Perhaps one of the most embarrassing behaviour problems is a dog who acts aggressively on lead, whether towards dogs, other animals or people. Often these dogs do not exhibit any aggression when off lead.

Although puzzling to owners, the difference between off lead and on lead behaviour offers a clue to the problem as well as the solution. If you recognise that on lead aggression always involves unintentional signals from the owner which create a vicious cycle. Here’s how:

At some point, usually in adolescence, the dog growls, barks, lunges at or snaps at a dog or person. The owner is surprised and embarrassed, but is not sure what to do. If not handled correctly, the dog may persist in this behaviour and over time this will get worse.

Then, the owner begins to anticipate any situation which might trigger this behaviour. For example, trying to spot an approaching dog or person before the dog does, and if or when the dog does spot another dog or person the owner re-acts by tightening up on the lead, so he/she can control the dog better, stiffens his own body posture and holds his/her breath.

How The Dog Responds

The dog notices the change in the lead tension, the owner’s body posture and breathing, and begins looking to see what his/her owner is so worried about, and once he/she spots it, so begins his/her aggressive behaviour.

Note: The first step in attack training is to use a tight lead, and tense body posture to excite the dog into a more aggressive state. This encourages a dog to want to get to something or someone that the handler is preventing it from getting to, hence a heightened levels of aggression is displayed.

When an owner responds in this manner he/she actually makes the situation worse without meaning to, and the dog simply responds to signals received from the handler.

What you can do to solve the problem?

Below is some basics:


Take the time to teach your dog self control and basic obedience commands which you can reinforce, and praise his/her good behaviour.

Be alert to the earliest signs.

No dog spends his/her entire life in an aggressive state. Learn what body language your dog exhibits when he/she is calm and relaxed, and what changes occur as he/she moves into a more aggressive mood.

Lookout for changes in ears, head and neck carriage, eye shape and expression, mouth and whisker changes, tail carriage and overall posture.

Intervention at the first sign of a problem is more successful than trying to deal with the full blown aggression.

  • Redirect your dog’s attention. By giving a command he/she knows in a cheerful, upbeat tone, you can redirect the dog’s attention back to working with you.

  • If possible, change direction and move away from the situation, your dog cannot walk briskly with you and be aggressive at the same time.

Note: Change the body posture, change the emotional state.

Body language is nothing more than an external expression of an internal state. It is possible to change an emotional state by changing body posture and vice versa. This is why the advice to “Stand up straight, smile and you’ll feel better” actually works!

Still focusing on aggression, visualise how hard it would be, to be angry if you were sitting in a comfortable chair with your face and head relaxed.

You can physically change a dogs body posture, and therefore shift his/her emotional state, by simply asking him/her to sit (a neutral, non-aggressive position) and using your hands to stroke ears, mouth, head and hackles back to a more relaxed position. This is not petting, and you are not trying to reassure the dog.

Note: Concentrate on changing the body posture using firm strokes of your hands at the same time you insist the dog sit quietly with no tension on the lead. This very simple technique is amazingly effective.

  • Remember to be aware of your breathing and body posture, because we tend to hold our breath and tense our muscles when nervous (facts that do not escape the dog). It’s important to breathe in a more normal fashion.

  • The easiest way is to either sing or tell your dog a fairy tale, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This might sound silly, but the very silliness keeps you calm and relaxed. After all how uptight can you get talking about a blonde girl and three bears in the woods?

Keep the lead loose.

  • Remember tension on the lead encourages aggressive behaviour.

  • Put your dog under a command, such as,”sit” using the lead if needed to help him/her, but then immediately relax all tension on the lead.

  • This does NOT mean give your dog full freedom of his/her lead. Always keep your hand on the lead in such a way that if needed you can quickly control him/her, but don’t have any tension on the lead.

  • If your dog breaks position, quietly remind him/her what he/she was asked to do, and reposition him/her.

  • Get to know the difference between aggression and an appropriate response to rudeness.

  • Far too many dogs are labeled aggressive when in fact they are responding in a perfectly appropriate canine fashion to rudeness.

Note: This usually occurs when other dog owners allow their dog to be very rude because they believe that their dog is simply saying,Hello” to your dog.

What is really happening?

It’s a canine version of a complete stranger rushing up to you and hugging & kissing you! If you respond by a verbal snapping at the person and pushing him/her away, you are well within your rights, and should not to be considered aggressive.

  • Never let your dog be rude, and try to protect him/her from well meaning but uninformed owners who allow their dogs to be rude.

  • Shouting doesn’t equal murder! Very few canine arguments result in any serious injuries. Although it is scary when dogs snap, growl and bark.

  • Its important to remember that dog behaviour is mostly posturing and threats designed to avoid real conflict.

  • Just as you may raise your voice when upset to warn someone that you are angry, this does not mean that you will escalate the situation with real violence. Note: Your dog uses his body language and vocalisations in the same way.

  • If a physical conflict arises, most dogs have bite inhibition and rarely inflict any serious damage. Knowing this allows you to stay calmer, and not imagine the worst!

What does not cause lead Aggression:

Unfortunately, many expertsare extremely misinformed about this and most other behavioural issues. Here are the most common and incorrect explanations they provide:

  • The dog is dominantand wants to fight every other dog.

  • Dogs have been selectively bred over many generations to avoid conflict, a species that is genetically predisposed to fighting tends to make itself extinct.

  • The dog doesnt respect you as the leader” or alpha” and therefore is protecting you.

  • There is a behavioural issue called resource guardingwhere dogs guard their owners, but it is far more rare and typically occurs on or off-leash.

  • On-lead reactive dogs can be extremely well trained in obedience, and do everything their handler asks, and still lunge and bark.

  • You are not calm and assertive.

  • You could be totally oblivious to the fact theres a dog approaching (and therefore relaxed) and the lead-reactive dog would still bark and lunge if they see the other dog first.

What training techniques should we avoid?

If you are advised to do any of the following, run far, far away from that trainer:

Lead Corrections

The dog already fears and dislikes other dogs. Causing additional pain and discomfort whenever he sees another dog only compounds the feelings of frustration, fear, and hatred. The correction may suppress the behaviour,  but the emotional attitude the dog has continue’s to slide into deeper frustration and hatred of dogs on lead. Furthermore, the dog has not learned any wanted behaviour to replace his/her current response (such as look at the handler).

Spray Bottles Or Citronella Collars

Many dogs fear spray bottles or citronella collars, so these softeraversive’s should not be used for the same reason. Conversely, many dogs do not care about getting water in the face, rendering them useless. In both cases, the dog has learned nothing.

Verbal/Physical Violence

You can suppress the behaviour by yelling, hitting, poking, tapping, kicking, alpha-rolling for example (not recommended), but you are putting yourself at a greater risk of being bitten. If a dog learns that humans and their hands are dangerous, you will create a fear-biting dog.

Its important to remember that while physical effects are relatively short-term issues, resulting mental effects can cause higher degrees of pain and suffering, with the damage lasting a lot longer. In fact, a multitude of studies have shown that emotional and mental harm is even more excruciating than physical hurt, and when animals are forced to choose, they would rather endure physical pain.

To learn more, read:

  • Body Posture & Emotions: Shifting Shapes, Shifting Minds (Paperback-1 Oct 1996)

  • Finding A Balance: Issues of Power in the Dog/Human Relationship (Paperback-Oct 1, 1996)