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My Big Fat Leash Reactivity Guide

Table of Contents

Introduction and My Perspective

Why Is It Happening? (Motivation of Leash Reactivity) 

Beginning Training: Management and Matching Law

Health and Enrichment

Formal Skills: Why and How

The Training Plan

Stage 1: Foundations

Stage 2: Set Ups

Habituation and Pushing Challenge 

Escalation Ladder 

In Between Set Ups and Practicing “in Real Life”

Trigger Stacking 

Increasing Challenge Incrementally 

When Things are Going Right

Stage 3: Real Life (For Real) 

Troubleshooting and Extra Credit

In Conclusion

Introduction and My Perspective

I’m going to start out by explaining my perspective as the author. I have spent my entire dog training career primarily working with dogs who live in inner-city Chicago, IL, with a two-year stint in a similar inner-city population in Portland, OR. Leash reactivity is a huge part of my client population by default, and these dogs are often in neighborhoods densely populated with other dogs. Field trips to areas with fewer dogs are not always possible. Backyards are often small and can also be exposure sites to other dogs. A fair number of my clients are large dogs with personalities predisposed to excitement, frustration, defensive behavior, and other factors that contribute to pulling and barking on leash. The point being… These are tough cases in tough places! And that’s the lens I am writing from.

"Leash reactivity" refers to a range of behaviors that mainly occur when your dog is on a leash. These behaviors might include freezing, pulling, whining, growling, lunging, barking, or snapping. In this guide, we'll specifically discuss reactivity towards other dogs.

There are many ways to discuss leash reactivity, but in my experience, with moderate to severe cases, the problem behavior is often so targeted and intense that starting from a place of simplicity works just fine for getting the ball rolling - and that's how I'm going to approach discussing leash reactivity here. The "Troubleshooting and Extra Credit" section at the end will include exercises that can significantly impact the process of “fixing” the problem, potentially making or breaking progress for certain dogs. However, the initial recommendations and discussion will be relevant for all cases.

Why Is It Happening? 

Many things can be going on for a leash reactive dog: 

All of these feelings or intentions are augmented by the restraint of the leash. And don’t forget that a dog can be thinking and feeling multiple things at the same time, just like you or I can. 

In much of dog training, I am interested in assessing a behavioral sequence to analyze why the dog behaves a certain way, in order to create the best plan for changing that behavior. Leash reactivity cases tend to be quite different in this regard, for a few reasons.

Generally, the behavior is cranked up so high that the primary thing that is going on is that the dog is simply freaking out. In other words, regardless of what the dog was initially thinking when they first started to display leash reactive behavior, there’s a good chance that they don’t know what their initial intention even was anymore. The leash reactivity is detached from real world happenings.

When I say that leash reactive behavior is detached from real world happenings, I mean that most of my client dogs will start our lesson series screaming continuously at a dog who is standing 100 feet away and calmly looking in the other direction. Across many different personality types, you can watch these dogs bark and bark and see that there is not a single damn thought behind those eyes. If they ever thought they were accomplishing something, we have generally passed that point by the time the dog comes in for training. 

Why does this happen, you ask? I think of this situation in 2 ways: 

  1. The leash reactive behavior is “intrinsically rewarding,” meaning that it taps into dogs’ little doggy brain instincts and needs no reinforcement from the environment to get stronger and stronger. For some dogs, it is inherently motivating to freak out - often because we bred them to bark at stuff for various reasons. 

  2. The sight of another dog has taken on a strong association with stress and excitement. When the training dog sees another dog, the reactivity is simply an expression of emotion. 

(Woof, that sounds serious, right?)

For this reason, when people come to me and have no idea why their dog is acting this way, I am generally not too concerned about figuring it out, especially in the beginning. The emotion is cranked up to level 100, and so the primary goal of training initially is to strip away that stress and excitement. 

Beginning Training: Management and Matching Law

Because of the tricky nature of this behavior, as described above, using "management" becomes an extremely crucial part of most leash reactivity training. "Management" is a term in dog training that refers to setting up your dog's environment to prevent problem behavior before it starts. At the beginning of a training program, our goal is to eliminate all unwanted exposure to the trigger. This might involve walking the dog only during certain times of the day, allowing them to relieve themselves only in a yard or other "safe zone," and/or exercising them in areas without other dogs. I refer to this as "keeping the dog out of trouble." However, this is only a temporary measure that the training plan should guide you out of within weeks to a few months. If you find yourself stuck in a state of strict management, it's essential to seek professional help to provide guidance, as we do not want the dog to live in a bubble long-term.

But I want to emphasize that this initial strict management is very important, because uncontrolled episodes of leash reactivity are very reinforcing to the dog and thus can undo your hard work.  I have worked with many clients who are lax with their management in the beginning stages of training, and that has been a death sentence for any chance of long term behavior change. 

Some people may find this concept easier to understand with a metaphor: Pretend your dog’s behavior is dictated by 2 piggy banks in their brain. There is a piggy bank for leash reactivity and a piggy bank for calm behavior. Every time we do a good rep of training, we make a deposit in the calm behavior bank. Episodes of leash reactivity make a deposit in the reactive piggy bank. 

Herrnstein's Matching Law says, "When there are multiple behaviors available to the animal, they will distribute their efforts in direct proportion to reinforcement history."

The problem is that 1 rep of leash reactivity deposits something like $100, and 1 rep of good training deposits maybe $5 at best. 

My illustrator friend Taylor is going to be mad I didn't wait for her to redraw this terrible graphic for me.

So, minimizing the chance for that $100 deposit is important. 

Over time and with good management and training, the leash reactivity bank will lose money to “interest” until it is empty or mostly gone, and we are left with a full and strong “good behavior” bank that drives calm behavior. 

*** If you find yourself in the midst of training for leash reactivity and this section has made you anxious about accidental setbacks undoing your progress, please don't worry. This is a metaphor meant to underscore a point for those who may not fully appreciate the importance of diligence. If you're already committed to the training process, know that this is an oversimplification, and it's okay to have moments where things don't go as planned. Remember, if you're doing your best, it doesn't help anyone to beat yourself up over the occasional 'whoopsie' moments. You've got this!

Health and Enrichment 

Before diving into any behavior modification plan, ensuring your dog has a clean bill of health is crucial. A dog who is in pain, has chronic GI issues, or is otherwise medically unwell is naturally more prone to displaying negative behavior when confronted with stress.

Additionally, it's important to consider mental and physical enrichment. While lack of exercise isn't usually the sole cause of reactivity, a dog with excess energy is more likely to exhibit reactive behavior. Experiment with various enrichment activities such as training games, playing with toys, nosework, cardio, or strength training exercises. Understanding your dog's breed(s) can help you determine which activities will provide the most satisfying outlets for them.

The Training Plan

My overall leash reactivity training plan has 3 phases:

  1. Foundations: Train formal skills and proof off of non-trigger distractions (meanwhile, accidental exposure to trigger is as close to 0 as possible)

  2. Set ups: Structured exposure to trigger in training set-ups only 

  3. Real life: Training set-ups blend into real life practice and the training is taken into organic scenarios (which is a spectrum in itself, of course) 

Formal Skills: Why and How

“Formal skills” is also known as obedience or trained behaviors - as in sit-stay, come, heel, etc. In challenging environments, you need a training plan that focuses on formal skills, because they help you give your dog guidance and thus more reliably influence their behavior. 

Sounds kind of obvious, right? Well, if I may get on a high horse, I frequently come across dogs who have dropped out of training with other trainers for leash reactivity using programs that primarily focus on a classical conditioning approach, meaning they simply pair the sight of other dogs with food.* This will fix the problem in very easy cases that could have done everything themselves at home with Youtube videos alone. Other than for easy dogs, frankly, this training plan sucks. It treats dogs like mice in a science lab instead of animals in a dynamic real world. It does not hold up, and it generally wastes a lot of time. 

*I like “look at that” in combination with other techniques. The problem is when people pay hundreds of dollars and leave with only LAT. 

On the other side of the spectrum, it's important to emphasize that skills taught with compulsion as the primary motivator will not effectively address leash reactivity either. I often encounter dogs that have been taught, for example, to heel primarily with an e-collar, and then essentially punished with a high-level stimulation for attempting to react to other dogs. However, these dogs were never given the skills to help them regulate their emotions. As a result, they may sulk past some dogs until they can't handle it anymore, leading to explosive reactions and potentially even more difficulty calming down than before the training program.

When I come across either of these archetypes, I mostly restart their training with the below techniques. Sometimes their prior experience allows them to graduate some steps faster than average. Sometimes we are starting from scratch. 

Training Plan Stage 1: Foundation Skills 

I use 4 categories of core skills in most of my leash reactivity programs. Bear in mind that I essentially have a full time job helping people perfect these techniques. 

We want to have all of these skills at least maybe 80% perfect in isolation and with medium level non-trigger distractions before bringing the trigger back into the picture. For most of my lessons, this means 1-5 lessons (spaced 3-10 days apart) before we start spending a lot of time working around a dog again.


All of these skills should be reinforced with the reward that is most productive and meaningful for the dog based on the circumstance - which is a topic for an entire article in itself, to be written by me soon! For most dogs, I will try to use high value food rewards. I will also, depending on the situation, use toy play, praise, movement, touch that the dog enjoys, space from the trigger, and opportunity to have free time to sniff and explore, etc. I will also use negative reinforcement, most typically with a leash, which is another full subject for a coming-soon article (People write books about what I have tried to summarize in this paragraph, to be clear.)


*** This video has examples of all 4 categories. ***

Key points: 

  1. This skill asks the dog to not just turn away but move away from the distraction. I’ve heard it described before as a “super leave it” for this reason.

  2. I very much like the dog to be able to perform the skills independently and with a lot of engagement, but 95% of the time I also incorporate using the leash, as a swift back up prompt and/or as an independent cue. This practice with the leash also creates muscle memory for the handler and dog that very much helps in emergency situations where the dog needs to be forcibly moved away from a trigger. I think that this is a crucial element missing from many (particularly R+ skewing) reactivity training plans in areas where accidental situations will happen on a semi-regular basis. 


“This way” - Outside 180 turn (favorite) 

“This way” - Leash bump variation (favorite) 

“Body block” - Inside 180 turn (favorite besides unmuzzled bite risks) 

Call away, handler moves backwards


Key points:

  1. This skill asks the dog to mentally disengage from the trigger without having to move their entire body to do so. That is an important concept. 

  2. I like to practice this skill with a formal cue like “watch me” but also without prompting. When we practice without prompting, the dog learns to offer that attention and thus self-interrupt the reactive mindset. 

  3. Having a specific routine that the dog recognizes as a pattern is important as you work in real life and need to pull to the side - like if you’re caught in between two triggers. 


Sit stay with eye contact (favorite) 

Engage/disengage (eye contact away from distraction) not position dependant 

Look away from distraction -> find it 

Perch on object -> look away from distraction 


Key points: 

  1. I don’t have anything deep to say about this one besides that being able to walk at the handler’s side as one passes by triggers is superior in practicality. 


Heel/walk by my side with attention and check ins (favorite) 

I often actually train a heel by default of practicing so many turns back to back in leash reactivity sessions. This started as a nice accidental bonus but became integrated into my training plan, since the reward placement of the 180 turns are an important way of teaching the dog to leave distraction while technically being a heel drill at its core. 

Follow a hand target

Hand touch in motion past distraction 

Pattern game past dog 


Key points:

  1. All of the above exercises can end up being very fast-paced and exciting. This exercise intentionally drills calm. 

  2. These techniques tend to utilize habituation heavily. 

  3. I used to not emphasize this because it's not immediately practical for scenarios on the street, but I am increasingly adding it sooner rather than later into training plans to further calm the dog and address their emotions more deeply. I typically incorporate settling drills for the last 5-10 minutes of a training session - with a distraction dog present, even in the distance, as soon as the training dog can handle it. 


Boring down stay, sometimes affectionately named “long ass down” by sport competitors (favorite)

Place or go to your bed (favorite) 

Conditioned settle - short leash (favorite) 

This exercise probably has the most variations on just itself alone. 

Tends to be good for dogs with demanding behavior 

Conditioned settle - handler on the ground giving soothing touch (favorite) 

Training Plan Stage 2: Exposure to Dogs

For the training dog’s first exposure to other dogs, I typically like to use a single calm dog as a helper to act as the mildest form of the “trigger” possible. If you do not have a helper dog, using distance in the real world is going to be even more so your best friend. (See “practicing in real life” section.) I typically start with my blue heeler Mars as my helper dog - unless I think that the training dog could hurt her in a freak accident where it got loose, in which case I will use my shepherd Cupid. The helper dog should start in a sit position facing away from the training dog. 

(Sometimes the training dog actually won’t notice the helper when you do this, in which case I will make a noise or say something to get their attention or move her around so that she is noticed and then go back to having her sit.)

Different dogs do better either working indoors or outdoors. 

I will sometimes use a visual barrier so that the training dog goes out of sight, or sometimes I take the helper dog out of sight for breaks in between reps. Sometimes we use a huge amount of distance instead, staying in sight but going very far to give the dog a break. Oftentimes for the ladder situation I will have the training dog’s handler on the phone, hopefully held by someone else with them. 

Brief exposure is often the best method in the beginning. 

All of this differs significantly from how dogs normally encounter other dogs in the real world, and that's intentional. Many dogs cannot succeed without creating somewhat artificial training scenarios. Once we begin to see some successful behavior, I gradually introduce more realistic elements by moving the helper dog around more, decreasing distance, allowing the dogs to face and move toward each other, and practicing in various locations.

I also enjoy training in “set ups” because it allows the dog and handler to feel confident in their maneuvers when the stakes are low. After all, we are training the human as much as we are training the dog. 

As soon as the team is ready, we move to chasing down distraction dogs at a park or in their neighborhood. 

Sometimes the Dog Still Reacts, A Lot

Sometimes I do everything I can to make the situation “easy,” and the dog is still very reactive. What do I do? It depends… 

  • Sometimes, I go back and work on more foundation skills and impulse control in sessions without a dog distraction. 

  • Sometimes, and only if it allows the dog to “reset,” listen to the handler, and make good progress, I will apply a physical interruptor like poking the dog’s upper thigh with my finger, popping the leash, etc. 

  • Sometimes, I will let the dog come forward and bark at Mars (from a great distance), force them to turn around for a break, and repeat over and over again until the dog realizes that this scenario is different, and they start to realize they aren’t accomplishing anything. Tiring the dog out beforehand and even working in heat can help with this. 

  • There is a “troubleshooting” section at the bottom of this article that includes general life considerations that may be affecting the dog in these sessions as well. 

Which skills do we use? 

You want to start with whatever skill is easiest for the dog to perform. For most of my lessons, the easiest skill to start with is their favorite variation(s) of “Skill 1: Moving Away,” but there are certainly some exceptions that do better with stationary exercises (Skill 2) or moving parallel (Skill 3). You want to practice all of the categories of skills because you will need all of them in real life, but you want to match the challenge of the skill to how well your dog is coping with the distraction. And if your dog is equally perfect at all of their skills, you don’t have to worry about that - just switch up practicing everything. 

After the beginning stages of exposure, a favorite combo of mine is to use Skill 1: Moving Away to create some distance - maybe a few feet further from the point that the dog got startled by seeing another dog. Then, once we’re in a safe spot, we post up to practice Skill 2. Imagine seeing a trigger dog on a sidewalk, turning your dog away, and then moving to have your training dog watch from a safe distance in the grass.

Habituation and Pushing Challenge 

Habituation or desensitization is an element of these training set ups when the training dog begins to say, “Okay, that’s Mars, and nothing ever happens with her.” I like when this happens, because when I introduce a new dog, Mars is now a reference point for my training client. “Ok, this is a new dog, but we’re doing all of the stuff we did around Mars. Maybe this new dog is like Mars, too.” 

However, it's essential to avoid practicing solely with the same helper dogs too frequently, as this can hinder the training dog's ability to generalize the concept beyond those particular canine companions.

Escalation Ladder 

For severe cases of leash reactivity, it is imperative to interrupt (with a cue/command/signal/prompt) after just a second or two of looking at the other dog. This is because severe leash reactivity means that the dog will “escalate up the ladder” very quickly, possibly skipping rungs to the top of the ladder in a split second. 

Moderate-to-mild cases of leash reactivity as well as dogs with successful behavior modification programs will climb up the ladder more slowly and climb back down more quickly. 

Clients typically report after our lessons that they feel more confident at identifying early warning signs and stopping a problem before it starts because of our training. 

In Between Set Ups and Practicing “in Real Life”

Fellow trainer and friend Sarah Sharpino-Ward nicely spells out ideal ways to take training from set ups into the real world in her article “Navigating the City with a Sensitive Dog.”

She says, “The types of space I regularly use for training in the city fall into three main categories:

  • Limited Vision Areas

  • Large Open Areas

  • Protected High Ground

“Limited Vision Areas are enclosed spaces like alleyways, parking garages, underpasses, or similar. Ideally, no triggers are present in the enclosed space itself and the space has at least two safe entry/exit points, to allow avoidance of any triggers that do come in, so that the dog is never trapped. The space should open up onto a busier area in at least one place to allow for viewing triggers at a set distance. Alleyways are ideal for this, as they naturally have two exits and visually block most of the environment. Choosing an alleyway that opens onto a busy street on one side with quiet areas to escape to will allow the handler/dog team to view triggers from relative safety…

 “Large Open Areas are harder to find in the city, but can offer significant advantages in terms of space and trigger exposure. Large sports fields, schoolyards and on-leash parks can give excellent visibility to triggers at a distance, without compromising the ability for the handler/dog team to move around the space. Large Open Areas pose more risk than other training areas in the city, especially for dog-reactive dogs as many people in the city shirk leash laws and allow off-leash dogs to approach reactive dogs at will. When using an open space for training, it is wise to carefully scope out the space ahead of time without your dog present to rehearse exit-strategies if an off leash dog (or other trigger) were to approach. In addition, I encourage muzzle training for working in these environments. Even if the working dog does not pose a bite risk, the muzzle is a potent visual signal to ward away unwanted attention. 

“Protected High Ground spaces are raised areas which allow for extremely good visual range into the environment, while preventing any triggers from easily approaching. Condo balconies, bridges, look-outs and other protected raised areas can be extremely useful for city training. The same rules apply here as to limited vision areas – make sure there are at least two ways to leave to ensure you are not trapped in a tight space with an oncoming trigger.”

My guide here is already long enough, so I would recommend checking out Sarah’s full article for tips on how to navigate getting to these spaces and using them best for training. Additionally, here are my personal top tips for training in the real world: 

  • Distance: In set ups, I control the intensity of the trigger by moving them around in different ways, but in real life we do not have that luxury. It cannot be repeated enough that distance is the most valuable tool for controlling the challenge level of training. Only get closer to the other dog if your dog is staying at the bottom of the ladder of escalation. 

  • Orientation and movement: Other dogs walking away are typically less challenging of a distraction. Dogs moving parallel to you are medium-level challenging. Dogs making eye contact with your dog and/or moving straight at you are the most challenging. 

  • Intensity: A dog who is also excited and vocalizing is always more challenging than a calm dog. You might also know that your dog is more triggered by certain “types” of dogs. Take this into account when you decide how to use distance and orientation in your training. 

  • Don’t be afraid to ask people to give you and your dog space, and be firm with people who try to insist that letting their dog go right up to yours is okay. Your dog is your own; you don’t owe anyone interaction with your dog.

Trigger Stacking 

A dog who has just had a lunging/barking reaction is more likely to climb up the ladder of escalation faster than they normally would. Similarly, a dog who is stressed by other triggers - such as a vet visit earlier in the day, traffic noises, or being worried about being in a new place -  is more likely to climb up the ladder of escalation faster than they normally would. In other words, accumulations of stress makes reactivity more likely. This is called “trigger stacking.” It’s important to acknowledge the total picture of what stresses your dog out so that you can adjust challenge levels accordingly. 

Increasing Challenge Incrementally 

Increasing the level of challenge at the right pace is what sets good dog training apart from excellent dog training. And we all mess it up sometimes. In my opinion, this is what makes dog training an art and not a science, depending on the day, because the right path is sometimes best picked by feel. 

That being said, the biggest thing that generally people do wrong while training is rush things. The dog is doing well, so they throw them into a crazy hard situation and expect them to continue to do well. Don’t do that! Challenge needs to be built incrementally, day by day and rep by rep. 

Increased challenge for leash reactivity cases looks like:

  • Closer proximity 

  • More direct orientation (dogs walking towards each other, looking at each other) 

  • Longer time spent around 1 trigger or practicing around back to back triggers 

  • More exciting dogs 

  • More “peekaboo” distractions and other “real life” feeling drills 

Can the Top of the Ladder Ever Be Productive? 

I recommend earlier to try to keep the training dog at the bottom of the ladder as you build challenge, but the truth is that I do enjoy that in my training sessions, we can have moments with lots of “perfect” repetitions while also having momentary episodes of struggle in between. This way the dog learns that they can de-escalate in the presence of the trigger. The challenging part here is standardizing that formula for the sake of a guide. Little spikes up the ladder actually are okay and possibly are even very productive for the learning experience, but what’s important is that the dog is able to recover. For this reason, I describe being at the bottom of the ladder as the goal, since that’s how the majority of the training time should look in my opinion. 

And beyond the training of the dog, in a private lesson context I do find it incredibly valuable to have at least one accidental episode of reactivity - which often happens inevitably without the need to plan it since we are trying to push the challenge level as aggressively as possible to make the fastest behavior change possible. I like for this to happen because I like to be able to coach the owner the best way to handle their dogs in those emergency moments. But that is kind of its own separate thing. 

When Things are Going Right

In what I consider to be an interim stage you may also see your dog start to avoid looking at other dogs and/or move away from other dogs. Dogs will also sniff to self-calm, which I consider to be a good sign. 

When things are going right, dogs will not only enthusiastically perform their skills when asked but also start to offer the handler attention or “check-in” more often. In other words, they are self-interrupting their own reactivity ladder, which is exactly what we want. 

Through this training, you see the dog’s actual emotional response to the sight of other dogs change. They get off the ladder. 

Stage 3: Real Life (For Real) 

As our “set up style training” begins to look and feel completely organic, training sessions and genuine real life blend together. 

Depending on the dog and the environment, it might still be appropriate to continue to make some amount of space when seeing all or certain types of dogs, and it may be appropriate to still reward good choices. For example, if I am walking a dog who really does not like other dogs lunging toward them - a boundary that I think is reasonable - it makes sense for me to keep that dog a leash length away from other dogs passing by us, because my dog and I both know that sometimes random dogs will suddenly jump to the end of their leash. 

In terms of knowing when to reward or not, I use the “piece of cake” rule. If the behavior performed by the dog was a “piece of cake,” meaning they didn’t have to think or exert effort to do it, I don’t have to stress about rewards. It may make sense to give a treat every now and then or deliver a lower value reward like praise and pets. 

Don’t forget that my primary population is dogs in dense urban environments. I work with lots of dogs who live in busy, noisy places that are downright stressful. Training routines that are active coping strategies often require regular “upkeep” through higher rates of reinforcement in this situation. In other words, fading out food rewards for a dog faced with a constant onslaught of environmental stressors simply may not be a goal. 

For many dogs though, the training does “take them off the escalation ladder” of reactivity completely. You will see them look at dogs with relaxed muscles in their face instead of tense hard stares. You see them start to simply be okay in the situation and not need micromanagement from their handler. 

Ultimately, success will look different for everyone. What is important to me is that the walking routine is practical and that the dog is healthily regulating their emotions. 

Troubleshooting and Extra Credit

Leash reactivity can be tied to more global behavior problems that need to be addressed before the training can be considered successful. These concepts can also be the key to taking a leash reactivity routine that feels like a bandaid solution to truly feeling like the “problem” is “solved.” 

Many of these things have an obvious relationship with one another. 

Pulling on Leash and Overall Poor Leash Handling Skills 

A dog who is used to yanking their owner around and pulling towards what they want is going to be more prone to getting frustrated about not being allowed to move toward a dog that they want to get to. Additionally, proper leash handling and being able to forcefully move a training dog away from a problem scenario make a huge difference when episodes of reactivity do happen. 

Solution: Train leash skills separately from leash reactivity drills. In my experience, leash walking is the skill that having a professional coach you in live time is most helpful for, because it is such a dynamic exercise where it is also so easy to develop bad habits. 


A dog who is further triggered by the sensation of tightness in their gear (harness, collar) and a dog who has too much physical leverage with their current gear set up is going to have a harder time training for leash reactivity. 

Solution: I customize gear recommendations for every team I work with. 

Demanding Behavior

A dog who barks at, paws at, jumps on the owner, throws “tantrums” etc., to get what they want frequently throughout the day is more likely to generalize that obnoxious behavior towards seeing another dog on leash. 

Solution: My exact training plan is going to differ from dog to dog, situation to situation. You definitely don’t want to reward these behaviors if they are causing problems, but the training sometimes also requires a well-timed interruptor or punishment to be effective. 

Overall Life Structure

Does your dog instantly get every single thing that they want all day every day besides access to another dog that they see on leash? That could be a problem! 

Solution: Practice confinement exercises (crates, tethers, baby gates). Practice impulse control such as waiting at doors, waiting for food bowls, waiting to be invited on the couch. Practice structured calm such as place/go to your bed while you do something nearby that your dog would like to be involved in. 

Conditioned to Ignore Handler and Ignore Cues 

Picture this: You routinely talk to your dog or try to give your dog a command, without success, and now they think your voice is irrelevant and inconsequential. A new person or trainer takes a dog, and the dog magically responds, and this is the simple reason why: The dog is desensitized to the owner’s voice, but not the trainer’s. 

Solution: Good, thoughtful, and consistent training that is integrated throughout the dog’s entire day. 

No Motivation to Train

Picture this: A dog is overweight with a bowl of untouched kibble on the floor, has access to any toy he could ever want from the toy bin, busts through your door without looking back at you when they go outside, and maybe even goes to daycare or a dog park where they go crazy with other dogs and never once think of a human. Guess what! That dog has little reason to give you the time of day. Maybe you’re their buddy, but they certainly don’t see you as in charge of any executive decisions. 

Solution: Establish a relationship where your dog does work for the good stuff in their life. The owner becomes the “facilitator” of the dog’s want and needs. 

General Anxiety, Fear, Confidence Issues 

A dog who is super uncomfortable in their own skin while outside, jumping at traffic noises and spooking at a bag blowing in the wind is more likely to have trouble with seeing other dogs on leash, as described in the “trigger stacking” section.

Solution: I may “prescribe” a variety of confidence boosting exercises such as defensive handler drills (think variations on body blocking), problem solving games as simple as trick training that make the dog feel cool and brave, obstacle work that changes the way the dog uses their body to engage with the environment, and more. Counter-conditioning protocols for other triggers and phobias may be relevant. There are certainly some cases of global anxiety that I refer to a vet behaviorist to discuss treating the anxiety from a medical lens. (Sometimes it is hard for me to make this call upon first meeting a dog, and I often will bring up the subject after knowing them for awhile.) 

Health and Enrichment Double Disclaimer 

I said it earlier but I’ll say it again - a clean bill of health and fulfilling a dog’s biological needs are imperative for successful training. 

Social Skills 

Greeting, coexisting off leash, and playing with other dogs is sometimes part of our plan - particularly with young dogs and dogs whose confidence has room to grow. We work on “direct” social skills only with “helper dogs” that are trustworthy, socially skilled, and matched to the training dog’s temperament and needs. Click here for my guide on socializing dogs. 


Sometimes unique adjustments to handling scenarios and a dog’s life can make a big difference. If you can’t tell by the incredible length of this article, dog behavior can be complex!

In Conclusion 

Because leash reactivity is so emotional for the dog, it can often be incredibly emotional for the human as well. Any time I am working with a challenging behavioral case, I want the human to feel as good as possible too - not just the dog. I don’t like to harp too much on people for “acting anxious,” because as a person with my own mental health issues, I know that that doesn’t help you feel less anxious. But it is true that your feelings run down the leash. Take care of your own mental health the way that you best know how. You got this. 

And if you don’t got this, that is what the professionals are here for.

In leash reactivity lessons, it can be hard to juggle time practicing drills and skills versus all of the good and valid questions that owners often have. I hope that this guide helps you understand some of the in’s and out’s of how all of this works. And for those who cannot train with me for whatever reason, I hope this guide does you good as well. I am available both virtually and in the Chicagoland area for private and group training. 

And if you have any burning questions for me after reading this article, please let me know! 

Happy training! 


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  • Case studies

  • More troubleshooting?

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