top of page

Training Dogs that Bark and Lunge While Leashed

Does your dog act like a lunatic when she sees other dogs or people or cars while you are walking on the leash?

Helping Dogs With Leash Reactivity

Dog trainers use “Reactivity” or “Leash Reactivity” to describe dogs that get over excited when they see certain things. They might bark, lunge or whine, and it is often impossible at that time to get the dog’s attention. The reactivity might be triggered by other dogs, bicycles, cars, runners, kids or animals or something else. This reactivity is not only embarrassing and dangerous but it is stressful and likely unhealthy for your dog.


This method I will describe below is inspired by the "Look at That" technique by Leslie McDevitt and has been very helpful for training dogs with reactivity and getting them to calm down. The logic behind this method is that it teaches your dog that the thing that she was previously worried or over excited by is actually a signal to look at you and get a treat. This will calm the energy and help to shift the emotional feelings as well as create a pattern for her to look to you for direction instead of fixating on something in the environment.


Here’s how to get started!


  • Prevention and Management: When we first begin working with a reactive dog, it is very important to not get so close to the scary/exciting thing that the dog has a big reaction as this will set back our progress. I recommend that you avoid going to areas where you know your dog will be reactive until your dog has learned to be calmer using this method. Sometimes this may mean avoiding your regular outings entirely and finding another way to exercise your dog and sometimes it means being very watchful so you can avoid the scary/exciting thing before your dog sees it.


  • Training Tools: To begin, make sure you have plenty of tasty treats like fresh meat and cheese mixed in with some blander treats or kibble. Pea-sized is best and use a training pouch so you can get them out quickly. Using a clicker to mark the behavior you like is preferred but you could use the word "yes" instead if you wish to. In general, my favorite leash-walking tool is the Freedom Harness. It is well made and has both a front and a back attachment loop for your leash. The front attachment is best for this work. If your dog is very strong, I recommend that you teach your dog to wear a Gentle Leader. If you search via YouTube you will find videos on how to teach your dog to be comfortable and happy wearing one which is very important if you are going to use it for this work. A standard six foot’ leash is best.


  • Emergency U-Turn: A “trick” that will really help us get out of a situation in which your dog is too close to a scary/exciting thing, is to teach your dog that sometimes you will say “U-turn!” and then turn and move quickly in the opposite direction. You teach your dog to follow you when you do this by putting a treat to her nose and then quickly running the opposite direction. Make it fun and feed her the treat when she follows you. Make sure to practice this first in a boring outdoor environment so it is easy. Then use it from time to time when we get to the following steps to keep it fresh. Transition to just using the verbal cue and rewarding after she follows you instead of using the lure after she has had success for a dozen or so tries. Do this and all the exercises listed below in 5-10 minutes sessions.


  • Attention While on Leash: Now let's get your dog on a leash and begin the foundation training. The first goal is to have your dog automatically look at you when you are outside on the leash. Go to a fairly boring area outside and bring your tasty treats and wait. When your dog turns her head towards you, mark that exact moment with your clicker or “yes” and then feed a treat. Then throw another treat on the ground while saying “find it”. If your dog is too distracted to look at you at all to start, try making a little sound or moving around. It’s best not to use her name as we want this to be automatic. Practice this in increasingly distracting environments and while moving around, building on success.


  • Look at That with Neutral Targets: Once your dog has learned to automatically look at you while you are outside on the leash, you are ready for this step. Now you are going to mark when your dog looks at something in the environment. It can be anything, but moving objects are the most useful. It might help to have a second person outside to help the dog have something obvious to look at. You can also use a toy in your hand and hold it out. When the dog looks at it, mark and then feed a treat from your hand while she is looking at you. About ½ of the time also toss another treat away from the thing she was looking at and say "find it". This practice will teach your dog that when she looks at things she should anticipate looking back at you and it will help to prevent the excitement from ramping up. You know she is really getting it when she starts to look back at you quickly when you mark. Now try pausing when she's looking at the thing and see if she will turn her head towards you in anticipation and mark that. Once this happens you can switch to clicking her when she starts to look at you instead of when she looks at the thing. Then it’s time to move to the next step.


  • Look at That with the Target: When you see the scary/exciting thing which we will now call the target, (I'm going to use a dog for this example), say "Where's the dog". Keep repeating that phrase until your dog happens to turn her head towards the target. When she turns her head towards the target, mark and feed a treat from your hand and then toss another treat a few feet away from the target and then another treat another few more feet away from the target. This allows your dog to get a reward plus some distance and some sniffing at the ground to help her to calm down. Begin again by saying “Where’s the dog”, (if the target is still in view), and repeat as above. If your dog then spontaneously looks at the target, also mark and reward that. At first your dog may not turn back to you to get the treat and in that case you can go ahead and feed her while she is still looking at the target, but you should soon see that your dog will automatically turn her head towards you in anticipation of the treat and that is a great sign of progress. If she is not starting to turn her head towards you after a session of practice then try working at a greater distance from the target. Once your dog is starting to have an easier time with this you can start to move closer to the target.


  • Troubleshooting: If your dog is not eating the treat or is barking/lunging at the target then you are too close. Move away and try again after doing some “find its”. And note that sometimes after a dog has had one reaction they are just too amped up to continue training and needs a longer break.


Continue to practice this and over time you will find that your dog will become less reactive to things in her environment. My clients have had great success with this fun technique and I hope you do too! If you need one-on-one help (which many folks do), please reach out to me.

Contact Us Today for a Free Phone Consult!

Quick & kind dog training help. Private, in-home sessions in NEPA and Zoom sessions worldwide.

bottom of page