Leash Reactivity: A Training Guide for Walks

Leash Reactivity: A Training Guide for Walks; leash training, walk training, dog training, best dog leash, dog behavior tips

Training your new dog to walk nicely on a leash is one of the first major behaviors you should get down. After all, leash walking is important for bathroom breaks, for getting rid of excess energy, and for bonding with your pup. But some dogs, when leashed, develop a negative behavior set commonly called leash reactivity.

If your dog displays leash reactivity, there is no need to worry. You can still look forward to a future full of happy walks with your canine companion.

Let’s break down how you can train your dog to walk nicely on a leash even if they exhibit leash reactivity.

What Is Leash Reactivity?

Leash reactivity sounds a little scary, but it’s actually very common. In a nutshell, leash reactivity just means that your dog reacts negatively or poorly when they see or are attached to a leash. Leash reactivity can manifest in different ways for different pups, but it’s almost always manageable with the right training techniques.

Even better, leash reactivity can be prevented in dogs if you take care to teach them about leashes safely and with the right positive reinforcement.

However, if left unchecked, leash reactivity can make walking your dog very difficult, if not impossible. Since you’ll only ever walk your dog when they are attached to a sturdy leash, you’ll have to solve this problem if your dog has mild to moderate leash reactivity before you can enjoy pleasant strolls with your furry friend.

How To Tell if Your Dog is Leash Reactive

As noted above, leash reactivity manifests differently depending on your pooch.

But leash reactivity is usually determined by looking for a few common symptoms or behaviors, like:

  • Whining or barking at other dogs, people, cars, and more when they are on a leash. This behavior can seem normal if your dog is very vocal, even when off-leash. But if your dog's vocalizations increase whenever they are on a leash, it may be a sign of leash reactivity specifically.
  • Lunging or straining at stimulating objects or targets, like squirrels, other dogs, balls, or other things that your dog sees or notices while leashed. Note that light tugging doesn’t qualify; we’re talking rough pulling that makes you worry you’ll lose your grip on the leash by accident. 
  • Redirecting aggression or attention to the leash by biting it, shaking it, or otherwise acting negatively toward the leash.

Of course, some negative behavior is pretty normal when you are leash training your dog for the first time. But if these behaviors continue, your dog may be developing or may have developed leash reactivity.

Why Do Some Dogs Develop Leash Reactivity?

It depends on your dog’s breed, their personality, and your training style.

Most leash reactivity develops because of three primary causes:

  • Frustration, especially in relation to not being able to interact with the stimuli your dog senses. For example, many pet parents try to socialize their puppies and allow them to say hi to other dogs, other people, and almost anything that catches their interest.

In these earliest days, your puppy doesn’t think of their leash as anything too bad. But as your dog gets older, you may stop the greetings with other dogs or people, and your puppy could be left frustrated as a result. This is doubly true if your puppy is generally friendly and sociable.

  • Fear and/or insecurity, which could occur if your dog was poorly socialized before you adopted them or if they had even a single scary experience with another canine. Because the leash keeps your dog near you, if a dog lunges at your pup, they might associate the leash with being trapped or unable to escape from a scary situation. If your dog is normally shy or nervous around other canines or people, they may develop leash reactivity because of this reason.
  • Aggression or a desire to instigate conflict. Some overly confident dogs may wish to dominate other dogs, so they might lunge while on their leash or bite the leash in order to get away. If your dog showcases the signs of leash reactivity for this reason, you may need the assistance of a qualified canine instructor.

No matter the core reason your dog has developed leash reactivity, remember that you’ll be able to train your dog to behave more politely on the leash with some smart training techniques.

Training Your Dog for Walks With Leash Reactivity

If your dog has leash reactivity, training them to go on walks is pretty similar to training any new puppy unfamiliar with leashes and good walking manners. However, you'll do a few things differently to calm your dog down and prevent them from reacting to exciting stimuli.

Start With a Command Word

For starters, you’ll need to begin your training strategy with a major keyword or command word. This word should be something you don’t use for other tasks or praise, like “good boy,” “good girl,” “yes,” and so on. Pick a new word that will be specific praise or affirmation for good behavior while leashed.

Alternatively, you can use a clicker tool and engage in clicker training. Clicker training is a very effective behavioral strategy for helping your dog determine what behaviors are correct and what behaviors are negative. Since a click doesn’t sound like anything else, it won’t be confused with other words or sounds.

When using a clicker or a command word, be sure to provide your dog with a treat immediately after using the cue. Remember, dogs don’t know what exactly the right behavior is unless you show them.

For example, if your dog is straining on their leash and you use a command word to get them to sit down, reward them immediately after their butt hits the ground. This tells the dog that the correct action is to fully sit down—not to stop straining on the leash, not to look at you or any other intermediate step.

Use High-Value Treats

Speaking of treats, you should bring high-value or particularly tasty treats with you in a treat pouch as you practice with your dog while walking on a leash. High-value treats provide more of a positive incentive for your dog to behave, and they also help to distinguish walking time from other training sessions you might do every day.

Some of the best high-value treats include especially tasty treats that aren’t full of fillers like unnecessary grains. The fewer ingredients, the better. This ensures that your dog won’t fill up on treats and refuse their dinner or eat too much and face negative health consequences. 

Start Practicing Indoors

After you’ve gathered your treats and have settled on a command word or a clicker tool, you can start practicing walking indoors with your leash reactive dog. To do this, present the leash to your dog and hold out a treat. Your dog will eat the treat and start to associate the leash with being rewarded.

Don’t leash them just yet. Do this a few times until your dog voluntarily approaches you and allows you to leash them calmly, either with a harness or a collar. A strong but easy to adjust leash, like Wild One’s Leash, is recommended. This way, you can fiddle with the leash until it’s comfy but secure for your dog.

Once your dog is fully leashed, reward them with another treat.

This early stage will definitely require you to burn through a lot of treats in rapid succession. Don’t worry about it; you won’t have to use treats each time you leash your dog in the future. This is just to get them used to the idea and relax any anxieties or concerns they may have.

Once your dog is leashed, lead them around your home or apartment. Use your command word to get them to stop or sit by your side when you stop walking. Reward them with a treat immediately after using the clicker or command word. Do this for a few days.

Walk Outdoors

Depending on how quickly your dog progresses, you can move them outdoors and start practicing walking with all of those new stimuli. Here, it’s very important that you practice the above method of “keyword + treat” frequently.

When your dog sees a squirrel or some other small critter and tries to bolt after them, say the keyword and reward them if they return to your side and sit down. If your dog continues to lunge after the squirrel, don’t yank them back.

Just root yourself to the ground and don’t move. Eventually, your dog will run out of energy or lose interest. Do not reward them after this, even if they sit down after the fact.

Only reward your dog with a treat if they listen to your original command. 

Provide Distraction When They Notice a Stimulus

If your dog has a lot of trouble paying attention to you or redirecting their thoughts when they see a new stimulus, like another dog walking by them or a ball being thrown in the air, place the treat right in front of their nose and bring it up to your eyes.

Dogs can make eye contact with humans quite well. By doing this, you forcefully redirect your dog’s attention to your eyes without having to yank their leash or grip their face. Reward them with a treat if they sit politely. Remember to say your command word or to use your clicker tool to reinforce the process.

When walking your dog outside, do this every time your dog notices an unusual or interesting stimulus. The more variety, the better, as it teaches your dog that novel stimuli are not excuses to ignore you or to misbehave.

This part of the process could take some time, including up to several weeks, depending on how leash reactive your pup is. But rest assured, it will eventually work!

Progress in Small Steps

The key thing to remember is that progress comes in small steps, especially if your dog is very reactive or aggressive on the leash. If your dog pulls and tugs on the leash and misbehaves, or they develop an attitude and decide to stop listening to you altogether, stay calm and simply end the walk by taking your dog home.

If your dog is light enough, you can pick them up and bring them home. If they’re too large to do this, simply stay put and wait until they run out of energy, then walk home together. Don’t reward them for bad behavior, but reward them if they start acting well again. Dogs don’t understand the concept of punishment for past behavior the way we do. 

Never Yank or Tug the Leash Back

Perhaps most importantly, you should never yank or tug your dog’s leash back violently or roughly, even if they are pulling hard in response. The only exception to this is when your dog is about to run into the street, and you have to pull them to safety.

Otherwise, yanking your dog back doesn’t do anything to change their behavior or to tell them what they should be doing instead. All it does is make them think of the leash as more restrictive than it already is.

However, you should simultaneously give your dog enough slack that they feel they can move around your person and smell things on the ground. If you keep your dog so close to you that they aren’t able to investigate what’s right in front of their paws, they will see the leash as a restriction to their freedom, no matter how many treats you give them. 

Monitor Your Behavior, Too

Lastly, be sure to consider how you behave while on a walk outdoors as well. Dogs are very perceptive when it comes to our behavior and our moods. If we seem grumpy, irritated, or scared of the outdoors, our dogs will copy these behaviors and integrate them into their own reactions.

In contrast, if you act calm, relaxed, and like you’re having a good time, your dog will be more likely to behave properly. If you see another dog across the street, don’t look at the dog or act interested. Act like it’s a nonchalant, commonplace occurrence. Your dog will stop thinking of other dogs or similar stimuli as overly interesting.

Can You Prevent Leash Reactivity?

While the above training techniques could help you and your dog if they have leash reactivity, it’s always a better idea to prevent leash reactivity from popping up in the first place.

If you want to nip these negative behaviors in the bud, you may be able to prevent leash reactivity by:

  • Training your dog to sit politely next to you when meeting new dogs or people on the leash. You can use many of the same treat-focused tips above to inspire and reinforce this behavior. In this way, your dog will be excited to interact with new people or pups when on a walk but won’t try to lunge automatically.
  • Using a sturdy and traditional leash rather than a retractable leash. A retractable leash carries several physical dangers and may teach your dog bad walking habits.
  • Not using corrective collars. Using negative stimuli from a shock collar or similar tool will only make your dog nervous and worried when they see something exciting.
  • Introducing your dog to the leash with a treat when they are very young. This way, they’ll associate the leash with something fun and tasty rather than dread being leashed, even if they want to go outside for a walk or have a bathroom break.

Every dog, of course, is different, and you’ll need to adjust your training strategies based on your new puppy’s personality and breed.

Calm and in Control

All in all, leash reactivity is common; it’s definitely something you and your pup can overcome with some focused training and a little patience. It’s well worth the effort to curb leash reactivity early in your puppy’s life when their behavior is most fixable. If you follow the advice above, you’ll have a polite, fun pup to take with you on walks, even when meeting other dogs and their owners.

Remember, the best walking training session begins with a great leash and/or harness. Wild One offers a sturdy and easy-to-adjust leash, plus also a comfortable and adjustable harness.

You'll also find a wide range of other training products and dog parent solutions; check them out at our online store today!


Managing a leash-reactive dog | Animal Humane Society
These Dog Training Tips Can Help Your Pup Overcome Leash Reactivity | PetMD
Your Dog Watches You and Interprets Your Behavior | Psychology Today