Leash aggression in dogs is one of those phrases we hear regularly. Most dog owners use this term if their dog loses their mind at other dogs, people, cars, bikes, or whatever, when on a leash. Off-leash the dog may even be totally fine. Just on a leash, it acts out of control. And there is, of course, the close relative of this term, leash-reactivity. Both are used interchangeably, so to explain this behavior, I will stick with leash aggression as it is probably more commonly used.
But what does leash aggression mean? It’s a pretty useless phrase as it doesn’t describe what is happening. It only indicates that a dog is having an aggressive reaction for some reason.
What Does Reactivity Mean?
I heard well-known ethologist Rodger Abrantes discuss the phrase ‘dog reactivity’ in one of his lectures. He was making fun of the term. He asked what does it mean? Is a dog reacting in some way? That seems okay because it was probably dead if it didn’t do something. He has a point. Reactions, in general, are usually not the issue. The issue tends to be the context of the behavior. Leash aggression is no different.
The Two Reasons for Leash Aggression
There are generally two main reasons a dog displays behavior owners describe as leash aggression: fear or habit. I have probably seen more fear-based behavior, but I know other trainers who have seen more of the habitual variety. We will probably never know the true distribution but let’s explore these.
1. Fear-Based Leash Aggression
When confronted with unfamiliar situations, dogs have four response options. What they choose depends on their state of mind and comfort level in a given situation. The options are appeasement, avoidance, flight, or fight. Dogs’ response repertoire is limited.
If a dog is being walked on a leash towards another dog that makes it uncomfortable, it can only do a few things.
Possible Responses to Unfamiliar Situations
Appeasement requires freedom of movement, which doesn’t exist on a leash. Even if the dog can display clear body language signals of discomfort, they are often neither seen nor understood by its owner. The dog on the other side is also on a leash. So even if that dog would read your dog correctly and respond appropriately, it can’t. As a result, appeasement is unavailable.
Avoidance would be another possibility, but that would mean not getting closer. As they are being moved closer, avoidance is also unavailable regardless of what would be better for either of them.
Flight would be the next possibility, which would mean getting away from the situation altogether, but there is the leash. Hence, flight is also unavailable.
Fight is the last option, which is the response people call leash aggression. Because we have made all other options unavailable, fight—going on attack/striking first—is all that remains. So that is what your dog is left with. Once it engages in aggressive behavior, it becomes scary. The dog has finally gotten its owner to feel as uncomfortable about the situation as it is itself. Because it’s scary now, the dog is being moved away from the other dog and, in the process, learns that fight—the leash aggression—is the way to go. Getting its space respected is all the dog wanted in the first place, and it now learned the fastest way to that goal is by acting aggressively. As a result, the behavior is expressed sooner and sooner and becomes stronger and stronger because it works.
The Solution Approach
The answer to this co-called leash aggression is three-fold. First, we have to build up the dog’s confidence. Second, we need to socialize the dog properly, and third, we have to penalize the aggressive behavior. Aggressive behavior must start having a price tag for the dog instead of leading to the desired outcome. It’s psychology 101: Don’t reward bad behavior.
2. Ritualistic (Habitual) Leash Aggression
Ritualistic leash aggression is completely different from the first one. Many dogs act like idiots on leash because they think that is what we want. They have no real commitment to that behavior but engage in it for our benefit. To them, it is a ritual you engage in together when meeting other dogs. It’s a fun thing to do. Many of these dogs will act aggressively on leashes when walking to the dog park. But if they go in and let loose, they play perfectly fine with other dogs. They neither have so-called leash aggression nor any other kind of aggression. They act aggressively on a leash for fun and recreation with their owners.
Maybe you have seen the video of several dogs barking at each other through a driveway gate of a property. It looks aggressive. Then, the automatic driveway gate starts to open and retract to the left. As the gate slowly disappears, the dogs move with it to stay on the other side. Once it is completely retracted, they all stop, turn around and walk in the opposite direction. This is an example of ritualistic behavior. The dogs are barking at each other for fun. There is no intent to harm. Ritualistic leash aggression is the same.
The Solution Approach
The answer, in this case, is simpler. The dog must see the owner interact with other dogs in a friendly manner and be penalized when he acts out. That requires two people but goes rather quickly when done correctly. Let your dog see as often as possible that you like other dogs, and expect your dog to be friendly too.
I hope this clarifies that both possible causes of aggressive behavior on a leash have absolutely nothing to do with the leash itself. So, the term leash aggression is incorrect, imprecise, and meaningless. It doesn’t explain what is happening or why.
Dogs that act aggressively for other reasons will not only do so when on a leash. If the aggressive behavior is broader, it will occur in other scenarios.
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Happy Dog Training is the pet dog training business of Ralf Weber and Sarah Gill. We are certified professional dog trainers in Southern California. We are specialized in advanced obedience training, all forms or behavioral challenges and service dog training. For behavioral training, we are known for our work with aggressive and fearful dogs. Our service dogs, through Total K9 Focus, have a nationwide reputation for their reliability, longevity and performance.
Ralf Weber, MS, TWC CPDT, IACP CDT, CDTA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer Ralf Weber is lead pet dog trainer of Happy Dog Training. Ralf is a long-time dog owner of German Shepherds. During his career, Ralf has worked with over a 1500 dogs of many different breeds. Moreover, Ralf has a thorough understanding of all aspects of canine training. This includes evolutionary psychology, ethology, and, most importantly, learning science. Ralf is specialized in resolving dog behavior challenges—especially fear and aggression. Apart from this, Ralf trains dogs in basic and advanced obedience, service dog tasks, and GRC Dog Sports. Ralf is further certified in a broad range of other canine training areas. Last but not least, Ralf is the author of the behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk: Understand Your Dog Like Never Before.
Ralf loves helping people have a better relationship with their dogs. He is a certified professional dog trainer in the Training without Conflict™ methodology by Ivan Balabanov (TWC CPDT). Ralf is also a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and also holds their basic and advanced dog trainer certifications (IACP CDT, CDTA). In addition, Ralf is an AKC-approved evaluator for the AKC Puppy Star, CGC, and Advanced CGC programs and is also certified in canine first aid by the Red Cross.
Sarah Gill, Certified Professional Master Trainer
Sarah Gill, is a professional service dog trainer and handler. Sarah entered the world of professional service dog training after a car accident. As a result, she had to use a wheelchair for almost two years, trying to maneuver in a house not designed for it. No one expected Sarah would walk again. This opened her eyes and became a driving force behind pushing herself to defy the odds. When she regained some stability, Sarah attended a dog training school and learned how to train service dogs. Sarah completed her Master Trainer Certification and gained further experience by training new trainers. However, the school wasn’t accommodating to those with physical difficulties and PTSD. Hence, Sarah moved home to Dallas. In 2019, Sarah teamed up with Ralf and moved to California.
Sarah started this journey because she had a trained dog to mitigate her disabilities. But Sarah needed additional tasking for a new diagnosis. The only option she could find was getting a second dog for the new diagnosis. She knew there had to be a different way to address this. Sarah's passion is changing the ways of the service dog training industry.