Leash Reactivity in Dogs


You’d think I wouldn’t do this to myself, but I started a new job and then two days later went and got a new puppy. Actually, I’m thrilled with both. After eight years doing solo house calls for behavior cases, I love being at a multi-doctor specialty hospital like NorthStar VETS. It’s been a really easy transition.

Ivan1My New Life with Ivan
The transition from a living with one older, easy-going, low-maintenance dog to my first puppy in 16 years has been a bit harder. Boy, does Ivan have a lot of energy, way more than I do. I am enjoying him and I love training puppies. They’re sponges who soak up everything you teach them. They love learning through rewards, whether it’s treats or toys or just lots of attention. Ivan has been doing fantastic! Within his first week with me and my kids, he learned sit, down, touch (touches his nose to your hand) and stay. He’s also learned to drop toys and stolen things like pencils, pieces of mail, my son’s homework and my daughter’s Invisalign case. We’ve also learned to leave our things on high tables and shelves and close bedroom doors.

So, why did I enroll Ivan in a beginner manners class? I know how to teach dogs to follow all sorts of commands and he was doing very well being “home schooled.” I think it was the day we were leaving NorthStar VETS together and he saw a dog who looked like a good playmate. Ivan went from 0-60. He went from wagging and excited, to barking and growling when he couldn’t get to the other dog. Clearly, Ivan needs more practice paying attention to me when he’s around other dogs. Ivan is young and friendly with other dogs, but like a teenager, he doesn’t always have the best impulse control.

Leash Reactivity in Dogs
‘Leash reactivity’ is a very common reason dogs come to see me. This term can cover dogs like Ivan who are just very excited and having a hard time controlling themselves, to dogs who are truly dangerous to other dogs or people. When Ivan can’t get to the dog he wants to meet, he begins to growl and shriek. He’s not being aggressive to the other dog. The growling and barking are because he’s frustrated. But if I let him rush at the other dog when he’s all worked up, he would come on way too strong. This could lead to a misunderstanding which might result in the other dog snapping at Ivan and the other owner yelling at me. Not a good way to meet the neighbors!

For some of my patients with “leash reactivity,” it isn’t about frustration, it’s about fear or anxiety. Some of them really like other dogs or new people, but they’re nervous about meeting someone new. Others truly don’t like other dogs or people. In both cases, the dogs are barking, growling or even lunging when on-leash as a response to their anxiety. Those aggressive behaviors are the dogs’ way of keeping someone they’re worried about away so they can feel safe.

Ivan3If Ivan weren’t on-leash, we wouldn’t be having these problems. But that’s no solution. I live on a busy street and I bring Ivan to work with me, so he has to be on leash. It’s very common for dogs to behave better towards other dogs or new people when they are off-leash compared to on-leash. We know that leashes keep dogs safe; they can’t run into the street and be hit by a car or get lost, they won’t get into a fight with the scary cat in the neighbor’s yard and Animal Control won’t give us tickets for having the dogs off-leash. But to the dog’s mind, the leash leaves them with only one option if they get into a scary situation. They can’t run away from the other dog so they resort to being aggressive to keep the other dog or person away. It’s like the old saying; the best defense is a good offense.

Owners of dogs with any type of leash reactivity can take a few simple steps to start to improve the situation. I switched Ivan from his regular, flat buckle collar to a head halter (a Gentle Leader) to give me the most control (and so he can be a demo dog and help me out with patients in the future). Another good option for better physical control is a front-attach harness, where the leash attaches to the front of the harness, such as Easy Walk or Freedom harnesses. What I don’t recommend are collars that cause pain or discomfort, such as prong or pinch collars, choke chains or shock collars. If you have a dog who is already anxious about seeing other dogs or unfamiliar people, the last thing you want to do is add pain or the scary feeling of being grabbed around the neck. This may make him more, not less, anxious about seeing dogs or people while on walks.

Another thing I’ve been doing with Ivan is being more selective about when and where I walk him. We don’t walk past the neighbor who has two aggressive dogs out in their yard on an electronic containment system. Ivan doesn’t need to learn that some dogs don’t love him. We also don’t walk past the school bus stops in the morning. He’s not yet ready to ignore the kids at the bus stop and he gets too frustrated if he can’t greet every one of them. If we see a dog coming who he doesn’t know, we move out of the way so it’s easier for Ivan to sit and wait and pay attention to me. If Ivan were afraid and anxious about seeing other dogs or people, I’d be even more cautious and find times and places to walk him were we wouldn’t even see anyone else.

Ivan2When I grab the leashes and poop bags I also make sure I’ve got some really great treats that Ivan loves. This way, I can reward him for anything he does that I like. If we don’t run into any other dogs or people, Ivan gets rewarded for walking nicely at my side and we practice sitting and waiting before crossing the street. If we see other dogs, Ivan gets rewarded for trying to stay calm as they approach. If he does a really good job, Ivan gets treats and he gets to meet a new friend. I also get rewarded by having a calmer puppy and an easier walk.

This is all helping Ivan because he’s exited, not anxious. For my patients, we often have to take a slower, more systematic approach to help them overcome their anxiety and become comfortable on walks. We may use pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals or pheromones to help jump start the behavior modification process. I often see other anxieties in my patients with leash reactivity so we address those concerns as well.

If you think your dog might have leash reactivity, contact NorthStar VETS to schedule an appointment.

Learn more about the Berhavior service at NorthStar VETS

Laurie Bergman, VMD, DACVB
Dr. Laurie Bergman received her VMD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993. She worked in small animal practice on Cape Cod and completed an internship in Wildlife Medicine and Surgery at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. She began working in behavior practice in 1998 and entered a residency in behavioral medicine at the University of California Davis in 2000. Since becoming a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists in 2003, Dr. Bergman has worked in academic practice in California and private practice in Pennsylvania.

Dr. Bergman’s interests include pet-family interactions, finding practical approaches to behavior problems and treating behavior problems in birds and exotic pets. Dr. Bergman lives in Pennsylvania with her two human children, senior dog, Riley, Australian Terrier puppy, Ivan, Leopard Gecko, Mo, and Bearded Dragon, Frederick. She competed in agility with her previous Australian Terriers and hopes that Ivan can grow up to be an agility dog, too.

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