogs who are reactive, that we, as a culture are getting this wrong. We the human guardians, don’t seem to be able to read our dogs when they are saying” I am not sure about this”, or “I would like a break “, creating the need for them to yell at us and other “HELL NO. I DONT LIKE THIS ” and then start yelling it so loud, so far away from the other dog/person, since we still seem to think they will be fine with it!

If you want to understand more about Dog Body Language, check out this blog  

Okay back to How does a dog develop reactivity of either type?

The issues often start in puppyhood, with a misunderstanding of puppy socialisation. Many guardians are led to believe that it means to thrust your dog in front of all other dogs. Do this on lead, off lead, anywhere and everywhere.

 Dog-to-dog socialisation really means being able to relax around other dogs. Being able to ignore other dogs. Being able to start to play and being able to walk away from the play.   

So without understanding the possibility of creating more problems over creating good calm habits, we think we are doing the right thing by taking our dog, on lead, up to every dog we saw ….

Yep, soon our pup/dog is going to see this pattern too, dog up ahead … leads to joyful or uncomfortable interactions.

For those of our pups who generally feel joy from this interaction, you will see a building of excitement. Your dog starts expressing their joy, by vocalisation, and speeding up their movements, to make the interaction occur faster. You may find yourself being pulled to each dog. Your dog is overreacting to sighting a dog.

Can’t control this reactive excitement? Can’t get their attention, once they lock on to the other dog? Can’t do anything other than pull them away …. Get help and get a trainer.

“It’s okay she is friendly, she just wants to say hello” you may be thinking to yourself.   IT IS not okay, you can’t control your dog without Force from the lead. To be honest  you don’t have control

For these owners and dogs, we encourage you to build value and joy into you, their owner and your activities with you. We ask that you invest in making being with you as joyful as interacting on lead with dogs.

Your dog should see the lead, as a cue to no dog interactions. Sighting another dog when they are on the lead should cue attention to you and good things from you.  Yes, these skills can’t just happen overnight, just like this overreactive excitement did not start overnight, we build them by training.

You will need help with this … get a trainer to help you plan.

A well-run puppy school will stop you from socialising your pup on lead. You may initially think this is over the top, but I think now you will see why😉. They will teach all the dog-to-dog socialisation skills listed above, in each class. it will be role modelled and encouraged with beds and stations. Off-lead supervised playtime, will be matched with body language discussion, observing and responding to each puppy’s needs.

But for some of your dogs, they did not feel joy in these encounters. We did not mean this to happen. We did not see it unfolding before our eyes. We did not know about dog body language.

First, you must accept that your dog does not like all other dogs. Nothing will change if you don’t accept that for the moment.

Your dog has learnt that you don’t see their behaviours as “I don’t like this dog interaction”.  Many of our dogs may have even stopped thinking we, their guardians, can offer them any support and actively don’t take our advice. Some pull throughout their walks, walking quickly and pulling as hard as possible to get around the circuit. They become hyper-alert to all possible noises, smells, and situations that could mean a dog may appear.   Their walk is more like a Survivor episode.

You need professional help to make this better. Chat with your vet, they may refer you to a specialist behaviour vet.

First, you need your dog to trust you.  Find a new activity you can do, and they will enjoy. Scent work is a great one.

Then you need to learn about

  • Dog body language, the subtle signs your dog’s stress is escalating.
  • Threshold Training below, not over
  • How to de-stress your dog between training sessions
  • Lead management
  • U-turns

And whilst this is all going on your focus should be about counter conditioning. Where you are working under or at the threshold, to change your dog’s emotional response.  The aim is to change your dog’s outlook of fear and predictable unpleasant experiences when dogs are around to positive ones.

This is a lot to understand and get right and get on with, which is why you need professional help, monitoring your training, with regular progress checks in.

Again, your dog’s reactivity did not appear overnight, it has been building and building. In the same way, your training will take time, dialling back and changing this emotion.

Here is a list of common mistakes guardians make when trying to help their reactive dog.

  • Take them to a park to meet dogs.
  • Ask their dog to look at them and nowhere else when a dog is around.
  • Use super high treats that the dog is now worried, and stressing about.
  • Training for too long
  • Thinking that training on their usual walk will be enough to fix it.
  • Giving the treat before your dog sees another dog.
  • Walking their dog at busy times.

What about quick fixes ….   Punishment. …..  punishment represses behaviour, not emotions, in fact, punishment often creates negative emotions ….

The answer to changing your dog’s behaviour is about changing their emotional outlook ….

You need professional positive force free help to get on top of this.


Louise Newman has been involved in dog training for the last 12 years. Among her qualification are  

Cert IV in Companion Animal Services, KPA Cert Prof Trainer, Dangerous Dog Handler, Studies in Applied Animal Behaviour, Postgrad in Teaching

Louise and her team makeup Let’s Go Fido which runs practical training courses