The Causes of Leash Reactivity

Posted on January 31st, 2018 by FetchMasters in Behavior Modification

Leash reactivity (sometimes referred to as leash aggression) is rampant in Denver, Colorado. In fact, it is so widespread that we developed a specialized leash reactivity program to help us train a larger number of dogs and people more effectively and efficiently.

As is my custom, when I find myself having to explain the same concepts daily to callers, I like to immortalize those concepts in writing and provide them as a resource.

So, with no further ado, here are the causes of leash reactivity:

Leash Reactivity Cause #1: The Leash

Dogs are creatures that move towards what they are interested in and move away from what they fear. When you put a leash on a dog, it no longer can do either of those things. For example, when the dog shows interest in exploring something (say, another human or dog), you prevent it. And when it wants to avoid something that scares it, you prevent that too. So, the leash inhibits the dog’s natural approach/retreat mechanisms. And any time you fool with mother nature, consequences arise.

Leash Reactivity Cause #2: Uncontrolled Enthusiasm

When an enthusiastic dog wants to move towards something of interest (for instance, another dog or a human), and it cannot, the dog may become frustrated. This leads to reactivity whenever the leash is on. The severity of that reactivity can vary: at one end of the reactivity spectrum, a small amount of frustration may result in barking and pulling. At the other end of the spectrum, a larger amount of frustration may result in redirected aggression towards the owner.

Leash Reactivity Cause #3: Inability to Avoid Danger

Alternatively, if a dog is fearful of an approaching human or dog (or car, or skateboard, etc …), it may want to move away. By doing so, it would be creating distance from the object of its fear — and therefore creating safety. But if it cannot do this, the dog may feel no choice but to throw up an aggressive display to ward off the object of its fear. Again, the reactivity may range from hiding behind the owner, to barking and lunging, to redirected aggression towards its owner.

Leash Reactivity Cause #4: Incorrect Handling of a Leashed Dog

Another contributing factor to leash reactivity is the way the owner handles the dog when it is on the leash. If an owner gets nervous when his dog sees another dog or person, he may try to quash the dog’s overenthusiasm or fear. By tightening the leash, jerking on it or handling the dog roughly, the owner confirms to the dog that there is reason for stress — after all the owner obviously feels the stress too! This adds to the dog’s tension. So, training the dog to walk correctly on a leash is part of the fix, but so is teaching the owner to correctly handle his dog in difficult situations.

Leash Reactivity Cause #5: Unrealistic Expectations

By far, one of the largest contributing factors to leash reactivity is the owner’s unrealistic expectations. In the big-city areas of the United States – and definitely here in Denver – there is a notion that all dogs should be joyful greeters of all other dogs and humans. This is unrealistic and unnatural.

Do you joyfully greet every other human you see on the street and force interaction upon them? I’d bet not. So, why expect your dog to act in a way that would seem psychotic if you saw another human doing it?

Having traveled to numerous European countries, my wife Linda and I have observed that most of them  experience far less leash reactivity than we do in the United States — especially here in Denver. Why is this? How do we treat our dogs differently than they do? The answers to those questions will make for a great future article. But suffice it to say they do not impose a desire for incessant interaction upon their dogs, and it shows.

Leash Reactivity Cause #6: Untrained, Over-Friendly Dogs

Dogs that pull themselves excitedly towards oncoming dogs to greet contribute to the stress level of those dogs. In the dog world, such a rapid frontal approach can indicate an impending fight. Instinctively, dogs typically do not greet frontally. Instead, they approach in more of a semi-circular manner with more of an exploratory demeanor. Additionally, a dog that rushes carelessly into an oncoming dog’s personal space is begging to receive a scolding or worse.

That is not the way socially mature dogs act, and it increases the stress level of the encroached upon dog. And that increased stress, in turn, increases the likelihood of leash reactivity / leash aggression.

Those are the primary reasons for leash reactivity. For more information about how to cure it efficiently, please CONTACT US.