How to Stop Leash Aggression in Dogs

By: Sondra Wolfer

Does this sound all too familiar? Your dog is a well-mannered angel hanging around the house and back yard, and an utter charmer when running loose with his furry friends in the dog park. But when you clip a dog leash on him and he encounters another canine, look out! Your sweet best friend transforms into a snarling, aggressive beast. He barks and snaps and lunges. This is more than poor manners—this is leash aggression, and this common behavioral problem frustrates many a dog parent.

Walks with your dog should be enjoyable, not stressful and embarrassing. You shouldn’t have to seek out isolated sections of the park for a walk, or furtively look ahead and turn tail at the first sign of another dog on the sidewalk. Read on for a primer on leash aggression and training your dog for peaceable outings on a lead:

What is Leash Aggression?

Leash aggression is a problem behavior in which your dog becomes aggressive, anxious, or over-excited when encountering another dog only while attached to a lead. The issue is also commonly called leash reactivity.

What Causes Leash Aggression?

There are usually multiple factors at the root of leash aggression. Dogs who are anxious or overly territorial are more prone to it. Lack of proper socialization as a puppy can contribute to the unwanted behavior because your dog never learned how to say a proper “hello” to his four-legged friends. Excessive stimulation can also lead to leash reactivity because your dog is so over-excited he simply forgets any manners he learned.

Most often, however, it’s dog owners who unwittingly cause or exacerbate leash aggression because they don’t understand normal dog behavior. Out on walks, dogs are curious to explore their world and are especially excited to meet other dogs along the way. If allowed to say “howdy” and get to know each other naturally, dogs will approach each other from the side rather than face to face. They position themselves in an arc nose to hindquarters in order to sniff the new dog’s signature scent and allow the new friend to do the same. It’s a dog’s version of introducing himself by name, with a friendly smile and a handshake. They are sussing each other out, asking “Are you nice? Are you rude? Would I like to play with you?”

But many dog owners don’t allow dogs to greet this way. Instead, they pull them close and shorten the leash as the other dog approaches. This forces a face-to-face interaction, which dogs consider aggressive. This makes dogs feel vulnerable, trapped, and frustrated, and some dogs act out as a result. Then their owners pull them away or reprimand them, creating further tension, fear, and more misbehavior. Leash aggression is often a downward cycle of frustration for both dog and dog owner.

Training to Calm Leash Aggression

If you’re reading this and you’ve got a puppy, here’s how to prevent leash aggression from developing in the first place:

  • While on his leash, don’t let your puppy run up to other dogs, jump on them, push them, or get in their face. This is bad behavior and will likely be met with understandable aggression from the other dog.
  • Give your puppy opportunities for supervised, off-leash play with other dogs in a mix of ages. Older dogs will teach your puppy his manners for you, letting him know what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

For an adult dog with leash aggression, patient and consistent training can change how he behaves during canine encounters. Here are some tips and approaches that can help:

  • The primary goal in training your dog away from leash aggression/reactivity is to develop a strong association between meeting other dogs and focusing on you. To establish this link, dog treats are your primary training tool. You need to find a treat your dog loves and reserve these special morsels as rewards for when school’s in session.
  • Start training in an area where you’ll encounter other dogs but isn’t overrun with furry distractions.
  • When a dog approaches, the moment your dog notices this stranger call out your dog’s name in an upbeat voice, or say “here” or another cue word. When he turns to you make eye contact and reward him with a treat. The key is catching him after he’s seen the dog but before he has a chance to react. This will require focus and attention on your part.
  • While the other dog is in sight, keep your dog at a distance and give him treats repeatedly.
  • When the dog is out of sight, stop doling out treats.
  • Repeat ad infinitum. Not literally. But this is going to take awhile.
  • Keep training sessions short, mostly because it will be tiring for you to be on high alert for long stretches.
  • Eventually your dog will immediately turn to you when another dog enters the picture. When this starts to happen, you can slowly close the gap between him and the other dog. This process of desensitization should be slow—rushing it could undo your progres.
  • Never punish your dog for lapses. Of course, you will contain your dog when he becomes aggressive to keep everyone safe. But pull him back firmly without yanking or yelling. And never hit your dog. Punitive responses only increase your dog’s anxiety and make him associate unpleasant responses with other dogs, thereby worsening his leash aggression.

Some cases of leash aggression are so deep-seated the help of a professional dog trainer is likely required to correct the situation. If your dog’s level of reactivity is extreme—he regularly frightens people with his aggression, or he can’t settle himself down after an incident—you will probably need backup.

Whether you get support or go it alone, you are your dog’s primary trainer. Whenever you go for a walk, you’ll need to be prepared and attentive. Then, incrementally, your dog’s behavior will change. Your walks with your best friend will no longer be a source of tension, but rather the pleasure they are meant to be. And that is your reward.

9 thoughts on “How to Stop Leash Aggression in Dogs”

  1. My border/ my curr mix is a year old. He is great staying in our yard with his fence collar. He will bark at dogs when they go by but usually does not cross to them. On leash he is out of control. He will not even take treats of any kind if he spots a dog. I am at my witts end. Help

    1. Mary, I’m having the same issue. He totally ignores the treats and barks his head off. He’s harmless, but the other dog’s human looks terrified and pulls their dogs away while I mumble apologies. I’m scared they will think he’s aggressive and complain to my apartment folks when he just wants to say hi to their dog. He’s a saint when I take him to the dog park and he’s off the leash. Maybe someone can help us both?

      1. So I’m having this same issue with my little terrier mix, Boo. I think the first step is to teach the “watch me” queue over and over and over at home and then on walks.

        Boo reacts well to “yes” also. So any time she does something good, say “yes” and give her a treat. Sitting, laying down, etc. whatever tricks they already know, teach them “yes” and reward them! Then go on to “watch me” this one you basically have her sit and whenever she looks at you say “yes” and give her a treat. Being able to get your dogs attention is awesome! And now we’ve worked our way up to “watch me” while on walks and distractions. I’m hoping the next steps of desensitization around other dogs goes well!!

  2. I too have dog that I cannot walk with other dogs in the area. She will smell them before they appear and is almost unmanageable and is hard to hold. She will not take a treat. She is deaf. I can’t even get close enough to a dog to say hello. Everyone is frightened of her. What can I do?
    A frustrated dog owner. Gail

    1. With deaf dogs, they respond really well to hand signals. And eye contact will be really important! To teach “watch me” to a deaf dog, first touch a treat to her nose, then touch the treat to your nose! (Or close to your face if you don’t actually want dog treats on your nose).

      Do this over and over! Like 3-5 times a day for 6 weeks at home. In the meantime try to walk her in less populated areas if you can! Then slowly introduce distractions with “watch me”. I hope it works for you! Luckily dogs do everything with signals in the wild, so since she can still see and has smell, hopefully treats and hand signals should work!

  3. I am having the same problem. My border collie/lab mix, almost 2 has developed real aggression towards other dogs when on the leash. This is exacerbated by my little dog doing the same. It becomes almost impossible to walk them because of this. Both of them are super friendly and not aggressive in any other way. Diversion tactics don’t work because they become so focused on the other dog, even at a distance

    1. This is my problem as well. I have a Great Dane and a Great Dane Shephard mix. They’ve both been trained and they go to puppy care where the trainers say they are fine when on a leash and going past other dogs. But with me nope. However, they aren’t going to do anything, they just want to smell the other dog etc. I know this because said Great Dane once broke his leash ran up to a lab and just did puppy play bow while hopping around it. But they can’t handle being on a leash and having dogs come straight at them or at me depending on how they are interpreting it. And people in my neighborhood seemingly have not appreciation for how dogs will react preferring instead to think they should just do whatever even if the other owner is trying to get their dogs out of the way of a potential interaction, and disregarding how little room there is on our paths and not caring because everyone should get out of their way and not respecting the dogs.

  4. I have two small dogs, cross breeds chichuahua and french bulldog. Neither have had training, the chichuahua was kept by his previous owners in a cage most of his first year and then given to us, no socialisation for him and showed lead aggression from the start. The French bulldog is behaving in the same way in fact she is now more agressive than him when meeting other dogs while on a lead.
    I have had enough of the two dogs totally out of control and now have started to receive threats from a couple who own a puppy who threatened us that we should not be seen in the local recreation area by them again otherwise we will be sorry. I have to say that apart from these two individuals all other dog owners understand dog behaviour and I apologise over and over again and yes have run out of places to divert to where we can relax and enjoy our walks.
    I have now developed strain problems with my right arm just trying over and over again to hold on to them during these episodes.
    I am very disappointed and don’t know what to do now.

    Thanks

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