Leash Training for Anxious Dogs: Finding Balance and Empathy

Walking our furry friends on a leash can be an experience filled with angst for both humans and dogs alike. Leash reactivity is a common issue faced by many pet owners. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Understanding Our Canine Companions

Our canine companions have adapted remarkably well to our human-dominated world. However, sometimes we unintentionally put them in situations that aren’t in their best interest, leading to various behavioral issues. In an ideal world, dogs would roam freely, coexisting peacefully with others. Dogs are inherently peaceful creatures, gifted communicators who prefer non-violent interactions. When they exhibit behaviors that we deem undesirable, it’s crucial to recognize that these actions are their way of expressing anxiety or stress. Our role as their guardians is to assist and support them, not to punish or correct their distress.

Addressing Canine Anxiety on Leash

When dogs are on a leash, they become vulnerable. If they are stressed, anxious, or afraid, they may not be able to respond in their natural fight-or-flight instinct. Consequently, they communicate their anxiety through behaviors we may find unfavorable. It is our responsibility to identify and alleviate their triggers, such as encounters with other dogs, skateboarders, passing cars, or unfamiliar animals and children.

Reflecting on Our Motivations

When attempting to address leash reactivity in our dogs, we must pause and ask ourselves, “Are we doing this for our dogs or for ourselves?” Consider this: if someone tried to help me overcome my deep-seated fear of snakes, I would respectfully decline, as snakes cannot easily express their emotions through tails, ears, or eyes. Similarly, if a dog experiences anxiety, is it truly necessary to “fix” the problem? Shouldn’t we seek alternative ways to provide support and comfort without continuously exposing them to stressful situations?

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Nurturing Individuality: Oscar’s Story

Take Oscar, my beloved Labradoodle, for example. When I adopted him at 5½ months old, he was emotionally broken, afraid of everything from other dogs to everyday sounds. Through careful and considerate socialization, Oscar has made remarkable progress. However, he has come to a point in his journey where he prefers not to engage in play with other dogs. While some may assume that forcing him to socialize would be beneficial, I have chosen a different path. During training sessions, if another dog is involved, I ensure Oscar stays safely at home or in the car. Respecting his boundaries is essential.

Assessing the Stress Levels

When dealing with a leash reactive dog, it is crucial to evaluate whether the stress of walking on a leash is truly worth it for the dog, not just for ourselves. If the issue is simply frustration due to inadequate socialization during puppyhood, specific steps can be taken to alleviate the stress. Using the simple techniques outlined in the infographic below, walking your dog will become an enjoyable experience beyond your imagination.


However, in cases of severe anxiety stemming from fear or aggression, it is important to reconsider your enrichment program for your four-legged friend. Prolonged stress could lead to long-term physical and psychological consequences, just as it does in humans.

Alternative Ways to Nurture Your Anxious Pooch

Fortunately, there are numerous activities available to support a dog with seemingly insurmountable stress levels. Engage them in scent work within the comfort of your own home, set up a portable agility course in your yard or basement, enjoy games of hide and seek or puzzle games, teach them new tricks, or find a few friendly dogs for peaceful playtime in a secure yard.

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Backyard Agility Course

In my backyard agility course, I repurposed everyday items to create a stimulating environment for my dogs. With affordable portable jumps, tunnels, and weave poles, you can embark on an exciting agility training journey with your canine companion. For more inspiration, check out “101 Dog Tricks” by Kyra Sundance, available on Amazon.

Finding Balance with Empathy

If we truly want to be responsible and compassionate guardians for our dogs, we must prioritize their well-being and happiness. By evaluating situations from their perspective and understanding their individual needs, we can create a peaceful and stress-free life for our beloved pets.

About the Author: Jill Breitner is a renowned dog trainer, award-winning writer, and expert in dog body language. She is the author of the “Dog Decoder” smartphone app, which helps users interpret canine body language. With over 40 years of experience, Jill has been teaching gentle handling and basic husbandry skills to enhance the bond between pets and their caregivers. Connect with Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page.