Mad About Leashes, or How to Manage Leash Aggression

Helping a dog to overcome leash aggression can be difficult, but here’s a proven training plan that uses positive reinforcement techniques.


Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Q:  I have a 4 year old miniature schnauzer named Ozzie who has lived with me since last June. He is a rescue dog and he’s practically PERFECT in every way. However…..he almost always freaks out (barking, pulling, snapping) when we see another dog on-leash. I can never tell which dogs Ozzie will react to, and it’s only when on-leash. It’s much worse in the apartment complex where we live but it happens elsewhere too. We went to a trainer and she gave suggestions but they don’t work. When Ozzie is that upset, he couldn’t care less about treats! Nothing will distract him. When I tried to get between Ozzie and the offending dog, he actually bit me once! I try to avoid other dogs as much as possible, but I ‘want’ to go on long walks with my dog! What can we do, Boo?????

Marian and Ozzie

This is a very common issue for a lot of dogs. I personally get a little pushy when I meet a cute lady dog and they often snip at me for getting a little randy if you know what I mean, but I digress…

Boo Answers…
Leash aggression can have several components:
  1. Fear is probably the most common one and it usually builds over time. This can be a result of a lack of early socialization and/or have a personality component.  It can also have grown out of generalized fear after bad encounters with other dogs.
  2. Frustration is second in terms of creating ongoing arousal at the end of the leash.  This can actually come from a great desire to go see that other dog for fun and games or be a combination of fear and excitement.  Then, when the arousal is unfulfilled and hampered by a tight leash on a neck or head collar, it makes the frustration go from “I wanna, I wanna,” to “Aarrggg!” resulting in high levels of aroused behaviors.

The great news is that the fix is the same no matter what the underlying cause is so we don’t have to get Ozzie on a couch and ask him how he feels about his mother, etc.

What we do need to do however, is have a real good understanding of how desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) work.

But first, a word on equipment:  Dogs have what is called an oppositional reflex – so when you pull tightly on a neck collar they will actually crank up more.  This is used by K-9 officers to crank up their dogs before letting them go after a bad-guy and it’s also used in dog fighting to increase the “game-ness” and arousal of a dog – nasty business that dog fighting!  So, your job is to completely take that out of the mix so the humans are not adding anything to Ozzie’s excitement – only removing levels of arousal.

Front-clip harnesses are lovely for this:  The Easy Walk Harness, the Sensation, or The Freedom harness will all work well.  This takes the oppositional reflex out of the equation and if you absolutely have to move Ozzie by putting pressure on the leash it will be a more easy pressure on him via the harness.  Head-halters can add to a dog’s frustration and are not good for physically moving a dog out of Dodge if we get stuck, so we prefer the harness.  I wear a front-clip harness whenever I’m out walking ‘cause it’s just easier on me overall – and I do tend to get stuck on smells – again I digress…

Desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) in short (and I do mean very short – this is the life’s work of many behaviorists and others and I am condensing their hard labors into a couple paragraphs):  we need to change how Ozzie feels about the approach of another dog and change the default (conditioned) behavior he has adopted when they approach.  This means that we take a primary reinforcer (treats) and we pair them up with the appearance of the other dog – in the world of neurology the phrase is “neurons that fire together wire together.”  It has to be a primary reinforcer of Super High Value (SHV) because when we are trying to organize neurons to fire together for one thing – i.e. the behavior we want – the thing that is greater in value (either for good or evil) will win the firing supremacy.  In other words the primary reinforcer needs to more valuable than the trigger is scary.

For example:  if you have a dog who is afraid of cars and you just keep putting them into the car thinking they will just get over it, they may if they are going somewhere that is bigger in the positive sense than their fear of the car is in the negative sense.  However, if the place they are going or the treat they get for the ride is not bigger than their fear of the car the dog will simply learn to hide from you when they know you are going to put them into the car because you have not changed how they feel about the car for the better but you have increased their fear to include you picking them up to put them into the car.

Here’s what may have been missed in previous attempts.
Desensitize/counter-condition for every dog

DS/CC needs to be done for each and every dog you guys see because we don’t know which one will set him off and if we aren’t proactively working our DS/CC program on each and every dog Ozzie could have an outburst which would be self-reinforcing and the reactivity would continue.  Another reason this needs to be done for each and every dog is because although Ozzie may not be having an outburst he may still be cranking himself up inside.  This is not unlike my human when she drives over a bridge:  she doesn’t scream anymore, but her knuckles are white on the steering wheel so I know she’s not in a good state of mind and over-threshold.

Stay sub-threshold

Another thing that may have gone wrong with the other DS/CC attempts is that your timing has to catch him where he is what we call sub-threshold.  This means that he is not over-the-top reacting and can actually focus on the treats and a simple command to do nothing when approached by other dogs.  My human uses either “look at that,” “who’s that” or “oh boy,” for her simple “do nothing” command since these are non-offensive to anyone passing by and are pretty easy things for most humans to say in a bit of a panic.  Remember:  all Ozzie has to do here is NOTHING and eat his treat in the presence of his trigger. So how do you stay sub-threshold?

Distance is critical

You may not think Ozzie has spotted the other dog because he is not over-the-top, but canine senses are so acute that if you see the dog you can be certain that Ozzie knows full well there is another dog nearby. So always work at a greater distance where Ozzie is sub-threshold then slowly close up the distance over time.

Timing is crucial

With a good enough distance for Ozzie to be able to focus on the treats you would say “who’s that” or “look at that” and IMMEDIATELY give Ozzie that piece of cheese or hot dog. (Oh yeah that’s the other thing – explore the world of SHVT [super high value treats] to see what will make Ozzie vibrate with joy and begin with that. Later you can work your way down to something less HV as he gets better and better around other dogs.  Remember as the trigger gets less scary you can either close the distance or lower the value of the reinforcer.


This is what breaks most humans down. Remember, we dogs don’t generalize the same way humans do.  And although we are working on a neurological level when we are changing the way Ozzie’s neurons fire together, i.e. meaning that SHVT = Dog, it does take a while for new pathways to be really well-formed in the brain.  Also, please remember that we are also asking him to learn a new behavior in the face of his old trigger – the other dog – so this can take a lot of repetitions.


As you are practicing your timing you will need to walk Ozzie in areas where you know you can control all potential doggie encounters so you can keep him sub-threshold.  My human often tells people to plop their dog in the car (if they like cars) then drive to an empty parking lot or a strip mall where they know there won’t be too many other dogs and practice there. Then, when you are feeling good about your timing and awareness, you would start to shadow other dogs in a controlled environment.  This is usually across the street from a vet’s office, or a down time at the local dog park where dogs will be going in and out, also pet stores can be a good location for this – so long as there are not too many other dogs and there is enough distance for Ozzie to be sub-threshold.

Set your dog up to succeed

Once you and Ozzie have a good working understanding of your new command – your “look at that” or the “who’s that” command –  and he is responding to you reliably on whichever of these you use when you see other dogs and you have decreased the distance on the shadowing adventures to equal the same distance you would encounter in your apartment complex then you are finally ready to “try this at home.”  Remember to bring those SHVT out again in a heartbeat and be ready to retreat (get out of Dodge) if it goes badly and return to shadowing at a distance until he is ready to try again.

Have an escape plan

This means that if Ozzie is reacting you would move him a bit away from the other dog using some tension on the leash, then take a handful of those SHVT, rest them for a moment right on his nose so he can smell them, and then gently toss the snacks from his nose into the opposite direction of the trigger dog.  He will follow the snacks if he is not too far over threshold and you can then relax tension on the leash and follow Ozzie in that direction and, if need be, keep the go-sniff treat-tossing up as you “Hansel and Gretel” him out of Dodge.  (We place the snacks right on his nose provided he wouldn’t redirect onto you – which it sounds like he might given that he once redirected to bite you. In which case you would move him farther away just using the leash before attempting the “go-sniff.” Once he gets better at all of it – you will be able to just “go-sniff” him away when disaster strikes. Remember, you will have to practice the “go-sniff” when there are no distractions – so he knows it when you ask him for it in times of trouble.)  Keep in mind that it is not ideal to muscle a dog around using the leash, but it things go badly – you got to get out.

As you can see, there are way more components here than just having treats in the presence of another dog.  There is still way more than I was able to put into this response before my poor paws got tired from the typing.  Just try typing by paw-pecking.

There are a number of books out there that may help and you can find the best ones my human has found in the Boo-tique:

Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell, PhD and Bringing Shadow to Light, How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong by Pam Dennison, CBDC will offer you guys some great training tips.

Calming Signals, on Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas will offer you a primer on canine body language.

For the Love of a Dog: Understanding the Emotion in You and Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D will offer your human insight into the dog’s emotional world.

Hope this helps Ozzie and you, too!

15 thoughts on “Mad About Leashes, or How to Manage Leash Aggression”

  1. I have a 2 year old deaf British Bulldog female she is absolutely amazing, extremely affectionate and one if the most loving dogs i have ever had, however the minute i put her on a leash she goes mental, jumps and scrambles around pulling and getting aggresive with grabbing and biting at the leash and me, she has even torn some of my clothes to try and get off the leash, my legs are civered in bruises and rhere is no settling her down, We cannot even get out the front door, I have tried everything treats different harnesses, leashes etc. And now at the point of giving up. Off rhe leash she is amazing but i need ro be able to put her on a leash for vets visits etc. Cannot do it any help please i will vreatly appreciated it. Thanks Lisa

  2. I have an almost 2 Lab/Great Pyrenees who has leash anxiety. We trained him with a shock collar. I believe this was a big mistake. We have made no progress on our walks. One day he will be ok and he next it is horrible. He will be have for his trainer but not me or his Dad. He is not mean, he just wants to get to what he sees and goes crazy. Off leash he is a different dog. So gentle and sweet. He is great in the off leash dog park. Not a peep from him. I am going to try this and work really hard with him. I know it will take a long time. But I’m willing to try. I want him to be happy.

    1. Hi Tracy,
      Best of luck, I am very happy to hear how committed to your dog’s happiness you are!

      It is not uncommon for dogs to be far better when they are off leash than on. We are often a contributing factor to this if we are heavy handed on the leash or if we are using things like the shock collar. I would highly recommend one of the front clip harnesses – see the current issue of “Whole Dog Journal” for a really nice breakdown of the best ones. There are also a couple of good books on the subject on my website. While I have included a little desensitization and counter-conditioning in my book “Please Don’t Bite the Baby,” it is not really the focus of the book. Please look to “Feisty Fido”, “The Power of Positive Dog Training” and “Calming Signals.” These along with a good experienced positive reinforcement behavior consultant will help you get your big guy happier and more relaxed on the leash.

  3. My dog is the same. She just wants to meet but with the barking people shy away. If we have time, I try to initiate contact if the dog owners allows. If not, I tell her to keep walking. It works some of the time. I have better luck when she is already tired. She has made some friends by initiating the contact. And all she (and they) want to do is play. I am also looking for other ways to detract her. Some of this information has been helpful and some I already do.

    1. Glad some of this was helpful and very glad you were already doing some of these things. When I am called into consult with a leash reactive dog, the first few things I look to are:
      1 – making sure there is a “get out of dodge” plan so that whenever there is a barking reaction because we cannot control everything on the walk, I can get out quickly and prevent this from becoming another reinforcing episode for the dog
      2 – I look to the dog’s body language to see if the dog is giving me really subtle cues that she is moving up her stress ladder and at or almost at threshold. No good behavior modification can go on if our dog is at or over threshold, which takes me back to get out of dodge to a place where she is in the presence of the other dog, but is still below threshold and able to process the DS/CC.
      Hope that helps and best of luck.

  4. hi i got a staff he gòod in every way lovley dog but very angry when i go to get lead i soon as u go to get it he starts barking and has bite me few times x i go and sit down with lead and harness till hes carmed down x then as soon as harness on hes finex is this the right way to go if he starts when i lift lead of hook i just drop it because he grabs it and its a fight x

    1. Hi Jackie,
      Sorry for the delay – was down sick for two weeks and just digging out. I hope things have improved, but if not. I would begin having a GREAT lure (stinky treat or boiled chicken, or cheese) closed in your fist before you even touch the leash. Then, pick up the leash and harness (try to have the leash already on the harness if you can), hold the stinky treat so your dog can nibble it (usually I put the harness around my hand so the dog has to stick his own head through – think lion tamer at the circus with the big hoop), then let him nibble as you put the harness on. Once he is in and you are ready to clip the harness give him the rest of the stinky treat. Be sure to use a cue word so that down the road you can reduce the size and value of the treat until you don’t need any treat at all because he knows the pattern.
      Hope that helps. If not, I would suggest contacting some local positive reinforcement trainers to help you through this.

  5. I just found this article via Google search and everything you say is 100% accurate. We are working with a trainer for a rescue pup who is highly reactive on the leash. Just as I think we are making progress (we use a clicker and provide treats), we are on a walk and a dog comes around the corner before it is too late. I keep my eyes open for other dogs at all times, but the one time I am surprised and my dog sees them first I feel like we go hundred steps backward. 🙁

    1. Hi Lauren,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, this is very common that our dogs often see their triggers before we do. I do find the best way to try to stay ahead of our dogs or even just with them, it to not even attempt to be on the look out in the environment – dogs are so much better at this then we are. Instead, I learn the body language cues that my dog displays when he is moving up the trigger ladder to a full blown reaction. If I can see his body language telling me there is something out there – I don’t need to see the something. I just need to either get out, or begin the DS/CC process. The great thing about doing DS/CC this way, is that it reduced the misses as you described above, and if you are wrong and there was no trigger, it actually will help with the DS/CC process because it will help prevent your dog from turning the DS/CC process into yet another trigger. Hope that helps.

      All best,

  6. What do you do if sometimes distance is not possible? We live in a large apartment building and my leash aggressive dog is faced with his triggers everyday. Sometimes without warning, like when someone new hops into the elevator.

    1. This issue plagues so many folks who have reactive dogs and live in situations that frequently have triggers around the next corner. It can be an apartment building like yours, or it can be a townhouse community. The apartment building has the fewest options to manage this kind of reactivity, some of which are going to be doable and some will not. Depending on the level of your dog’s leash aggression, you will want to talk to a veterinary behaviorist or a veterinarian who is well versed in anti-anxiety supplements and medications to allow you to work your dog through this. Whenever anyone (dog or human) is trying to live with daily triggers without releif, it builds the problem because there isn’t down time from each episode, and the anticipation of the next encounter grows and effectively increases the reactivity.
      Following that, the behavioral pieces are sticky:
      1 – Walk your dog at odd hours so you are not dealing with the heavily trafficked time of day
      2 – Avoid the elevators (provided you live on a walkable floor)
      3 – Who says you have to walk forward? If you can work with your dog so he/she learns to move in a “front” position and you back into the elevator, your dog will be facing you and getting all sorts of good commands, praise for quiet, and REWARDS for this. It will be odd, but better than a reactive dog.
      4 – Once in the elevator, position your dog so that you will always be between everyone who gets on.
      These last two are not really powerful, but they are something. That said, if your dog will redirect to you when he/she cannot get to their trigger – you CANNOT try #3 and #4.
      5 – Reach out to the following websites for their local trainer searches,,,
      Hope that helps.

  7. I read that using a harness when walking a dog is wrong and should use a neck collar. We have a 4 month old Border Collie/Australian Shepard/Blue Heeler mix. We introduced a harness right away at 6 weeks. We havent done a whole lot of walking him due to timing of work. I have just quit my job so now I have time to devote to him. After reading about the collar thing from the dog whisperer, I tried the collar method. Also he said a short leash. So,I put that on him and I went out the door first. That was hard. He started freaking out, jumping and bucking and twisting. Once out my gate it got worse! I tried to keep my cool and be firm so he knows whos the alpha. I also read that giving a short, upward tug will make them behave and start to follow. Maybe I am expecting miracles right out of the gate but this was a fiasco!! We only got a few houses down the sidewalk and I just couldn’t put him through that. It was like I was toturing him. The whole thing has made me angry and frustrated and I don’t want to walk him ever again!! I can’t afford obedience classes or I would let someone else deal with it. Please can you find me some relief so Riley can get some of this pent up energy released??

  8. Excellent process described in this article. I too have a miniature schnauzer ( almost 1 year old) who gets over excited while on leash. He was recently grabbed by a big dog and barks like crazy at most dogs when we walk. So stressful for both of us!
    This is an excellent support to me in helping him.
    He is beautiful otherwise!!

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