How to overcome aggression when dog is on leash

Does your otherwise friendly dog embarrass you by snarling and lunging at other dogs while on leash? This sort of aggression is termed “leash aggression,” and there are many reasons for its prevalence.

Wild canines, feral dogs and dogs in developing countries have no choice but to learn appropriate canine social skills because they are in the presence of their own kind every day. Social skills are fundamental to peaceful coexistence.

Being restricted by a leash is another major issue. Choices for fight or flight are limited to fight when a dog feels anxious. Add overarousal, and you have instant aggression. While your dog’s behavior looks violent, the intent of the behavior usually is just to increase distance from the unknown dog.

The sight of another dog can create intense curiosity and a strong desire to interact. But dogs that rarely interact with other dogs invariably lack social subtlety, and their exuberance is seen as rude by more-experienced dogs. Lunging toward the new dog is stopped abruptly by the leash, which creates frustration. The excitement of seeing another dog plus the frustration of being restrained by the leash equal aggression.

Change your dog’s excitement level – If your dog can play well with other dogs off leash, you can reduce her over-the-top exuberance and help her develop better social skills by getting her together with as many dogs as possible while off leash. You also can organize practice meetings with familiar dogs while both dogs are on leash.

Change your dog’s frustration level – Training can replace the aggressive response with a more-favorable reaction, such as looking to you for a bit of leftover chicken (or other high-value treat). Here’s how it works:

Find a comfortable spot to sit where leashed dogs are likely to pass by with their owners. Sit back far enough that your dog won’t be forced to actually interact with the other dog, maybe 25 feet or so. You can increase this distance if your dog still overreacts.

Use a leash that is no longer than 6 feet and bring a ton of absolutely irresistible dog treats with you. As soon as you know your dog has noticed an approaching dog, excitedly say “doggie” and give your dog those fantastic treats until the other dog is out of sight. Every time your dog even glances at another dog, you should say “doggie” and turn into an automatic treat dispenser. You now are in the process of changing your dog’s emotional response to other dogs. If your dog overreacts, stop and increase the distance between you and the other dogs.

This process will take several weeks to begin affecting your dog’s behavior. The proof of your success will look like this: When your dog notices another dog, instead of becoming excited or concerned, she turns to you with a gleam in her eye as if to say, “Oh boy! A dog! Can I have my treat?”

Once you have continued success, you can begin practicing closer to the dog traffic. While your dog may become somewhat concerned about the new closer proximity, she should continue to make good progress with practice. Continue to close the gap between you and other dogs until you can confidently walk around other dogs while your dog remains calm.

Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at