It’s never more apparent that dogs are related to wolves than when they snarl, bare their teeth and get into attack mode. Scary much? Big-time. Especially when it happens during a walk with other people—including children—and pets around. Leash aggression in dogs is problematic behavior that can result in your pup harming herself or others. Here’s how to stop leash aggression so you can get back to enjoying those leisurely walks.
What is leash aggression?
Sometimes referred to as leash reactivity, leash aggression is intense behavior escalated by wearing a leash. Simple enough, right? Since leashes and walks go hand in hand, this nasty behavior will often come out on your daily strolls.
General aggression can look like barking, growling, lunging, pulling and generally trying to run after other dogs or people. Leash aggression is different in that it only happens while your pup is on a leash. Some dogs are perfect angels who cuddle and obey at home but turn into little monsters once you click that leash on.
What causes leash aggression?
As with most behavioral conditions, it’s often hard to pinpoint a specific cause or onset. Aggression itself can stem from anger, fear or frustration. For dogs, aggression may manifest after a single incident or not until she’s experienced dozens of similar incidents. However, the following issues frequently cause leash aggression:
- Poor socialization: Socializing puppies is super important because it teaches them how to play well with others, feel confident instead of anxious and engage safely in activities like vet visits, vacations and more. Basically, socialization is the most important thing you can do for a new puppy. Without these skills, adult dogs tend to be much more aggressive.
- Loneliness: If your pup is home alone all day, an evening walk may be the only time she feels she’s getting attention from you. This could cause her to lash out at other dogs she sees.
- Fear: According to VCA Ark Animal Hospitals, dogs who are afraid of other animals may feel trapped by their leashes. Since they can’t retreat, they’ll get aggressive.
- Bad experience: Any dog who’s had a negative experience with a leash or while on a leash could begin to snarl or bark when tethered to one.
- Ineffective training: Aside from socialization, dog parents must train their pups to walk on a leash. This sounds silly, but it’s true! Dogs who aren’t provided structure or rules for walks may freak out when presented with new stimuli on a stroll.
- Freedom: It’s possible that a dog who’s given free range of a large yard all day could see a leashed walk as a punishment of some kind. This could lead to aggressive behavior.
How to stop leash aggression
So, what is to be done? First and foremost, you’ve got to pay a visit to your vet. Dogs can have underlying medical conditions that either trigger aggression or cause discomfort, which then leads to aggression.
Second, it’s imperative to focus on positive reinforcement of good behavior. This means don’t punish your dog when she does something bad, but do reward her when she does something you want her to keep doing.
Also, stay calm during training and walking. Even if your dog gets riled up, remaining calm will signal to her that there is no real threat.
If your pup exhibits scary behavior only while leashed, the American Kennel Club advises removing the walk factor for a while. Simply sit outside with your dog (leashed!) in an area where you’re likely to see at least a few other canines. Bring some treats with you, preferably special ones she doesn’t typically get. The goal at first is to teach your pup to focus on you rather than other dogs. As soon as she notices another dog, offer her a treat. Even if she doesn’t react aggressively to the other dog, continue to give her treats. Shift her focus from them to you. Get in a few reps during each session and repeat for several weeks, until she instinctively checks in with you if another dog approaches. Then add the actual walking part back in, maintaining this practice to continue the behavior.
If starting out in a public space seems impossible, begin this process at home. Along with treats, teach your dog to look at you when you make a specific command or sound. This can take a few weeks too. The goal here is getting your dog’s attention in any environment, without calling her name.
The Humane Society reminds us that dogs greet each other by sniffing genitals. That’s just the way it is! On walks, when two dogs approach each other face-to-face, this standard greeting is replaced by a much more aggressive one: advancing head-on. If possible, alter your route to arc around an oncoming dog to decrease the intensity of this approach. Or simply turn around and head back in the other direction.
Every dog will respond differently to tactics, and some will work better than others. In fact, as veterinary behaviorists Debra Horwitz, D.V.M., and Gary Lansberg, D.V.M., outlined in an article for VCA Ark, even taking a soothing tone when trying to calm your dog could be detrimental. This sounds like praise, so she could see lashing out as a good thing. On the other hand, loud yelling, shouting “No!” or using a prong collar to control behavior tends to stress out canines even more and will likely increase aggression.
Dog owners get real
Alex and Megan, a couple in Chicago who adopted a pit bull mix last year, have struggled with Grover’s aggression and reactivity to other dogs since day one.
“He’s very fearful of [other dogs],” Alex told us, “and will go to extreme lengths—lunging, barking, growling—to get distance from them.”
Whenever they approach another dog, they turn around and walk Grover in the opposite direction. Alex added that being in tune with your dog’s stress signals is a good way to get ahead of any aggressive behavior. If she notices Grover yawning or shaking, they head home to avoid a heightened reaction should he spot another dog.
After many vet appointments, Alex and Megan found a medication combination that makes walking and training much easier. Note: Medication isn’t the only solution. It simply allows Grover to calm down enough to enjoy—and learn—commands.
On Reddit, user soswinglifeaway suggests using a harness instead of a simple collar and leash during walks. This could make it easier for you to control your dog when she lunges and may make her feel more secure.
This is a tricky issue with no direct answer. When in doubt, contact a local training school or trainer for in-person sessions.