What Is Leash Reactivity?

by Valerie Masi

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We’ve all seen or owned that dog that walks by another dog and goes crazy—pulling, lunging and barking, trying to get to the passing dog. There are different reasons for this behavior, which we call leash reactivity.

One of the most common reasons for leash reactivity is insecurity. When an insecure dog passes by another dog, it can feel vulnerable and trapped, because the leash doesn’t allow it to move away from the other dog. So the dog goes into an offensive behavior—or, as my father used to describe it, “act crazier than the one coming at you, and you’ll scare them away.” Which can work: you’ll witness a little dog scaring off a big dog, and you can actually see the disbelief on the big dog’s face as the little dog is coming at it. They don’t know what else to do but run. Unfortunately for the little guys, though, this approach can also backfire.

Don’t worry if your dog displays leash reactivity …

Another type of leash reactivity is caused by movement, usually from bicycles, skateboards, or runners. Some dogs are so sensitive that they’ll react to cars driving by. This behavior is usually due to a very high drive, such as in herding breeds (including mixes). The car’s movement triggers the drive, which goes straight from 0 to 100, skipping through all the numbers in between!

… these behaviors are all fixable, it just takes consistency and patience.

Excitement reactivity occurs when a dog sees a person or another dog and shows that same pulling, lunging, and barking behavior, but with excited energy instead of fear. To most people, it looks exactly like the fear behavior, which is why some owners worry that their dog is being aggressive. The problem with this type of reactivity is that it is considered extremely rude behavior in the dog world. It would be the dog equivalent of human “face talkers.” The dog doesn’t respect another dog’s personal space, and that sparks a negative response from that other dog. This behavior is often inadvertently encouraged by the owner. The owner—who thinks their dog excitedly running up to other dogs is cute—is surprised when the other dog snaps at their dog.

Since all leash reactivity can look similar, it’s important that owners work with a professional with a proven track record, who can establish the reason for the behavior. Reactivity starts in the brain, and the brain requires very specific “retraining” to correct specific behaviors.

But don’t worry if your dog displays leash reactivity … these behaviors are all fixable, it just takes consistency and patience.

Valerie Masi, owner of Best Paw Forward, can be reached at (760) 885-9450 or visit bestpawforwarddogtraining.com.

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