Prevent On-leash Aggression for Stress-free Time With Your Dog

Is your dog acting out when they're on-leash? Find out why they do this, and how to redirect their unwanted behavior.

Published January 31, 2023
Labrador Retriever going walkies in city park with mistress

We've all been there. You take your dog out for a walk, only for them to flip out and become aggressive when another dog walks by. Your dog is barking and carrying on, you can't get them to stop, you're embarrassed, and other people are looking at you funny. This behavior is known as on-leash aggression, and it isn't fun to deal with. Understanding why your dog does this can help you figure out how to get them to stop. In some cases, you can manage this behavior with at-home training. In others, however, it may be necessary to work with an experienced professional.

Types of Leash Aggression

Leash aggression is a behavior problem that occurs when a dog becomes aggressive while on a leash. This is very common. Your dog might be fine when off-leash, but something about being hooked up to a leash sets them off. Some dogs will only show aggression when they see another dog on the opposite side of the street, while others will attack any person or animal that comes within reach. There are several types of leash aggression, including:

  • Territorial Defense: Dogs have a natural instinct to protect their territory from intruders or trespassers. This territory isn't always just their home. This can extend next door or even around the block.
  • Prey-impulse: Dogs have an instinctive desire to chase prey and catch it. When they are off-leash and see something they want to chase, they will react instinctively and try to catch it. If they are on-leash, this can cause them to become aggressive towards their owner, who is holding the leash or tugging at it in an attempt to stop them from chasing after something else.
  • Rage syndrome: This is an aggressive behavior that can occur when a dog is on a leash. They can be triggered when you pull on the leash, try to stop them from doing something, or even when they walk past another dog or person. The dog will start showing signs of agitation, such as growling and snarling, before finally biting their owner.
  • Fearful Response: This is the most common type of leash aggression and it usually occurs in puppies or adolescent dogs who have not yet reached social maturity. Dogs may be fearful because they are scared of other dogs, animals, or even loud noises. The dog will be anxious when on a leash and may react aggressively if someone attempts to get close to them.
  • Dominant-aggressive: This form of leash aggression occurs when a dog perceives Themselves as being dominant over another animal, regardless of whether that animal is human or another dog. Some dogs are naturally more dominant than others and will always try to assert themselves over others regardless of whether they are on-leash or off-leash.

If your dog is exhibiting any form of aggression when you're walking them on a leash, they need some help from you in order to learn how to behave properly around other people and animals. The first thing you need to do is find out what's causing the behavior so that you can address it properly.

Stages of Leash Aggression

There are also different stages of leash aggression within each type, including:

  • Mild or low threshold: This is the most common type of leash aggression. It's also the easiest to manage. The dog may growl, bark or lunge at other dogs while on a walk, but not always. Often, the dog will only respond if they see another dog while they're being walked, or if they have been startled by another dog barking at them from behind.
  • High-threshold: This type of leash aggression is more serious than mild or low threshold and can be dangerous if it escalates into a fight. Your dog may become aggressive toward any dog that comes into their sight range, even when they are walking calmly on their leash without pulling. In these cases, it's difficult for owners to know what will trigger their pets' aggressive behavior because they don't know what things set them off until it happens.
  • Generalized aggression: Dogs with generalized aggression become agitated toward all dogs, regardless of location. They may be aggressive toward other dogs on walks, in the park, and even off-leash at home with their family members.

Causes of Leash Aggression

Portrait Of Basenji Standing At Beach

Leash-aggressive dogs are generally fearful and insecure. They're acting out because they feel threatened by other dogs. They may have been abused or mistreated in the past, or they may simply be anxious about going out into public places where there are a lot of unfamiliar people and other dogs around.

Anxiety in public places can result from poor socialization during puppyhood. This means that your dog did not have the opportunity to learn how to interact with other dogs or people while they were young. As such, they may become defensive when approached or approached by another dog or person later in life.

Problems with these types of dogs tend to show up when they're on-leash. The leash provides a physical barrier between them and other dogs, but it also gives them something to bite onto if they feel threatened by another dog approaching from behind.

Some leash-aggressive dogs will chase after other dogs and try to bite them, while others will turn their backs on an approaching dog only to attack them when they get close enough. You might also see some light growling or snarling as well as lunging at other animals while walking your pet outdoors.

Use Caution on Walks

Before diving into how to handle leash aggression, a word of caution is necessary. Aggression in dogs is dangerous, and taking proper precautions is critical. If you are feeling overwhelmed with your dog or aren't sure whether you will get bitten, don't be afraid to call in an expert.

Locate a dog trainer or canine behaviorist to work with your dog who has the skills and experience necessary to handle aggressive situations. Professionals may be able to spot early signs of aggression that you don't know about and handle situations differently.

Eliminating the Behavior

There are several steps necessary to prevent this type of behavior. First, you need to identify the root of the problem. Ask yourself what is triggering your dog to behave this way. Without properly identifying the cause of the problem, you won't be able to address it properly. If you know the trigger and your dog is not overly aggressive toward you or others, you may be able to address it yourself.

1. Desensitization

The first step in preventing leash aggression is to teach your dog to like the leash. Start by getting your dog used to being touched all over with soft, gentle strokes and pats. Once they're comfortable with this, attach a leash to their collar and take them for a walk around the house. Be sure to praise them often, especially when they look at you or stop pulling on the leash.

Once your dog is comfortable walking around the house, you can take it one step further and walk them around the yard. Continue the process in the house and around the yard until your dog is comfortable. Then, you can try taking a walk around the block. Increase the distance of the walk as your dog progresses.

If they start lunging at another dog, turn around and head back home immediately while remaining calm. Your dog feels your energy and can tell when you're anxious or upset. If you're anxious or upset, their behavior may worsen. Don't try to confront your dog or correct their behavior at this point. Just get away from whatever triggered it so you can continue their training.

2. Socialization

Socializing your dog is an important part of their training. If you have a leash-aggressive dog, it's important for both of you that they learn how to behave when on a leash so that they do not end up getting hurt or hurting someone else during a walk.

If your dog is not properly socialized, they may try to run away from strangers or other dogs because they're afraid of them. This could lead them into dangerous situations, such as running into traffic or other hazards on the street, where they could get hit or run away.

3. Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive reinforcement is important in all aspects of training. You want to make positive connections with your dog as often as possible.

As soon as your dog sees another person or dog, as long as they are calm, begin giving them treats while praising them verbally in a happy voice. If your dog acts up, get their attention and redirect them. When they are calm, give them a lot of praise and treats. This will help establish good associations with other people and dogs. If they lunge or bark at other people or dogs, do not provide a treat and make your way back home.

  • Watch your dog. Learn to read their body language so you can tell if they're tensing up.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings. Spotting another dog early is essential.
  • If they're calm, give them a treat. As soon as your dog sees another dog, treat and praise them.
  • Don't stop the love and rewards. This method uses counter conditioning to make your dog associate the presence of other dogs with positive things.
  • Go back to normal. When the other dog is gone, don't give any more treats.

While training, it helps if your walking route has fewer dogs who are easy to see from a distance. Repeat this process every day until your dog no longer gets anxious, fearful, or aggressive upon seeing other people or dogs on the street. Once your dog has calmed down enough to remain calm while being around others, begin introducing more distractions, such as traffic sounds or other noises that may cause anxiety in your dog, while offering treats or praise.

This process combines positive reinforcement with desensitization and socialization to help your dog become well-rounded and accustomed to various environments. Be patient. This process takes time. You should begin seeing results after a few sessions, but you need to stick with it, and monitor your dog's behavior closely while on-leash.

Added Tips for Handling Leash Aggression

The following tips can help you understand and work with a dog with leash aggression:

  • Don't give in to the urge to punish your dog for biting or lunging at other people or animals while on a leash. You want them to learn that even though they feel threatened by other dogs or people when they're near you, they still have control over themselves and don't need to react aggressively toward them. This also allows them to understand they are safe with you and there's no need for concern.
  • If your dog is leash-aggressive, make sure your dog always has plenty of exercise before taking them out in public so they won't get anxious or overexcited when encountering other dogs and people while walking on a leash.
  • Only use muzzles as a temporary measure while you are working on getting your dog desensitized to other dogs, people, and environments on a walk.
  • Most owners will try to correct their dog's behavior by pulling back on their leash when they show signs of aggression towards another animal or human being. However, this type of correction only serves to make things worse because it increases the dog's anxiety level and makes them even more likely to lash out again.
  • Don't take on-leash aggression lightly. If your dog bites another dog or a person, you could be liable, so avoid taking your dog out on-leash unless you are training under controlled conditions until you're confident the problem is resolved.

Overcoming the Problem

By consistently going through the steps above, you can help your dog get over their triggers so that walks are fun for both of you. If you have any uncertainty about how your dog will react to the steps outlined above, bring in a professional canine behaviorist for your own safety and the safety of your dog and others. Aggression in dogs is unpredictable, and you don't want anyone harmed in the process of healing your dog's insecurities. Keep the outcome in mind. Whether the process is completed by you or a trainer, your dog will be on their way to a happier, healthier life.

Prevent On-leash Aggression for Stress-free Time With Your Dog