Decoding dog language on the lead
Updated: Apr 2
A dog that’s reactive on the lead can be exhausting and stressful so how do we work out what’s causing it and how to solve the problem?
If you have a dog that snarls, barks and lunges on the lead when they encounter another dog or an unfamiliar person, you may already know the term ‘lead reactivity’.
To a casual observer, all lead reactive dogs can look pretty much the same: aggressive. But there are two main motivators for the behaviour and it’s important to know which one we’re dealing with so we can put in place the right training to start reducing and eliminating it.
Fear: the dog wants to make the person, other dog or even object go away and barking and snarling is the way they do it. If this doesn’t succeed, their instinctive choices are flight or fight. Since they’re on the lead, flight isn’t an option open to them so their 'aggressive' display increases. To us, the threat may seem no threat at all, but size and apparent demeanour don’t matter.
Frustration: the dog wants to go to a person or another dog to investigate and say ‘hello’, but the lead stops them doing that. They get frustrated and angry (think about how some humans behave when they’re stuck in a traffic jam!) This leads to barking and snarling and it can be behind a fence, in the car or on the lead.
How do we tell the difference?
Fear: A dog that is fearful will increase the barking the closer they come to the object of their fear and will become calmer when they are allowed to put distance between them. Over time, you may find that their displays of agitation whenever they see feared dogs or strangers are escalating because, as they see it, the strategy has worked for them. Whenever they've snarled and barked the scary thing has eventually gone away. Fearful dogs need a gentle, very gradual process of desensitisation and counter conditioning, allowing them to associate what scares them with something very positive – usually tasty treats – but starting at a distance where they don’t feel under threat.
Frustration: For a dog that is frustrated, the objective is to meet and check out the other dog or person. If they’re turned away when they lunge, bark or snarl, then allowed to start approaching again, then turned away again if they bark, over successive ‘turn aways’, they will start to cool it down. They learn that only calm approaches will allow them to achieve their objective.
For both fear and frustration, a good tool to use is an alternative obedience behaviour such as sit-stay, down-stay or ‘look at me’ loose lead walk.
For fearful dogs, this gives you a measure of how comfortable your dog is (very anxious dogs won’t give you the behaviour or take food calmly so you need to increase distance from the scary thing). You also get extra control and you build a ‘superstitious’ counter conditioning effect as an added bonus (“I see scary thing > I get asked to do my behaviour > I get a treat > scary thing means good stuff”).
For frustrated dogs, obedience behaviours such as sit or down stay and ‘look at me’ loose lead walks help impulse control and lead to calmer approaches.
In both cases, you need to train the obedience behaviour very solidly in quiet environments without distractions before you bring them into play in trickier situations.
The techniques for fearful or frustrated dogs both call for careful handling and good timing. You want to take this slowly so you stay in control. It’s not special pleading to say it makes sense to find an experienced, positive reinforcement trainer to help you and demonstrate the technique (in person or by a remote video consultation).
Of course, dogs, like humans, can be complex. Sometimes, it’s not absolutely clear cut – dogs can be conflicted, a combination of uncertainty/anxiety and excitement/frustration. They want to meet an unfamiliar person or another dog, but are nervous at the same time. This is most obvious in close proximity and over time. Short encounters are fine, but prolonged ones are not. You might, for example, be enthusiastically dragged over to see another dog, but after a few seconds get a growl and a snark. In these cases, working on the anxiety and building confidence makes sense. Then you can progress carefully to managed approaches and brief encounters.
The most important thing to hold in your head and heart if you have a reactive dog is, whatever you may be told, it is never a good strategy to punish the display behaviour with muzzle taps, slaps or lead jerks. This gives a fearful dog another reason to be fearful and risks instilling fear in a frustrated dog because they now associate trying to meet and greet other dogs or people with an unpleasant outcome.
A final thought and plea for anyone with a super-chilled, sociable dog (thanks for sticking with us and reading this far): If you encounter someone with a reactive dog, cut them some slack and give them plenty of space. Give them a chance to manage encounters safely and at a pace and distance they need. They really will thank you for it and who knows? With time and patience their dog and yours might one day become new BFFs.