Lead Reactivity and Groups vs Greetings

By Abby Huxtable

I have been planning a lead reactivity article for some time, as people often say to me that their dog is fine off lead, but reacts on lead (as can one of mine). People find this hard to understand, as the dog is still seeing the same dogs, but reacting totally differently. I will explain why in a moment.

The reason I have included the Groups vs Greetings section, is that it is also relevant, and another one dogs often struggle with.

We hear many owners saying ‘they’re fine on a group walk, but react when we see a dog coming towards us’. Yes! This is totally normal. For the dog, these are two totally different situations. It’s not the dogs themselves that are the issue as such, but the situation that is scary (or exciting, in the case of frustrated greeters).

If your dog starts within a group, or with your friend and their dog, they are already with the other dogs, they are part of the group, they are all walking together in the same direction. It’s easy to be at the edge of the group if they wish, it’s easy to avoid the others if need be, or feel confident with them as you get to know them in a gentle way as you walk together. It’s much less scary.

However, if you are walking towards another dog, it’s heading straight for you, it’s getting closer, it’s confrontational, you know you are going to end up head on to it and that is scary!

A nervous dog will generally (there’s always exceptions) feel more relaxed and less under pressure in a situation when they start with others and move in the same direction as those others, rather than that scary, head on meeting, where they are under pressure as that dog approaches them.

This is why we recommend circle and parallel walking when introducing new dogs.

Now, back to the lead reactivity.

There are four main fear responses in dogs – fight, flight, freeze and fornicate (hump).

As a side note, these are also the four main play styles, as they use play to rehearse survival behaviours.

Most of us know fight or flight; freeze and hump are less common but still recognised responses to stress.

Now, let us think about this in relation to being off your lead vs on your lead.

If you are off lead, you can do any of these that your body and instincts tell you to. You have that choice. Many fearful dogs will choose flight as it means self preservation, and move away from whatever scares them.

However, if they are restricted by that lead, they cannot flee and often cannot freeze as we keep them walking forward, so they resort to fighting and bark, growl or lunge towards the scary thing, to try and prompt it to flee instead.

This is that lead reactivity you as owners see.

As owners, our response is then to often tighten the lead, or try to move our dogs away using that lead, which adds more tension to the situation, and causes an even bigger reaction from our dogs.

So, what should you do instead?

Being aware and ready to help your dog out is number one. Having read this article, you should now be more aware of the situations your dog will find harder, and why they respond the way they do.

You can then be ready to apply your click the trigger or open bar/ closed bar in a situation your dog will struggle with, or redirect your dog to do something else, instead of reacting to the scary thing.

You can work on making that lead tension a cue to return to you, instead of it increasing the stress (guide 13 – Let’s Go, plus see video from Kikopup below).

You can work on being aware of your response and taking that deep breath, relaxing yourself or loosening your grip on the lead when you see triggers, so you can talk to your dog instead.

You can encourage them to still choose the ‘flight’ option by helping them and allowing them to move away from the scary thing, so you can then apply your click the trigger to make it less of a scary thing, as it passes you by at a bigger distance.

You can use friends or professionals to do parallel walks to build their confidence with calm, relaxed dogs, so they feel better about dogs in general and then practice them seeing a head on dog at a distance, and applying the training in a controlled setting to gradually teach them how to cope with these interactions.

The Leash Pressure Game FOR PUPPIES! – to STOP PULLING on leash