5 tips for managing a leash-reactive dog

For a variety of reasons, some dogs become “riled up” around certain triggers, especially when leashed.

These triggers could be other dogs, skateboarders, runners, etc.

Thankfully, there are ways to manage this behavior, and in many cases even help the dog overcome the issue.

I thought I’d share some tips from three other dog owners on how they manage their reactive dogs. I want this post to give some hope to others who may have recently adopted a reactive dog.

Please leave your questions or suggestions in the comments, as this is such a common problem in dogs.

Tips for managing a reactive dog

How to manage a dog that reacts to other dogs on leash

Know your dog’s triggers and threshold.

First, determine what causes your dog to react. These are your dog’s “triggers” and are most likely things like other dogs, children, bikes, etc.

Gina Caballero is the owner of a cairn terrier mix named Oz.

“Oz is reactive to only one thing, other dogs, and only when on leash,” she said.

“Oz is reactive to only one thing, other dogs, and only when on leash.”

To help manage her dog’s behavior, Caballero said she has to know Oz’s threshold, or the distance from the trigger where he will begin to react. This allows her to use different training techniques to distract him or desensitize him before he has a chance to react.

Caballero also said since Oz does not react to every dog, she has to pay close attention to his body language so she can try to figure out what his reaction will be.

You’re not the only one who feels judged.

Caballero said she often feels judged when Oz reacts to other dogs in the neighborhood, even though she knows he is actually a gentle, loving dog with obedience skills.

“He appears ferocious, and I get looks from people that say ‘Train your dog!’” she said. “It can be very embarrassing.”

Mahogany Gamble is the owner of a mixed-breed dog named Kayo and said her dog used to react to “anything that moved.”

At that time, Gamble also said she would feel judged and embarrassed by Kayo’s behavior.

How to manage a dog that reacts to other dogs

“I woke up extra early to walk her before the streets were filled.”

“I woke up extra early to walk her before the streets were filled,” she said. “I learned routes that weren’t crowded and even found a small dog park that was rarely used.”

Later, when she learned to use training tools such as a prong collar, she felt judged for that decision as well.

“In both cases, my ultimate realization was that I felt judged because I lacked confidence in myself,” she said. “As my confidence grew, I began to learn how to focus on my work with my dog rather than on the fearful or judgmental looks of others.”

It’s worth it to hire a dog trainer.

Tips for managing a dog that is aggressive on the leashLara Elizabeth is the owner of a border collie/Jack Russell mix named Ruby. She considers Ruby’s reactivity “quite extreme” and strongly recommends seeking the help of a professional trainer for anyone who has adopted a reactive dog.

“I scheduled a few sessions with a local positive reinforcement trainer to make sure I was on the right track with Ruby,” she said.

She also suggested dog owners read all they can about reactivity.

“There are many great resources for this fairly common issue, and I believe the more people feel they aren’t alone, the more patience they have for their dogs,” she said.

Gamble said she worked with seven different trainers before finding the right ones to help Kayo.

“Several trainers insisted that my dog could only improve with medication,” she said. “Some even hinted at euthanizing her.”

She later worked with a trainer who said Kayo’s high energy and drive were simply her personality.

“Once I met the right trainers, they inspired me to look beyond my dog’s instinctual behavior and see the greatness she possessed,” Gamble said.

According to her, Kayo now spends her days as a confident dog with a “very wide world” constantly surrounded by what used to trigger her reactivity.

How to manage a leash-reactive dog

Gamble said she encourages all owners with reactive dogs to seek out a good trainer who can give them the tools to build their dogs’ confidence and good behavior around triggers.

There is no quick fix.

It’s important for people to know that a dog’s reactivity will not be cured overnight, according to Elizabeth.

“It very often takes lifelong management and training,” she said.

For example, she said she is lucky to live in a quiet townhome community where she doesn’t have to take Ruby into a crowded or busy situation.

“I am always alert when walking and will change direction when needed …”

“I am always alert when walking and will change direction when needed if someone is approaching,” she said.

Caballero said owning a reactive dog can often be two steps forward and one, two or three steps back!

“You have to be consistent and try to not get frustrated with your dog or yourself,” she said. “It is a learning process for both of you.”

Believe in yourself.

Gamble said she would like to encourage other dog owners to believe in themselves and in their dogs.

“While there are numerous techniques that I learned and now use in my work with dogs, my attitude did play a significant role in my dog’s transformation,” she said.

“Without believing in what we both could do, we couldn’t have achieved anything great.”

Do any of you own a reactive dog? What are your tips for managing the behavior?

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  1. Jackie Bouchard on June 10, 2014

    Great post! Rita is reactive – but not to every dog, so sometimes it’s a guessing game, and sometimes I end up on the receiving end of one of the “judge-y” looks! And it’s also definitely one step forward, two back. Yesterday we were having such a great walk – she did so well walking past other dogs… and then we saw one of the two dogs in the ‘hood that she HATES. I don’t know why she especially hates these two, but it’s always so embarrassing when we see them – especially the one, because he’s calm and sweet as can be. She’s come a long way (no longer reacts to bikes, motorcycles, loud trucks, etc.) but still working on her issues with other dogs (and certain men!).

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on June 10, 2014

      Hi Jackie. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with your dog. That’s so great to hear she is no longer reacting to bikes and motorcycles.

      I find that all the skateboarders in the area are a challenge for certain dogs.

  2. Jessicavy on June 10, 2014

    What a great post! I also have a leash reactive dog, and all of this resonated with me. Feeling judged in particular . . . every time my dog barked at someone else’s dog I just wanted to grab them by the shoulders and scream, “I’m trying! My last dog wasn’t like this! My last dog could do an off-leash heel!” I also feel incredibly guilty for all the times I’ve quietly judged other people for having an out-of-control dog. Hiccup is a hefty serving of humility topped with a dollop of karma.

    The best tip I’ve ever gotten that hasn’t been covered is a little trick a trainer gave me. She told me to turn and walk into my dog when he’s going nuts. You don’t kick the dog aside or anything; just calmly walk towards them, breaking their focus and making them back up. It was like magic! I couldn’t believe how quickly it worked, and how much less reactive he was after just a couple weeks of doing that every time he barked and lunged at another dog.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on June 10, 2014

      Thank you so much for sharing that tip! Excellent advice! I really appreciate hearing from you, since I know you’ve done so much work with your dog.

      I admit it, I’ve done my fair share of judging other people and their dogs. I try so hard not to do it now, because I know sometimes they may have just adopted the dog or they are working really hard with the dog. Plus, I’ve walked and fostered plenty of dogs that reacted, and I felt judged too, so what right do I have to judge other people?

    • Jill on June 23, 2014

      Thanks for your story. I felt ALL of the feelings you mentioned in your post. My most recent adoption-now over 2 years ago, shattered my knowledge of dog mentality & social interactions. I appreciate your tip & will try in my continued training with my socially challenged girl Coco

  3. slimdoggy on June 10, 2014

    Love the post and love reading the input from some of our favorite bloggers…(great idea). Luckily I’ve never had a really reactive dog. Jack doesn’t like other dogs coming up to him, but he gives a general low growl warning if they get to close – he’s never been overt with them. He also just like to walk, so he’s very focused and on a mission which helps with his slight reactivity. I also find, the older he gets, the more relaxed he gets.

  4. Aisling on June 11, 2014

    Thank you so much for posting this Lindsay! Chip is very leash reactive and I always assumed it was my “energy” that was giving her this reaction. She barks at motorbikes, a car with a trailer or even just a loud old car. And is VERY bad with dogs. She barks and barks but the moment I let her off the leash, she is actually pretty shy and will do all she can go avoid making eye contact with the other dog! So its purely the leash that is giving her this reaction.

    Jessica VY left a very good tip however that doesn’t work with my dog. Her focus doesn’t break! Instead she does all she can to try see around my legs. I have tried everything in the book. The only thing I can do that works is to just turn around and walk the other way. She actually gets worse if I attempt to avoid the dog altogether by crossing the road so the only way to stop her is to get the dog out of sight! I 100% agree with the embarrassment! I get filthy looks all the time because my dogs is “vicious” when in fact she is very much the opposite. And then I end up getting frustrated with Chip because she’s not behaving!

    What’s strange though, is that she doesn’t react to dogs when my boyfriend is walking her (according to him anyway) so that’s why I assumed it was my energy on the leash as opposed to the leash itself!

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on June 12, 2014

      While my dog doesn’t react aggressively, he still tends to get excited around other dogs and he’s better behaved when my husband walks him. I have to assume its because I’m either nervous or anticipating the behavior and my husband doesn’t think about it. He just walks.

  5. Kelly on June 11, 2014

    I have two leash-reactive dogs- one that’s reactive to other dogs (a Yorkie named Riley), and one that reacts to bikes, strollers, children, and other dogs (a Bichon named Louie). Even though they’re small dogs, when they both get going they’re nearly impossible to correct at the same time. I get looks a lot that seem to say “oh, you have THOSE kind of little dogs” – which I don’t! They’re very well-behaved for the most part. The only successful thing I’ve found involves high praise and positive reinforcements if they don’t react badly to a stimulus. It’s something I struggle with every day, and can make walks not nearly as fun.
    Louie is easier to control, especially if I can get him to focus on me or a treat, but there’s no stopping Riley once the terrier in him gets focused on something. The only way I’ve been able to stop Riley is by picking him up, but I know that’s not the proper way to handle things.
    It’s so frustrating, especially when both of them are super-friendly when they’re not on leashes.

  6. Emma on June 11, 2014

    Our biggest problem is I want to chase/attack trailers when they pass us on a walk. The same goes for snowplows in the winter. I don’t mind semi trucks with a trailer, but the kind of trailer that is behind a car or truck. No idea how to stop this behavior, but I have been doing it for years. Mom always has to watch for trailers coming our way so she can hold the leash tight.

  7. AuntSue on June 11, 2014

    I adopted a rat terrier a year ago. She was 7 years old and had never been walked because she pulled so badly. She was also a bossy dog and did not respect my or my other dog’s space and food. After a year we have come a long way. She now waits for my OK to eat her food, she sits and waits for her snack, she moves over when asked and doesn’t crowd my other dog. She no longer steals food off my plate while I am eating it, but knows the plate belongs to me. She has incredible hearing and eyesight and has reacted to neighbors walking from their cars, all the mail, UPS, FEDEX and garbage trucks as well as bikes, skateboards, and especially motorcycles. Even pedestrians get barking. My staying calm is the best. Sometimes I leash het in the house so she has to stay by me and feel my calm. I call her in from the screen porch or the back yard when she starts to bark, have her sit for a minute and them reward with a treat.
    Long walks in the park kept at heel with a Halti have been very effective in reducing her reaction to people, dogs, skaters and bikes in the park.

  8. Rebekah on June 11, 2014

    As always, great tips. At one point in time, I considered Faolan reactive. I have since learned that he is not truly reactive, but a frustrated greeter. This still requires management, though.

    • Lara Elizabeth on June 12, 2014

      Rebekah, as far as other dogs and maybe even people go, Ruby is a frustrated greeter as well. In yards/homes she has done fantastically with every dog she’s met. Bikes and skateboards are another matter, I think it’s her herding instinct that sets her off about those. That is why I call her complicated!

  9. weliveinaflat on June 12, 2014

    Great post just to share views from different people 🙂

  10. Lalee on June 13, 2014

    Gosh that was all so interesting and enlightening. I didn’t realise that leash reactive was a specific problem, just thought it was my dog alone. My rescue dog is the kindest, most loving, gentle and obedient in every other area except when meeting another dog on leash, and in our area quite often aggresive as well..

  11. Dawn on June 14, 2014

    Great tips! I love what you said about there being no quick fix. Maya and Pierson are a constant work in progress. When I see another dog, I cross the street before Maya or Pierson reach their threshold. Then I make them sit and use the “look” command to get their attention away from the passing dog. Pierson surprised me one day but sitting and looking at me the moment we crossed the street as if to say, “Okay, there’s another dog coming. So where’s my treat?” I should mention, too, that I walk Maya and Pierson separately so that I can work on their behaviors individually for more effectiveness.

    Seriously, Gamble had to go through seven different trainers before she found the right one? Crazy! I’ve thought about hiring a dog trainer for Pierson’s dog aggression, but I’m not sure what to look for when hiring. I’m assuming Gamble did her research and still had to go through the trial and error of seven trainers. Do you have any tips for finding the right trainer?

  12. Sean on June 15, 2014

    Great post and great comments.

    If I was designing the ultimate curriculum for what you need to experience before you can be a dog professional (trainer, walker, etc.), I would put in a section on walking and handling leash-reactive dogs.

    No two dogs are alike in their reactivity, and it is so easy to misinterpret if you don’t understands dogs and have more info/background on that specific dog. Plus, I think no one understands the stress and feeling judged aspect until they are the one with the reactive dog!

  13. Betty on July 11, 2014

    Loved this post! I can identify with everyone.

  14. Nick on February 18, 2016

    Apologies for the bump on this article but I couldn’t find a more appropriate post to comment on.

    One issue I’m having when walking Poppy when she’s on the lead is avoiding debris on the ground. There’s one particular alley we walk down and there is often broken glass on the ground. It doesn’t cover the entire pavement but sometimes I find I have to pull Poppy as close to me as possible in order to navigate our way through it. I must point out that she has never cut herself on the glass. However, she tends to pull against me a little bit when I pull the lead closer to me. It’s just a regular, non-retractable lead by the way. She obviously cannot appreciate the potential danger and doesn’t understand my actions. She walks beautifully on the lead all other times, she’ll heel and sit at the road side waiting to cross. She’s usually happy walking along around a foot or so from my side. She occasionally gets excited with approaching dogs but she’s under control at all times. It’s just this one issue that I’m having trouble with and this is when I need her to walk as close to me as possible.

    One common sense suggestion would be to avoid that alley way and although that is a possibility, it will add a substantial time on this particular route. Another point is that, I think this is a valid training scenario that could apply to many other potential dangers on any route for anyone walking a dog.

    With that in mind, is there any suggestions you can make to help Poppy learn that she should sometimes walk as close to me as possible please?

    I do hope this makes sense 🙂

    Thanks for any help.

    Nick 🙂

    • Jean Patterson on October 11, 2016

      If she likes treats, hold a treat in your hand just above her nose on you waste so she has to walk closer to you. You might want to practice this before you walk her in the alley way.

  15. Lindsay Stordahl Author on February 19, 2016

    I have that same issue with Ace on occasion, not with glass but maybe avoiding other things. I suppose you could teach a new command like “close” and have it mean a really tight heel. Maybe work on this with some highly valued treats in different areas, not necessarily in that alley. Like, while you’re walking, say “close!” and bring her in tight for treats for 5 seconds and then back to normal heel. Just brainstorming here. It would obviously take some work.

  16. Karen wass on April 28, 2016

    My 7 month old staffy molly is people crazy,when we r on a walk she goes crazy when people come near us.she just wants to greet them & say hello but is very had to control…I am trying really hard to stop this behaviour by trying to make her sit & stay calm,BT people pass u all the time… any suggestions would b great.many thanks. Karen&molly.

    • Lori on October 23, 2016

      We have a new rescue that loves people as well. I was having the same problem. Our trainer suggested putting the leash under your foot when greating people, just giving a short distance. This has helped, she doesn’t have the freedom to jump but is forced to sit. It has also been very helpful when guest come over, Darla is learning that you “Sit for love” jumping on people to greet them is not acceptable.

  17. Sandy Weinstein on June 19, 2016

    my girls are pretty good. the only time they get excited is when someone starts running past them, or making lots of obscene noises. but i just talk to them and they stop. some people dont take into account dogs being around, with kids going crazy, running up and back to your dog trying to pet them. i then say something to the parents. my girls are good with kids if they are polite and dont startle them. they are never agressive.

  18. Renate Alkan on August 9, 2016

    I Renate Alkan adoped a Bichon/ poodle mix 28 months ago from the TAS in Toronto,Ont. Canada and even I took my dog for training he is still a reactive dog as I couldn’t find a good trainer to help me;. He is reactive with strangers and some dogs whom he doesn’t know.People and dogs that he knows he’s O.K. with them but people and dogs he doesn’t know he is reactive. What would you suggest for me to do???? Please I would really appreciate if you can give me some kind of an idea of what I can do.He is not just reactive but I think he is also resource guarding which is also not good.

  19. Sharon Wollenberg on October 11, 2016

    Great tips Lindsay! Yes, we have some of the sweetest dogs in my dog walking business but we have a quite a few that are reactive on a leash. We know before hand with extensive paperwork. We avoid other dogs and people if we have too. Sometimes we can overcome it, but others are stubborn and we just are very careful where we walk them and know are surroundings at all times. A good trainer is a great resource for difficult situations.
    Great post!!

  20. Jean Patterson on October 11, 2016

    What a wonderful post. I never knew dogs like this until one of my dogs became reactive. We don’t have trainers in our area. You have to travel more than 100 miles then “they don’t do Rottweilers” . So I took to YouTube, Lindsay, Cesar, Michael Ellis, anyone that published articles. I put as much training on him as I can. I have a very obedient dog that has outburst. We work daily on impulse control. Like putting treats on his feet and having him leave it until he gets the ok. Or putting a treat on his nose. We do red light, green light a lot. We go to the beach everyday and sit in the car and work on “good quite “. It’s taking almost 3 years but we are making progress! We also belong to a senior citizens dog group that we walk with twice a week. His recall is the best, his off leash heel is beautiful. At my age I don’t worry about other people’s opinions about my dogs . After all it was other people that made my dog reactive. Two guys in a pickup truck thought it would be fun to chase an old lady and her 8 month old puppy down the beach. So my dog was protecting me and from then on he thought he had to protect me from everything.

  21. Liz on October 12, 2016

    I recently adopted a chihuahua mix from a shelter. She is a sweet and playful little thing; however, when I walk her on leash in my busy neighborhood, with my other dog, she goes into a barking/lunging frenzy whenever she sees cars. The bigger and louder the car the more reactive she gets. It’s quite a distraction/embarrassment and so stressful. I bought a PetSafe Easy Walk Harness and armed with her favorite treats we walk my neighborhood, and if a car comes I have her sit, look at me, and with tons of praise I give her a treat. She is totally focused on me and the treats, not the cars. If her attention turns toward a car I make a kissy sound and she turns back to me (positive interruption). Our walks might be a little hectic for our other dog, but she’s learning to associate cars with yummy treats and praise. I really hope our walks can one day be fun and smooth. I think we’re getting there…

  22. Rachel on October 12, 2016

    I think it helps if you understand what dogs are ‘saying’. I have found the calmer a dog is the better with my boy. If I see a dog ‘in charge’ of the owner I need to avoid them, if a dogs energy is the same as Odin’s, then all hell will break loose if I don’t take aversive action. I was just getting round to getting a little closer to familiar calm dogs, but Odin has had a visit to the vets, and now we have gone back years. His self preservation is right up there at the top of his agenda, always has been but now he’s just got worse. It makes me wonder what happened to him at the vets although I was told he was okay. I fixed him before, so its just a matter of keep on practicing. Time is a healer so they say…