Leash Reactivity VS Aggression: What’s The Difference and How to Address Both

If you walk with a leash-reactive dog, you can expect this scenario: they lunge at other dogs out of nowhere, they bark endlessly and uncontrollably, and they can't help but pull on the leash every time. When a dog is leash reactive, their agitated behavior is on once the leash is on! 

leash reactivity

If we only base it on your dog's reaction to the trigger (in this case, the leash), it's easy to assume that your dog is aggressive.

They bark, they jump, they're restless, they look like they're going to attack!

But here's what I want every dog owner to know: understanding the difference between leash reactivity and aggression can help you pick out the right training to correct your dog's behavior.

In this blog, we are going to talk about the difference between a leash-reactive dog and a leash-aggressive dog and the best ways to transform both behavior issues. 

Key Takeaways

  • A leash-reactive dog is fueled by a heightened state of emotions. Due to anxiety, fear, excitement, or frustration, your dog can turn reactive once you put the leash on. Reactive dogs, by nature, are not immediately aggressive.
  • Reactive dogs can still become aggressive once no intervention has been made. Owners must know when reactivity is starting to turn to aggression.
  • Gentle training, positive reinforcement, slow but consistent exposure, and positive associations can make a leash-reactive dog less reactive. Training a leash-reactive dog at home is possible with The Dog Calming Code.

Is My Dog Leash Reactive or Aggressive?

Before we go into the nitty-gritty of the topic, I want to explain the main difference between the two to clear up any confusion. 

Leash reactivity is a result of a heightened reaction to a trigger. Aggression is mainly because of fear.

dog reactivity leash

“But Doggy Dan, fear is also a cause for reaction, right?”

Yes, that is correct. But a dog reactive on leash and an aggressive dog will have a different approach to the object, causing them fear.

To explain the difference, here's a quick analogy. 

Let's say you're at a park having a lovely time when suddenly, a cat prances in front of your dog.

To a dog with no reactivity or aggression issues, they'll simply ignore it, or they'll notice it but not react as much.

To a fearful reactive dog with unpleasant experiences with cats, a cat is a big deal. They'll react more intensely, such as jumping restlessly and barking non-stop in the hopes that the trigger will go away.  

However, if a reactive dog is turning aggressive, their fear escalates their behavior from only driving the threat away to actually hurting and attacking the trigger.  

Bottomline: a reactive dog shows elevated emotions, while an aggressive dog is ready to hurt.  

leash aggressive dog

“But Doggy Dan, can a leash-reactive dog turn aggressive?”

Unfortunately, dog owners learn about this change too late, and the lessons are often hard ones.

We can spare our dogs from unnecessary aggression by addressing reactivity and really knowing when it's turning aggressive.

Read on for a more detailed difference between leash reactivity and aggression.

Exploring the Differences Between Leash Reactivity and Aggression: What Is a Leash Reactive Dog

If your dog shows high-strung reactions to things not usually bothering other dogs, they are more likely reactive. 

If their heightened emotions make them hard to control, your dog is reactive. 

If fear triggers your dog to behave in a way that is so different from his normal behavior, your dog is reactive. 

Leash reactivity — a form of dog reactivity — is when your dog resists and fights being on the leash. 

leash aggressive dogs

Leash reactivity floods a dog's senses with overwhelming emotions triggered by the fight or flight center of their brain. The dramatic display of a reactive dog is a reflexive response rooted in emotions like stress, anxiety, excitement, fear, or frustration.

But what actually causes a dog to be reactive?

Common Triggers for Leash Reactivity

Leash Reactivity Due to Fear and Anxiety

In my previous blogs about understanding dog behavior, I emphasized that for dogs, it's all about survival. 

In the case of leash reactivity, the dog sees the leash as a thing stopping them from escaping danger. 

training leash reactive dogs

Dogs are leash-reactive because they rely so much on their fight-and-flight reflexes. With the leash, a dog feels as if they no longer have the chance to flee, and so they fight by barking, lunging, and consistently pulling on the leash no matter how many times it pulls back. They fear for their survival because they think the leash will stop them from surviving! 

Leash Reactivity Due to Excitement

A dog with a leash reactivity is a dog that thinks they're in control of your time outdoors.

Let's say your dog LOVES squirrels. So you bring them to the park to see squirrels from a distance.

A squirrel makes your dog so excited, and they want to run free!

But the leash stops them from doing that. And what do they do next? They pull. They lunge, and they go into a power struggle with you. 

Leash Reactivity Due to Frustration and Stress

Dogs showing frustration-based reactivity often enjoy positive interactions with both people and other dogs when off-leash yet may bark and lunge while on-leash, behind a fence, or near windows. Owners often describe these dogs as “eager” to reach people and other dogs.

training reactive dogs

If your dog falls into this category, they're usually quite sociable in various situations but might have difficulty with polite greetings or being confined behind a barrier. Despite this reactivity stemming from an “overly friendly” nature, your dog's behavior may still seem aggressive to those unfamiliar with the situation.

Signs of a Reactive Dog to Look Out For

It's critical to know when your dog's stress levels are elevated so you can prevent any reactive behavior from getting worse.  

Here are signs of reactivity to look out for.

Reactivity Sign #1: Pulling on the Leash

Pulling on the leash is a sign that your dog is desperate to run away from a situation. These pulls don't start instantly as hysterics but rather as little tugs telling you, “I'm starting to get uncomfortable because there's a trigger here.” 

Reactivity Sign #2: Excessive Barking or Growling

If you have a rather calm dog that instantly starts a barkfest the moment the leash is on, take the behavior as a sign of reactivity. Most leash-reactive dogs are cordial and sociable when free, but immediately exhibit stressed energy when they're put on a leash. 

leash reactive dogs

Reactivity Sign #3: Body Stiffening

Pay attention to your dog's body language. If you notice them becoming stiff, rigid, or tense when you approach with a leash, it's proof the leash is a big trigger. 

Reactivity Sign #4: Elevated Stress Signals and Sudden Changes in Behavior

Your dog may exhibit various stress signals when feeling anxious or reactive on a leash. These can include panting, drooling, yawning, lip licking, or avoiding eye contact.

If your dog displays sudden changes in behavior while on leash, such as becoming overly hyperactive, fearful, or aggressive in certain situations, it may be a red flag for leash reactivity.

Reactivity Sign #5: Difficulty in Focus or Training

Leash-reactive dogs often struggle to maintain focus or respond to commands while in the presence of triggers. You may notice that your dog becomes easily distracted or unresponsive to cues when on a leash.

reasons for leash reactivity in dogs

Reactivity Sign #6: Escalation of Behavior

Leash reactivity can escalate if not addressed promptly. What starts as mild signs of discomfort or agitation may progress to more intense reactions, such as snapping, lunging aggressively, or attempting to bite.

Signs Leash Reactivity is Turning to Aggression 

Because leash reactivity and aggression are hard to distinguish, most dog owners miss the cue when their reactive dog turns aggressive. Remember, reactivity CAN TURN to aggression when not managed immediately. This is not because your dog is naturally feral; their aggression is caused by fear or anxiety unaddressed.  

Here are signs your reactive dog is turning aggressive. 

Aggressive Dog Sign #1: Increased Intensity

Reactivity may escalate into aggression if the dog's responses become more intense over time, including more forceful pulling, louder barking, or displaying more threatening body language.

Aggressive Dog Sign #2: Lunging or Snapping

A reactive dog in defense mode can be ready for offense once their stress levels reach the red zone. 

reasons for leash aggression in dogs

Your dog may start to lunge towards perceived threats or exhibit snapping behaviors, indicating a willingness to escalate confrontations physically. If the dog is leash aggressive, they are also posed to attack.

Aggressive Dog Sign #3: Elevated Agitation

Aggression can manifest as heightened agitation.  

Your dog can exhibit more pronounced signs of stress, such as rapid pacing, panting, or trembling. When their stress has reached this point, they become so hard to control.

signs of leash reactivity

Aggressive Dog Sign #4: Loss of Threshold Control

Dogs can also lose control over their threshold. Even the tiniest trigger — one that doesn't cause any significant reaction before — can cause aggression. 

Aggressive Dog Sign #5: Increased Reactivity Frequency

If your dog's leash reactivity occurs more frequently or across a broader range of stimuli, it could signal a progression toward more aggressive responses. Once you see this happening, remove your dog from the situation. 

Aggressive Dog Sign #6: Direct Eye Contact

Intense, prolonged eye contact with other dogs or people, accompanied by a rigid body posture, can indicate a readiness to escalate into aggressive behavior. They are posed to attack. 

Aggressive Dog Sign #7: Snarling or Biting

The ultimate sign of aggression includes snarling, snapping, or biting, indicating that the dog perceives the situation as a direct threat and is willing to defend itself aggressively.

Unveiling Leash Aggression: What Is It

Before moving on to the specifics, I'd like to introduce this to you: an aggressive dog is a reactive dog, but not all reactive dogs are aggressive. 

dog leash reactivity reasons

It's essential to put this out there so you won't get confused by these two different behaviors 

A dog with leash aggression, distinct from one with leash reactivity, shows overtly aggressive behaviors such as lunging, growling, or snapping while on a leash. 

Unlike leash reactivity, where a dog may display anxious or fearful responses, leash aggression typically stems from frustration, fear, or a desire to assert dominance. 

The dog showing leash aggression may perceive other dogs or people as threats, leading to aggressive displays aimed at establishing boundaries, self-defense, or a show of dominance.

What Causes Leash Aggression

Fear and Frustration

What do you do when you can't flee? For dogs, the answer is to fight. 

Your dog is smart, and they often use their senses to assess the danger of the threat. However, when dogs are on a leash, when they have restrained mobility, they become more frustrated and aggressive. 

Fear of unfamiliar dogs, people, or situations can trigger aggressive responses when dogs feel threatened or cornered while on a leash.

Lack of Socialization

Lack of socialization in dogs is a big factor in leash aggression as a dog that's unfamiliar with other dogs, people, or other animals outdoors will always be on high alert, thinking everything is a threat. 

leash reactivity vs aggression

Leash aggression is evident in dogs lacking the social skills that should have been introduced starting at eight weeks.

Territorial Behavior

Leash aggression increases with territorial behavior because when a dog can't run, they know they have to protect whatever space they have. Territorial dogs, while on leash, are ready to fight any intruder to their space. 

Previous Negative Experiences

Has your dog had negative experiences related to the leash? If yes, this can show in your training. Use these experiences as a guide to prevent reactivity from happening or from getting worse. 

Owner's Anxiety or Tension

Your dog is highly attuned to your emotions and may mirror your feelings of anxiety or tension, leading to increased reactivity and aggression while on a leash. 

How to Deal with a Leash-Reactive Dog

Know If Your Dog is Triggered by a Leash

Identify what triggers your dog's reactive behavior, whether it's other dogs, people, or specific stimuli. Start by looking at the pattern of what caused reactive behavior incidents in the past.  

Respect Your Dog's Boundaries

Avoid pushing your dog into situations that make them uncomfortable or stressed. Respect their need for space and distance from triggers. 

training leash reactive dogs

Space is essential for dogs. Once they feel their space is threatened, they can go to full-on defense mode.

Don't force your dog to socialize. Avoid making the dogs meet face-to-face, as this is not the norm (dogs prefer to meet side by side.)

When they're on the leash, avoid pulling them into spots, animals, or people that can cause them to freak out. 

Use Positive Association For the Leash

You can trace back your dog's fear of the leash to the following factors including: 

  1. They've been forced to socialize with other dogs. 
  2. They weren't able to escape a threat because they were on a leash. 
  3. There was forceful pulling involved in the past. 
  4. The leash was used for fear-inducing control. 

Help your dog associate the leash with something positive, like treats, praise, playtime, or attention. Sustain this association even when your dog has become less reactive on the leash. 

Introduce the Leash Slowly

I know it's tempting to get your dog to love the leash immediately. However, forcing your dog to get on the leash to speed things up will only increase their fear and anxiety.

Here are some things you can do instead:

  • Start by introducing the leash in a non-forceful way. 
  • Put your dog on the leash and see how they react for the first few minutes.
  • Give treats or praise when they stay on the leash without panicking.
  • Observe how long they can be leashed without reactivity. Start short and extend once your dog has acclimated to the leash.

Control the Walk Even Before Your Dog Walks Out the Door

You can take charge of leash reactivity before you even walk out the door.

This principle is part of my 5 Golden Rules of Dog Training.

Your dog has to know that you are in control of the walk, not them.

why are dogs leash reactive

What does that have to do with reactivity?

Naturally, a dog thinks they are in charge of everything: their survival, their food, their interactions, their time outdoors. Because they think they're in charge, they sharpen their senses for survival whenever they have to step out. 

This need for control manifests when your dog struggles when they're on the leash. 

“I'm on the leash. I can't run. I can't defend myself. How can I survive?” 

Before you spend time outdoors, it's important to let your dog know they're not in charge. 

How? Become a leader they can trust. 

Some of the ways to do this: 

  • Take control of the walk. Let your dog know you decide when to walk outside. 
  • You're the main decision maker on whether to continue or stop the walk once they show reactivity. 
  • Show them they can't pull on the leash. You can do this by pausing the walk whenever the pulling starts. Or you can quit the walk once reactivity doesn't stop.

Additionally, your dog has to see your leadership not only during your walk but also in all areas: food, interaction, playtime, timeouts, rewards and treats, and controlling danger. 

I talk more about establishing leadership in your dog's eyes in my Doggy Dan Five Golden Rules series. You can check it out here.

Calm Your Dog Down and Be Aware of Their Energy Levels

A dog with an energy level of five before you walk out the door will only become more reactive unless you calm them down. 

leash reactivity dogs

When your dog has high-stress levels, it will be hard to listen to your commands. It's going to be a challenge to control them. 

So, I 100% suggest watching their energy levels before heading out. 

Scan the Surroundings Before Going Out

Before leaving the house, assess the environment for potential triggers and plan your route accordingly to avoid known triggers whenever possible.

Use A Muzzle

If your dog has a history of aggressive behavior or if you have a dog reactive to other dogs, consider using a basket muzzle as a safety measure during walks, ensuring both your dog's and others' safety.

Be Calm and Observe Your Own Body Language 

Your dog will hear your emotions so much they won't be hearing what you're saying. If you want to help your leash-reactive dog, be in tune with how you react as well. Your energy and emotions will affect your dog, and if you're stressed, the dog will be stressed, too!

Use the Dog Calming Code

Reactivity and aggression can be traced back to one factor: your dog thinks they're in charge; they're in control. 

That is why they're always agitated, anxious, fearful, and protective. They think they need to always be alert to survive. 

But you're there. You are their leader and protector. How do you help your dog understand that?  

I created the Dog Calming Code exactly for this purpose: for your dog to know you got them and for them to trust you.

You can learn more about the Dog Calming Code here.  

How to Select the Right Leash and Equipment Ideal for Leash Reactivity

How do you choose the best leash for reactive dog? Here are some points to consider!

Choose the Right Gear 

Opt for a harness and a standard 5-6 foot nylon or leather leash instead of choke, prong, or shock collars and retractable leashes. These latter options can exacerbate reactivity issues and pose risks to your dog's well-being.

best leash for dogs

Harness Selection

Look for a body harness that clips at the chest rather than the spine. This design allows for better control and redirection of your dog away from triggers, as it offers more strength and leverage from the front.

Go for Doggy Dan's No-Pull Harness

The No-Pull Harness offers a specialized front chest loop that effectively reduces pulling tendencies in your dog prone to leash reactivity. By gently guiding your dog's movements in alignment with your own, it mitigates the urge to pull without causing discomfort.

Unlike traditional harnesses, the Doggy Dan No-Pull Harness prioritizes your dog's well-being by resting securely across their chest rather than constricting their throat (they won't feel a sense of restriction at all!). Surely, this harness helps dogs feel guided AND safe so reactivity can be prevented.

Managing Leash Reactivity During Walks

Tip #1: Consider Your Dog's History and Potential Reasons They Can Be Triggered by the Leash

Before diving into training, take a moment to consider your dog's past experiences and what might be causing their leash-reactive behavior.

Maybe they had a scary encounter with another dog in the past, or perhaps they feel anxious when restrained by the leash. Understanding their triggers can help tailor your approach to training and address the root cause of their reactivity.

Tip #1: Consider Your Dog's History and Potential Reasons They Can Be Triggered by the Leash

As tempting as it may be to let your dog dictate when it's time for a walk, especially when they're eagerly waiting by the door, it's essential to establish yourself as the leader of the pack. 

leash reactive dogs training

Set a consistent schedule for walks and stick to it, regardless of your dog's excitement level. This helps create a sense of leadership in your dog's eyes, a very crucial factor if you want to stop dog reactivity. 

Tip #3: Control Their Energy, Don't Push Through When They're Very Reactive

When your dog is in the midst of a reactive episode, it's crucial to remain calm and avoid pushing through the situation. 

Trying to force your way forward when your dog is highly reactive can escalate the behavior and make the situation more stressful for both of you. 

Instead, take a step back, give your dog space to calm down, and wait until they're in a more relaxed state before continuing the walk.

Tip #4: Start Slowly

Training a leash-reactive dog takes time and patience, so don't rush the process. Start by introducing them to low-stress environments with minimal triggers, such as quiet streets or empty parks. 

Gradually increase the level of exposure to triggers as your dog becomes more comfortable and responsive to training techniques.

Tip #5: Take Pauses When Needed

During walks, pay attention to your dog's body language and be prepared to take breaks or detours if they start to show signs of stress or agitation.

Taking pauses allows your dog to decompress and prevents them from becoming overwhelmed by their surroundings. Remember, it's okay to take things slow and adjust your pace based on your dog's comfort level.

Tip #6: Be Wary of Triggers

Keep an eye out for potential triggers during walks, such as other dogs, cyclists, or loud noises.

Anticipating triggers allows you to proactively manage your dog's reactions and implement training techniques before they become overwhelmed. 

By staying vigilant and prepared, you can help prevent reactive episodes and keep walks enjoyable for both you and your pup.

Tip #7: Let Other Dog Owners Know About Boundaries

When walking your leash-reactive dog, it's essential to communicate with other dog owners and establish boundaries to prevent unexpected encounters. Politely inform them about your dog's reactivity and ask for their cooperation in maintaining a safe distance. Clear communication can help avoid tense situations and ensure that everyone can enjoy their time outdoors with their furry companions.

Tip #8: Be Patient To Your Dog and Lead with Kindness

Think of leash reactivity this way: your dog struggles when they're on the leash. They need your help.

Hopefully, this should stop dog owners from hurting their dogs or rushing training. Your dog needs your understanding. Avoid punishing a leash-reactive dog because this only elevates their anxiety and, in turn, their reactivity.

When Reactivity Turns Aggressive: When and Where to Ask for Help

Find the Help of a Dog Trainer

A reputable dog trainer can provide guidance and support in implementing effective training techniques to address your dog's reactivity and aggression. 

Look for a trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods and has experience working with reactive and aggressive dogs.

They can create a customized training plan tailored to your dog's specific needs and help you build a stronger bond with your furry companion.

Professional Behaviorist

In more severe cases of an aggressive reactive dog, consulting a professional behaviorist may be necessary. 

Behaviorists are experts in understanding and modifying complex behavior issues in dogs. They can conduct a thorough assessment of your dog's behavior, identify underlying causes of aggression, and develop a comprehensive treatment plan.

Behaviorists often work closely with veterinarians to rule out any medical issues contributing to aggression and may recommend additional interventions such as medication or specialized behavior modification techniques.

From Leash-Reactive Dog to a Calm, Well-Behaved Dog: It Is Possible with the Dog Calming Code!

Dealing with a dog with leash reactivity issues can be both stressful AND heartbreaking! You ask, “Is there hope for my leash-reactive dog?” 

Yes, there is. I've seen it in thousands of dogs I have helped in my career.  

Once you understand the psychology of dogs and how you can truly make them feel, they can cut down on their anxiety and excitement and let you handle the show; your dog will be less freaked out by the leash!  

I teach this formula in my online dog training program, The Dog Calming Code. In this program, I talk extensively about the Five Golden Rules of dog leadership and how YOU can help your leash-reactive dog break free from the stress of the leash. It's the first step to overcoming reactive behaviour in dogs. 

Learn more about this program here. 

~Doggy Dan

Doggy Dan

Doggy Dan is the founder of The Online Dog Trainer, a wildly successful online training program for dog owners. His goal is to continue to share his unique approach to dog training with like-minded people who wish to make a difference in the world of dogs. His training methods focus on creating and building the connection between dogs and dog owners, and are shared and used around the world.

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