On-lead lunging in dogs is a disruptive and potentially dangerous behavior that restricts enjoyment of a dog and curtails exercise opportunities for both dog and owner. Dogs that differentially express lunging or other agonistic responding when on leash are termed ‚Äúleash reactive.‚Äù Leash reactive dogs have traditionally been excluded from regular obedience classes and, indeed, group obedience can exacerbate leash reactivity in the absence of specifically dedicated protocol. Successful treatments for leash reactivity include systematic desensitization (graduated exposure) with reinforcement of alternative behavior (counter-conditioning).
Common name: Leash Reactivity
Scientific name: Sight-stimulus evoked restraint reactivity
There is no documented gender, experiential or breed predilection in leash reactivity, although it may show a higher prevalence in terrier, herding and working breeds.
There are no data confirming the prevalence of leash reactivity, but a review of the popular literature suggests that the incidence is relatively high and may be a primary contributing factor in relinquishment of dogs to shelters.
Clinical signs (primary, most to least frequent, scientific term, synonyms)
Dog exhibits unprovoked lunging and other agonistic responding toward dogs and other sight stimuli only when on leash.
Clinical signs (secondary, most to least frequent, scientific term, synonyms)
Cause (scientific, common term)
Some publications attribute leash reactivity to inadequate socialization and/or exercise opportunities, while others may more accurately state that the etiology is complex and generally includes a variety of both genetic and experiential predisposing factors. As indicated by the name, the germane feature is leash restraint; restraint is known to increase aggression and agonistic responding in a variety of species. In addition, it has been postulated that leash restraint interferes with the ability of dogs to both express and react to intraspecific greeting and acceptance responses and this may exacerbate uncertainty and therefore contribute to reactive agonistic responding.
Organ system affected
Central Nervous System.
Functional analysis evaluating differential effects of evoking stimuli presented when the subject is on-leash and off-leash.
Dog exhibits agonistic responding both on-leash and off-leash.
On-lead lunging in dogs is a disruptive and potentially dangerous behavior that restricts enjoyment of a dog and curtails exercise opportunities for both dog and owner. When lunging or other agonistic responding is differentially expressed on leash, the dog is termed ‚Äúleash reactive.‚Äù This differentially expressed responding may be due to the fact that dogs are a social species that exhibit an inherent attraction to conspecifics, and this attraction is supported and mediated by a repertoire of relatively ritualistic greeting behaviors that include facial, vocal, olfactory and body signals interpreted by other dogs; restraint may inhibit the dog's ability to express and react appropriately to social signals in greeting situations.
A review of the popular literature suggests that the incidence of leash reactivity is relatively high and may be a primary contributing factor in relinquishment of dogs to shelters. However, leash-reactive dogs have traditionally been excluded from regular obedience classes. This exclusion is likely predicated on the fact that group obedience can exacerbate leash reactivity in the absence of specifically dedicated protocol. Accordingly, the problem is seen as resistant to treatment. However, successful treatments for leash reactivity have been implemented and include systematic desensitization (graduated exposure) with reinforcement of alternative behavior (counter-conditioning).
Treatment for leash-reactivity includes a combination of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning. Although the owner must ultimately execute treatment, the protocol must be designed by an experienced professional.
An important tool in the treatment of on-lead lunging is the head collar. Under the supervision of an experienced professional, a head collar such as the Gentle Leader¬Æ can control the orientation of the dog's head and thereby be used for effective reinforcement facilitation. Studies indicate that leash reactive dogs will work to keep sight of the evoking stimulus, and therefore the collar can be used to terminate this sight upon lunging behavior and then to reinforce an alternative behavior, such as attention to the dog's handler, through a return to a loose leash. In addition, systematic desensitization should be incorporated into treatment. Desensitization involves walking the dog at a distance that evokes attention but does not evoke an agonistic reaction. Attention with the absence of reaction and, ideally, with the addition of the alternative response of attending to the owner, can then be differentially paired with high-value treats or the presentation of a favorite toy. As the dog progresses to performance of the alternative behavior at the sight of evoking stimuli, distances can be reduced and desensitization continued.
Studies indicate that leash reactivity can successfully be managed with appropriate treatment.
Appropriate behavioral modification can lead to successful management of leash reactivity. Consult your veterinarian or qualified behaviorist or trainer for addition guidance.
Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W. & Ackerman. (1997). Handbook of behavior problems of the dog and cat. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann.
McConnell, P. (2002). The other end of the leash. New York: Random House.
Sobie, J. (2003). Response cost in the treatment of lunging in dogs. Master of Arts Thesis, Western Michigan University.
Jennifer Sobie, PhD
Steven Hansen, DVM, MS, MBA