Lunging, barking, biting, oh my.

Does your dog embarrass you on walks? Is your dog struggling to be calm when they see humans, dogs, bikes, joggers, etc?  I’ve been there. My first dog, Pepper, was so afraid of strangers that one day while running alongside my bike, she veered into the road because the upcoming car was less scary to her than the stranger 50 plus feet down the hill. The second dog I adopted, BJ, was terrified of new places, people, and dogs.  Astrid was so frustrated by the leash preventing her from running up to other dogs and chase other critters, that she used to throw temper tantrums that would make a 2-year-old child seem mild-mannered and sometimes she would growl at dogs.

Did you know that one of the pioneers in canine behavior modification, Karen Overall, learned much of what she shares with us today from a dog named Flash that put 3 people in the hospital before she adopted him?  He lived with Karen for over 10 years and became a great canine ambassador, guiding Karen in her work and directly helping in the rehabilitation of other dogs! Read more about Flash here.

The good news is we can change your dog’s behavior and the emotions motivating the behavior using kind humane methods. Pepper and BJ overcame their fears and became very well behaved dogs. Astrid no longer throws temper tantrums and can now pass other dogs on trails calmly, we still do some management because her rehabilitation isn’t done yet. My goal with this blog is to help connect you to many of the resources available that can help guide you on your journey.  I provide some links in the main body of this blog,  a more comprehensive list of resources can be found in the resources section.

The first priority is to understand thresholds and trigger stacking because understanding these concepts is crucial to addressing reactivity regardless of what method you decide to use for treatment.    Which of the two people in the drawing below do you want to be?  The difference between the two is that person A’s threshold and autonomy is respected while person B’s threshold and autonomy is not.  The importance of helping your dog stay under threshold cannot be understated.  A 1999 review paper on animal stress coping styles said “Successful coping depends highly on the controllability and predictability of the stressor [5,6]. A consistent finding across species is that whenever environmental stressors are too demanding and the individual cannot cope, its health is in danger.”56870101_2672617949477331_5863195366282756096_n

A trigger is something that causes stress.  Nearly all aggression is caused by some sort of stress (Mills et al, 2014;  Veenema et al, 2007; Carmen Sandi et al 2015 ; Reisner et al, 2007 ).  Have you ever had a stressful day and near the end of the day you snapped at someone over small infraction? You were trigger stacked. You experienced too many stressors in a short window of time and went over threshold.  If you experienced fewer stressors you may have stayed under threshold.  Going over threshold hinders our thinking, learning, and our ability to keep our composure and remain calm.  The same can happen to our dogs. Here is a great article on thresholds and trigger stacking.  Here is another article on trigger stacking.  

Treatment Options

Counter Conditioning

Does Pavlov ring a bell? The first option is directly related to his experiment with dogs drooling when he rang a bell because it predicted food. Counter Conditioning (CC) is giving your dog a high-value treat after your dog notices a trigger regardless of what behavior your dog does. Your dog’s behavior is information on whether you are too close to the trigger but does not change whether you provide the treat or not.  The goal is for your dog to begin associating the trigger with “chicken falling from the sky” while your dog is at a distance they can calmly notice the trigger (Haug, 2008)   Over time the distance necessary to stay under threshold will decrease. CARE for reactive dogs website is a useful resource for understanding Counter Conditioning.  Midnight Dog Walkers book is also helpful and the author has a wonderful group on Facebook.  Here is a video on Counter Conditioning.

Have you tried Counter Conditioning and it didn’t work? It could be that your dog associated the arrival of treats with something other than the trigger (maybe you reach your hand in the treat bag or tense up before your dog sees the trigger so now your behavior predicts triggers and treats) or maybe your dog was too close and didn’t feel safe.  Was your dog refusing treats like Astrid is in this picture? Here is a video on the importance of dogs being underthreshold for Counter Conditioning to work.

Astrid refusing high value treats and showing several stress signs. We are too close to a trigger.

This treatment option has a long history of use with multiple species, including humans, and to my knowledge has the most supporting scientific evidence for canine behavior modification. Several studies have found counter conditioning as equivalent or superior treatment option as just exposing an animal to a trigger.   Here is a recent human study that cites some of the other studies on counter conditioning. Here is a paper summarizing Pavlov’s contribution to behavior modification. The next two treatment options for dogs were developed more recently.

Operant Conditioning

The second option is using operant conditioning through the Look at That game (LAT) where you click (or verbally mark) and treat when your dog looks at the trigger.  Control Unleashed is a good book for understanding this method.  Another method is called Engage-Disengage which builds off of the Look at That game. Here is a video by Donna Hill on the LAT game.  Here is an article that describes the Look At That game.  Seeing the trigger becomes the situational cue to the dog for doing these behaviors. Most counter-conditioning training protocols use operant conditioning as a second step after the dog shows they have a positive conditioned emotional response (sees a trigger and looks back at you expectantly for food).

Trainers that use operant conditioning as a first step say that counter-conditioning will also happen through their method because the dog will usually get treats shortly after seeing the trigger.  Think of the body language your dog has after you train your dog to do a trick when you used treats for rewards, long after you have stopped giving treats for every repetition, your dog probably is showing very happy body language because they now have positive associations with the trick.  How about the body language when they see their leash, training props, or when you approach places you have trained at?  Naysayers of starting with operant conditioning say that your dog may become happy about the task you ask them to perform but may not build the positive association with the trigger and thus you might find yourself having to micromanage your dog for the rest of their life.

BAT 2.0

The third option is BAT 2.0 which was crafted by Grisha Stewart. Grisha has a website, some videos on youtube and a book called BAT 2.0. In this method, you set your dog up from a trigger far enough away that they can relax and sniff and explore the environment. You follow your dog around on a 15-foot lead as long as they do not seem to become stressed or head straight toward the trigger. This method is about helping teach your dog they can relax in the presence of a trigger and learn social skills and teaching your dog that they can choose to move away from the trigger whenever they want.   Because we can’t always successfully set up the environment so your dog is below threshold enough to relax in the presence of the trigger to sniff and explore the environment Grisha provides some other options including Mark and Move which is similar to Engage-Disengage to use in less than ideal situations.

BAT relies heavily on setting up the dogs environment in such a way that the dog does not practice the behaviors we do not want and instead does other preferable natural behaviors, ideally good social behaviors including polite cut off signals and pro-social behaviors that are naturally reinforcing. I do not know of any research that has been done directly on this method being used in dogs.  But it is a form of low-intensity exposure therapy which has been studied in humans.

One aspect of BAT is we help the dog feel free to reduce their exposure to the trigger if they wish by moving away from the trigger or showing cut off signals that tell the trigger they don’t wish to interact.  This aspect shares some similarities to a method being researched in humans and rodents called active coping which has been shown to reduce fear for extended periods of time and appears to not have the risk of spontaneous return of fear that happens with extinction training (Hartley et al, 2009).  The brain structures related to fear are high conserved across species so it is reasonable to extrapolate research from one species to another, which is why we do many studies in rodents to learn more about human behavior and ways to change behavior (Quirk et al, 2006;  Hartley et al, 2009).

Finding a Trainer

It is best to find a force-free trainer that can help guide your behavior modification plan and help you problem solve your situation. Bringing in an experienced trainer is well worth the time and money and may help you speed up progress with your dog and end the embarrassing over threshold incidents. Here is a directory of force-free trainers.

Why Force Free?  Surely I should punish bad behavior!

If your child panicked at the sight of a spider, would you punish him for panicking?  If you screamed in terror whenever a snake slithered by you, would applying “stim” via an e-collar or a pop on a collar around your neck help you become less terrified of the snake?  You might learn to not scream or show obvious outward signs of panic, but you would probably become more scared. Aggression is often caused by fear and/or frustration.   A 2008 paper by Huang et al said this “Fear-motivated aggression is the most common diagnosis in dogs aggressive toward unfamiliar stimuli, even when elements of territoriality are present. Offensive posturing by the dog does not rule out anxiety or fear as an underlying cause [4]. The distance to the stimulus and previous learning affect the dog’s behavioral presentation. Many dogs show highly offensive posturing when behind a barrier or when the trigger stimulus is far away. As the stimulus approaches or the barrier is removed, the dog’s behavior may become more
ambiguous and finally reflect outright fear. ” Aggression is one of the Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fidget responses.

Using punishment is correlated with increased aggression which is the opposite of your training goal.   A 2018 paper by Dodman et al said “As in a number of previous studies [], the present findings confirmed a positive association between owners’ reported use of aversive or coercive training methods (ATT scores) and the prevalence and severity of their dogs’ behavior problems as measured by the mini C-BARQ (Table 1). Based on the results of the regression models, the main associations were with owner-directed aggressionstranger-directed aggressionseparation problemschasing (among dogs belonging to owners who score low on the TIPI conscientiousness scale), persistent barkingurination when left alone, and defecation when left alone (in dogs belonging to men with self-reported moderate depression).”  A 2008 paper by Dr Luescher and Dr Reisner said “Because conflict behaviors are an indication of underlying stress, punishment (which increases stress) is contraindicated. Even though punishment could be effective in suppressing particular conflict behaviors at the moment, it does not address the cause of the problem and in many cases increases the stress and conflict that lie at the root of the problem. Thus, because punishment does not address the underlying emotional state of the animal, it is likely to increase the conflict behaviors or may eliminate one behavior but induce another conflict behavior.”

Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist who adopted and treated Flash, a dog that had put 3 people in the hospital before coming to her home, said this in a 2019 paper ” Contrary to popular belief, efficacy data for aversive, punishment-based interventions are lacking. However, studies have demonstrated that adverse behavioral outcomes are associated with punitive training methods among dogs in the general population and dogs seen at specialty behavioral medicine practices.”

Here is a blog about some of the science on punishment.  Here is a great resource for examining the science behind dog training options.

Thank You to DogMinded for permission to share this. Here is their facebook page

More on Thresholds

Keeping dogs under threshold is very important for helping reactive dogs, but it can be difficult.   Learning more about your dog’s body language will help you pick up on the earlier signs of stress.  Did you see any signs of stress or arousal in the picture at the top of this blog? We cut that walk short because Astrid was showing so many signs of stress and arousal in a short period of time.  Here is an article on body language.  The Dog Decoder is a fun phone app for learning dog body language that is great for adults and kids.   Here is a video on the interaction of trigger stacking, thresholds, and body language.

Shareable version of this chart can be found on DVM360 website.

One of the biggest challenges to helping reactive dogs is other people.

We can’t expect everyone to cooperate with giving our dogs the space we need even when we request it,  we need to go out of our way to maintain our dogs’ threshold distance ourselves when possible.  Training a u-turn behavior on cue facilitates turning around (and running if needed) in order to gain distance from a trigger (Haung, 2008).  Training this cue is recommended by every trainer I know.   Here is a video on teaching u-turn and other ways to move your dog away from a trigger and helping your dog cope while the trigger goes by.

Be ready to advocate for your dog. Have short statements ready to tell people that they should provide you and your dog the space you need. I tend to say something along the lines of “Don’t let your dog approach, it won’t go well” when I encounter leashed dogs on the trail.  Suggesting some sort of danger seems to be the most effective means of convincing others to respond as requested.


Some warning signage may increase the number of people that cooperate with giving you space but it may also land you in legal trouble if your dog injures a person or dog because they may say the signage proves that you knew your dog was dangerous and failed to prevent the injury.  Some say that the signage just draws people in closer to try to read what the gear says. I don’t expect my gear to work by itself, rather I expect it to help reinforce my verbal message.

I choose to muzzle Astrid on most walks and I use an “ASK BEFORE APPROACHING” bandana and a “NO DOGS” leash sleeve when in on-leash parks.    On Saturdays, I wear a shirt I designed that says “Leash Your Dog, My Owner Bites” on the front and “Leash Your Dog, it’s the law” on the back.  This shirt and several other designs are available at my storefront on Teespring.  I find these help reinforce my verbal request for people to not let their dogs greet and to improve compliance with my verbal request for pet parents to fetch their illegally off-leash dog that is running toward my dog.  There are multiple educational campaigns attempting to make yellow colored gear signal a need for space.  Here is the Yellow Dog Projects gear. 20190329_105901

Location, Location, Location

Observe people in your area. Select quiet times of the day to walk your dog in quiet locations with good visibility (Horwitz, 2008).  Open grassy areas with paths are a great option as most people stay on the path and you can work your dog in the grass keeping at least your dogs’ threshold distance from the trail. If other dogs are a trigger for your dog, you will need to move farther into the grass when you see flexi leads or off-leash dogs. Cemeteries and large parking lots are also good options.   If you walk on trails, they should be wider than your dog’s threshold distance or have areas on at least one side where you can get off the trail to let triggers pass while keeping your dog under threshold.  If walking in a suburbs, be ready to cross the street or take a side street or walk into someone’s driveway as needed to keep your dog’s threshold intact.

If your dog is not staying under threshold on most walks, you need to change when or where or how you walk or temporary stop walking while going through behavior modification. You may need to seek a veterinary behaviorist for guidance and possibly medication.  Stress slows learning but does not fully stop learning.  Unfortunately, when our dogs go over threshold in an offensive display the scary thing tends to move away which reinforces that lunging, barking, and growling makes the scary thing go away ( Horwitz, 2008) and makes those behaviors more likely to happen in the future.  We need to set our dogs up for success so they do not feel compelled to do these behaviors.

 Dealing With Off-Leash Dogs.

  • Find areas where people have the best control over their dogs.
  • When you see an off-leash dog, try to keep as far away as possible. If you are far enough away they may not run up to your dog.
  • Walk with another person when possible so they can move between you and the off-leash dog and address its pet parent. This is extremely handy for when you get the argumentative pet parents because you can gain some distance with your dog while they are busy arguing with your walking partner.
  • If the dog approaches, motivate their pet parent to recall or fetch their dog by implying their dog is in some sort of danger (“My dog has -insert disease here-“, “If your dog approaches it won’t go well”, “I will spray ___ if your dog approaches”, “Call your dog, my dog is muzzled for a reason”).
  • Ask your dog to go behind you and sit while you throw treats at the other dog and then move away while the off-leash dog is distracted. This may not be a good option if your dog will get upset when observing another dog eating treats.
  • Carrying an umbrella is another option that can provide a visual barrier and physical block of the other dog, make sure to get your dog used to it opening and closing in the manner you will use it.

Note that these methods are not aimed at changing the off-leash dog’s future behavior, rather they are intended to protect your dog at that moment.


If your dog has difficulty staying underthreshold especially in their own home, then it may be time to consider medication.

SSRI’s are used to help many dogs that have anxiety. But responsible use of SSRI’s includes a behavioral modification program. They are not meant to address hyperactivity unless the hyperactivity is rooted in anxiety.   SSRIs are particularly useful when one can not change the dog’s environment enough to keep a dog under threshold most of the time because the SSRIs can help the dog cope with the environment better and help the dog stay under threshold more often during the training process.

Ideally, a Veterinary Behaviorist should be involved because just like any drug SSRIs are not without some risks. Veterinary Behaviorists will have the most experience with these drugs and how to combine them with behavioral modification. It is very important that if one takes a human or animal off of SSRIs they should be weaned off slowly, not cold turkey unless they are being taken off due to a severe side effect.

Prozac, one of the most common SSRIs, is one of the best studies SSRIs which nearly every new SSRI is compared to in research studies to gauge efficacy.  I will provide a few studies in the resources section, but this list is by no means exhaustive.

What coping strategies an animal tends to use is associated with different effects on physiological and neuroendocrine characteristics (Koolhaas et al, 1999).  These differences, as well as genetic differences between different animals, might be why these medications do not affect everyone in exactly the same way. Your dog may have to try a couple of medications before finding the best one for your dog.


Any dog can bite if they become too stressed.  The best option for keeping everyone safe is to manage your dog’s environment to minimize their stress and keep them under threshold while helping change your dog’s emotions regarding triggers slowly and carefully.  Consider what stressors can be completely removed from your dog’s life.  Does your dog really need to go visit Uncle Larry who has 12 kids? Maybe the farmers market is just too crowded for your dog and he would be better off staying home with a stuffed kong.

Please basket muzzle train your dog so that you can utilize this precaution as needed.  Even your most friendly golden retriever can benefit from muzzle training because if he is injured he may react to someone manipulating the painful area. Astrid has never injured a person or dog, yet I find muzzling her on walks helps me quickly convince other pet parents to take my request for space seriously and thus helps me keep my dog under threshold more often which speeds up her training.  Muzzle training is especially important for dogs who have injured a person or animal before.

Chirag Patel has a great video on how to condition a dog to love their muzzle.  The Muzzle Up Project is another great resource for information on muzzling. This article describes the different muzzle options that are available.

Please do not put a muzzle on your dog without first training your dog to love it unless you are in a situation where a procedure needs to be done that day and your dog might bite someone if not muzzled.  Remember aggression is caused by dogs feeling more stress than they can cope with.  Until you have taught your dog to love the muzzle, it will be another stressor and will make your dog more prone to either an aggressive display or shutting down.  A 2009 study found that 36% of dogs responded to their owners attempts to muzzle them with aggression. I wish this study had asked how the muzzle was introduced because I would be willing to bet money on the muzzle being forced on the dogs in the 36% rather than the dog being trained to put it on voluntarily. Putting a muzzle on a dog without classically conditioning the dog to love the muzzle is likely to lead the dog to have a negative association (dislike or be afraid of it) with the muzzle and will make future muzzle training require more effort or a different looking muzzle.


Realistic Expectations

Behavior modification can transform our dogs into much more confident dogs.  Often pet parents find that complete strangers will compliment us on our dogs’ behavior after behavior modification because the work results in well behaved and responsive dogs. But we can not completely change who our dog is or what they have experienced.  The behavior modification we do creates new memories but does not erase the old memories. Our goal is to make the new memories more potent so they are what comes to the forefront of our dogs’ mind when they see triggers, but there probably will always be a little stress caused by their triggers and we should be mindful of this to prevent us from trigger stacking our dogs to their breaking point.

While both BJ and Pepper learned people could be kind and had treats, it would have been unfair to them to turn them into therapy dogs or take them into really crowded environments. It would be unreasonable for me to expect these dogs to enjoy strangers like the Labrador down the street that begs everyone for a pet. Before taking your dog places they don’t have to go, please ask yourself if they will enjoy it or if it will cause them stress.


Threshold and Triggerstacking

Carmen Sandi  József Haller. Stress and the social brain: behavioural effects and neurobiological mechanisms. Nature Reviews Neuroscience volume16pages290–304 (2015)

Veenema A, H, Neumann I, D: Neurobiological Mechanisms of Aggression and Stress Coping: A Comparative Study in Mouse and Rat Selection Lines. Brain Behav Evol 2007;70:274-285. doi: 10.1159/000105491

Reisner IR, Shofer FS, Nance ML. Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression. Inj Prev. 2007;13(5):348–351. doi:10.1136/ip.2007.015396






Horwitz, D. F. (2008). Managing Pets with Behavior Problems: Realistic Expectations. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38(5), 1005–1021.doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.006

Haug, L. I. (2008). Canine Aggression Toward Unfamiliar People and Dogs. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38(5), 1023–1041.doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.005

Mills, D., Karagiannis, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). Stress—Its Effects on Health and Behavior. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 44(3), 525–541. doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2014.01.005 

Body Language

Counter Conditioning

Kang, S., Vervliet, B., Engelhard, I.M., van Dis, E.A.M., Hagenaars, M.A., Beyond extinction; counterconditioning reduces return of harm expectancy, Behaviour Research and Therapy (2018), doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2018.06.009.

Plaud, J. (2003). Pavlov and the Foundation of Behavior Therapy. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 6(2), 147-154. doi:10.1017/S1138741600005291

Polo, G., Calderón, N., Clothier, S., & Garcia, R. de C. M. (2015). Understanding dog aggression: Epidemiologic aspects. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(6), 525–534.doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2015.09.003

Look At That

BAT 2.0

Hartley CA, Phelps EA. Changing fear: the neurocircuitry of emotion regulation. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2009;35(1):136–146. doi:10.1038/npp.2009.121

Gregory J Quirk, Jennifer S Beer, Prefrontal involvement in the regulation of emotion: convergence of rat and human studies, Current Opinion in Neurobiology, Volume 16, Issue 6, 2006, Pages 723-727, ISSN 0959-4388,

Find A Trainer

Directory of Force Free Trainers.

BAT 2.0 experienced trainers 

Veterinary Behaviorist Directory

Why Shouldn’t I Punish my Dog?

Lore I. Haug, Canine Aggression Toward Unfamiliar People and Dogs,
Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice,
Volume 38, Issue 5, 2008, Pages 1023-1041, ISSN 0195-5616, (

Dodman NH, Brown DC, Serpell JA. Associations between owner personality and psychological status and the prevalence of canine behavior problems. PLoS One. 2018;13(2):e0192846. Published 2018 Feb 14. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0192846

Andrew U. Luescher, Ilana R. Reisner, Canine Aggression Toward Familiar People: A New Look at an Old Problem, Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice,
Volume 38, Issue 5, 2008, Pages 1107-1130, ISSN 0195-5616, (


Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofer, Ilana R. Reisner, Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 117, Issues 1–2, 2009,
Pages 47-54, ISSN 0168-1591,


S. Pineda, B. Anzola, A. Olivares, M. Ibáñez, Fluoxetine combined with clorazepate dipotassium and behavior modification for treatment of anxiety-related disorders in dogs, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 199, Issue 3, 2014, Pages 387-391, ISSN 1090-0233,

Christos I Karagiannis, Oliver HP Burman, Daniel S Mills, Dogs with separation-related problems show a “less pessimistic” cognitive bias during treatment with fluoxetine (Reconcile™) and a behaviour modification plan, BMC Veterinary Research, 2015 11:80

Yalcin E1Comparison of clomipramine and fluoxetine treatment of dogs with tail chasing. Tierarztl Prax Ausg K Kleintiere Heimtiere. 2010;38(5):295-9.
J.M Koolhaas, S.M Korte, S.F De Boer, B.J Van Der Vegt, C.G Van Reenen, H Hopster, I.C De Jong, M.A.W Ruis, H.J Blokhuis, Coping styles in animals: current status in behavior and stress-physiology, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 23, Issue 7, 1999,
Pages 925-935, ISSN 0149-7634,


Using a Muzzle for an aggressive dog
General Reactivity Resources

Cognitive Dissonance, Fundamental Attribution Error, Confirmation Bias and Your Dog

A local dog went missing. The dog was hiking at a park with its pet parents. The dog’s pet parents invested in one of Washington’s top dog trainers and felt secure letting their dog be off-leash wearing its “e-collar” in a large on-leash nature park. The dog ran up to an on-leash dog, was attacked, became scared, and ran off. The dog was found 4 days later, the pet parents spent those 4 days worried about their dog and didn’t know whether their dog was suffering from injuries or had been hit by a car.  I wish missing dogs were a rare occurrence, but a 2012 study found that about 14 percent of dogs go missing in a 5-year timeframe and 7 percent of those dogs are not found.

This blog is not about bashing pet parents who just want to give their dog freedom and a good time. It’s about helping others learn from this misfortune while discussing several factors that hinder our ability to persuade others to change behaviors and beliefs. However, I’m afraid these skeptics will find this writing upsetting and I don’t know that I can convince them of anything.

Discussions about off-leash dogs in on-leash parks always garner two main camps of opinion, unless the discussion is among a self-selected group of individuals within one camp (confirmation bias AKA preaching to the choir). In this missing dog scenario, one camp blames the on-leash dog because, in their opinion, aggressive dogs have no right to be out in public endangering others. This camp says that leash rule is just a suggestion, meant for people who don’t bother to train their dog.

The other camp blames the pet parents of the missing dog for not leashing their dog or preventing their dog from approaching the on-leash dog. The law is on their side. Even dogs that have been deemed dangerous by the county are allowed to be walked on-leash in on-leash parks, though they may be required to wear a muzzle.  The law also usually sides with the on-leash dog when there is a fight between an on-leash dog and an illegally off-leash dog.

Where do I sit? I don’t think this was an appropriate park for a fear-reactive dog. This park has some narrow trails with steep sides that can make it difficult to get off the trail and there are numerous off-leash dogs. One of the park websites has an article on how to cope with off-leash dogs. So, the park is aware of the problem but can’t police it. You have to decide if it’s safe for your dog.

I do not have scientific evidence on the risk of dogs going missing when on-leash verses off. We do have research on dog attacks and reactivity. In the Blame Game, I discussed many factors that contribute to reactivity. In Reactivity is Contagious I discussed a study that found on-leash dogs are twice as likely to threaten another dog. Do you still want to let your off-leash dog go running full tilt at an on-leash dog? A 2010 study found “If the subject dog was on-leash an interaction was half as likely compared to if the subject was off-leash. If the other dog was on-leash an interaction was again less likely; an interaction was almost four times more likely to happen with an off-leash dog than one on-leash.”

This horrible incident might have been prevented if both dogs were on-leash.

  • The reactive dog’s pet parent might have been able to get off the trail and let the other dog pass or distract their dog as it passed.
  • A leash prevents the dog from running off into the woods when they are too panicked to respond to cues.
  • The fight may have even been stopped sooner because both handlers were close by and able to intervene quickly. It’s really difficult for one person alone to break up some fights especially in a kind manner.

Maybe one of the dogs would have still slipped from their handlers grasp and gone missing.

Many well-intentioned people responded to the missing dog post, mentioning how leashes may have prevented this tragedy. But consider this: How helpful was that really to comment this on a post of a pet parent whose dog is currently missing? Just like the dog being too panicked to follow its training, these pet parents were not in a good emotional state to take constructive criticism, the wound was too raw. In addition, if their dog being attacked and going missing didn’t convince them to leash their dog, do you really think the comment of a complete stranger will? This is why I don’t think I could possibly persuade them myself.

So how could someone possibly keep letting their dog off-leash in on-leash parks after such an experience? In a nutshell, Cognitive Dissonance, Fundamental Attribution Error, Self-Serving Bias, and Confirmation Bias. Let’s start with Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

When two incompatible thoughts or beliefs are held at the same time, it causes emotional stress so people try to alleviate that stress by either:

  • Changing behavior
  • Altering a belief
  • Justifying a belief
  • Gathering more evidence that supports their belief.

They believe they are great pet parents: they feed the dog the best diet they can afford, they took the dog to a “top trainer”, they take their dog on hikes and let their dog run and play and have a good time. This study found that pet parents were less likely to leash their dog if they thought the off-leash outdoor play was important. The belief that a leash could have prevented this ordeal does not align with their other beliefs, it’s easier to believe the other pet parent is at fault for their dog’s disappearance because that aligns better with their positive view of themselves!

Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias

Fundamental Attribution Error is where people are more apt to attribute a behavior of a person in a specific situation to their character and personality than to notice how the circumstances influenced their behavior. This bias is debated within the science community, some reviews suggest other causes for the behavior observed in the original studies of FAE. In this particular situation, I think FAE related behaviors go hand in hand with Self-Serving Bias which is our tendency to take credit for our successes but blame others or the situation for negative events.

So, for instance, when I see an illegally off-leash dog, I yell to their owner to call their dog and imply that things won’t go well if their dog approaches. This usually prompts the illegally off-leash dog parent to get their dog, though not always before their dog is in my dog’s face, harassing her. Many of them proceed to blame me for the fact that my dog isn’t friendly, completely ignoring the fact that she behaved perfectly the whole time. They tell me that I am the problem. They make excuses for why it’s OK for them to break the law in this park, and blame me for ruining their day. Many of them make it clear that they think I am an aggressive individual with poor social skills. They would be surprised to find out that my friends would probably say that in general, I am a meek individual, except when something angers me. People who refuse to obey the law and therefore risk the safety of their dog AND my dog is something that angers me.

What the off-leash pet parents don’t know is that I have tried being polite to illegally off-leash dog parents such as themselves many times before. I found that being polite is a very unreliable way to keep both of our dogs safe as being polite fails to motivate the pet parents to get their dog out of my dog’s face and will still result in them scoffing at how I am interrupting their wonderful outing and how my dog doesn’t belong in the park if she can’t handle loose dogs running up to her. As a result, I have had to buck up the courage to behave in a way out of my normal character to get them to restrain their dog.

Notice how their statements deflect their responsibility in the situation and put all the blame on me personally even though they are breaking the law, not me?  I am also demonstrating Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias in order to buck up the courage to be firm and as rude as I need to be, because in my head I attribute their lawbreaking to their personality and blame them for an interaction that wouldn’t have happened if they had followed the law.

Confirmation Bias

If an illegally off-leash pet parent and I were to tell a story of our encounter to our Facebook friends, we would likely get very different responses because our friends usually share our own views. So, the illegally off-leash pet parents’ friends would be supporting their actions and thinking I am an evil person that should have never brought my dog to the park.

My friends would be supporting my groaning at yet another illegally off-leash dog, asking when are these pet parents going to learn that they are recklessly endangering their dog by letting it run up to strange dogs that could harm them out of fear, not to mention the safety aspects of off-leash dogs going missing and being hit by cars or attacked by wild animals depending on the location or dog size.  Our friends are made up of people that share many of our beliefs so their responses to us are likely to result in confirmation bias.

There are many other Biases that affect our view of aggressive encounters and our decisions to follow particular laws and rules.  Some of these are described in this article.

So then why do I write?

If people are hard to convince, why do I waste my time writing about this? Because studies show that we can change a few minds; the ones who do not staunchly hold those beliefs but might be considering the validity of their belief and actions.  The original study that led to the idea of cognitive dissonance was of a cult who believed doomsday was a specific day. When the world didn’t end on that day, part of the group left the cult, but the other part stayed and their belief got stronger. They rationalized that they had misinterpreted when doomsday would happen.

So, when we write articles or respond to people with opposing views on social media, we should gear our time towards those we actually have the possibility of influencing. The staunchest believers of having their dogs off-leash regardless of the law are not going to take our responses seriously and may well decide to troll us. Our chances of convincing people are higher with people who haven’t made a firm stance completely opposite of our own.


Some studies on how to persuade people who have been influenced by anti-vaccine activists to suggest that storytelling along with statistics may be the most effective method of persuasion at least in that particular scenario (Okuhara et al, Shelby et al). I would suspect that this may be able to be extrapolated outside of the human health field, but at this time have no evidence to provide to support this extrapolation.

One assessment of addressing non-compliant behavior in parks concluded: “The use of multiple strategies to reduce non-compliant behaviors is often warranted, largely because different people may be performing the same behavior for different reasons”.  A 2009 study found “Dog owners were more likely to feel obliged to leash their dog when they believed other people expected dogs to be leashed”.  Some of the suggested interventions from these studies include ensuring there are legal off-leash areas that are attractive to owners, educational campaigns, establishing leashing dogs in on-leash areas as a social norm, and better enforcement of rules.  My local area has established a multitude of off-leash dog areas but has failed to effectively implement the latter 3 suggestions.

As I write this, yet another local dog that has gone missing after an off-leash hike, yet I will not be wasting my time saying anything about a leash on that person’s post.


Weiss E, Slater M, Lord L. Frequency of Lost Dogs and Cats in the United States and the Methods Used to Locate Them. Animals (Basel). 2012;2(2):301-15. Published 2012 Jun 13. doi:10.3390/ani2020301

Kathryn J. H. Williams, Michael A. Weston, Stacey Henry & Grainne S. Maguire (2009) Birds and Beaches, Dogs and Leashes: Dog Owners’ Sense of Obligation to Leash Dogs on Beaches in Victoria, Australia, Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 14:2, 89-101, DOI: 10.1080/10871200802649799

Webley, P. and Siviter, C. (2000), Why Do Some Owners Allow Their Dogs to Foul the Pavement? The Social Psychology of a Minor Rule Infraction1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30: 1371-1380. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2000.tb02525.x

Carri Westgarth, Robert M. Christley, Gina L. Pinchbeck, Rosalind M. Gaskell, Susan Dawson, John W.S. Bradshaw, Dog behaviour on walks and the effect of use of the leash, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 125, Issues 1–2, 2010, Pages 38-46, ISSN 0168-1591, (

Rock, Melanie J. et al. “Dog-Walking, Dog-Fouling and Leashing Policies in Urban Parks: Insights from a Natural Experiment Designed as a Longitudinal Multiple-Case Study.” Landscape and Urban Planning 153 (2016): 40–50. Web.

Our Rights and Responsibilities: Dog Law Q+A with Attorney Heidi Meinzer

Dietsch A and Others. 2016. Towards an adaptive management approach to non-compliance in National Park Service units. Natural Resource Report. NPS/NRSS/BRD/NRR—2016/1125. National Park Service. Fort Collins, Colorado

Okuhara T, Ishikawa H, Okada M, Kato M, Kiuchi T. Persuasiveness of Statistics and Patients’ and Mothers’ Narratives in Human Papillomavirus Vaccine Recommendation Messages: A Randomized Controlled Study in Japan. Front Public Health. 2018;6:105. Published 2018 Apr 12. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2018.00105

Shelby A, Ernst K. Story and science: how providers and parents can utilize storytelling to combat anti-vaccine misinformation. Hum Vaccin Immunother. 2013;9(8):1795-801.

Articles on Cognitive Biases.

Kendra Cherry (2018) 10 Cognitive Biases that distort your thinking.  Very Well Mind.

McLeod, S. A. (2018) Cognitive Dissonance. Simply Psychology.  Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct, 31). Fundamental attribution error. Retrieved from

Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The Really Fundamental Attribution Error in Social Psychological Research. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15. Retrieved from

Wang X, Zheng L, Li L, et al. Immune to Situation: The Self-Serving Bias in Unambiguous Contexts. Front Psychol. 2017;8:822. Published 2017 May 22. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00822


Reactivity is Contagious

Some dogs are on leashes for good reasons. Some dogs are leashed because they are reactive and their pet parent is doing their best to protect their dog and others in the community. When people allow their dogs to approach these dogs without obtaining permission from the pet parent, they are risking injury to their dog and causing stress and potentially panic for the leashed dog. Reactive dogs have a right to safely maneuver in public settings where leashes or adequate control of dogs is expected.
Reactivity is contagious, many of these dogs became reactive after being attacked by another dog and their pet parent is doing their best to prevent their dog from scaring your dog. Please be respectful and ask permission before letting your dog greet an on leash dog. If you can not prevent your dog from rushing on leash dogs then your dog should be on leash in these settings for your own dogs safety.
The following study found dogs on leash were twice as likely to threaten the other dog as dogs off leash, this is not a causal relationship. While some dogs do play great off leash but not on leash, others are intentionally put on leashes because they would threaten other dogs if they were allowed to run around off leash. ” Threat appeared twice as often between dogs on a leash as between dogs off a leash (P < 0.001). Dogs of the same genders showed a threat nearly three times more often than dogs of opposite genders (P < 0.01). Males (P < 0.05) and females (P < 0.01) bit dogs of the same gender more than five times more often than dogs of the opposite gender. Dogs showed a threat more often (P < 0.05) and they bit another dog more than four times more often (P < 0.05) when both owners were men than when they were women. ”