How the Leash Turns "Fight or Flight" into "FIGHT!"

The "fight or flight" response is a defensive survival mechanism that comes pre-programmed in all living organisms. When we feel threatened we make an unconscious decision to run away, or to fight. When we restrain an animal and force them into a situation in which they may feel threatened, we remove half of their choice. We take away the peaceful option of running away, and leave only "fight!". 

Even the most confident and friendly dogs can develop leash-related issues. The best practice is prevention, never greet on leash.

The leash is a form of restraint, although the dog can move slightly away from whatever he/she feels threatened by, a maximum of 6 feet is not enough to truly escape. Lets say you're a dog, and you are a little apprehensive of other dogs. At the dog park, you feel confident because you can leave if another dog plays rough, but on leash you can't escape. You're walking on the sidewalk with another dog approaching. You offer calming signals to tell that dog you're not a threat. You sniff the ground, you look away, you lick your lips, but still they are coming right at you! Alert! You growl to warn the dog to go away. Your owner gets upset. Weird, this dog is bothering my owner too! The other dog gets closer, and you have nowhere to go. You bark and lunge trying to scare them off, you reach the end of your leash suddenly, and that hurts. That other dog hurt you! Maybe your owner jerks you back. That dog hurt you again! Next time you are going to bark and lunge earlier, and with more oomph! 

After enough threatening experiences, it is easy to understand why this defensive mechanism becomes offensive.

It is important to remember that what is threatening is determined by your dog exclusively. You may think "Those are just kids, relax!" while the dog is thinking "The last time I encountered tiny humans, they pet me roughly, and moved fast and unexpectedly. It scares me that they are unpredictable. If I can't leave, I need to make them leave."

Although it is possible to improve your pet's coping skills while on leash, it is always best to simply avoid the things that scare your dog. Ignoring the problem will only make it worse. If your dog learns that his signals aren't working, the responses will escalate and could lead to a bite.

The next step is understanding the biological process that relates to the fight or flight response, if we can identify the early warning signs we can help to "turn off" the fight or flight response before it starts, and help get your pup past stressors without escalating the "fight!" response. 

Dog Perceives Threat →

Peripheral Nervous System Sends Sensory Messages to Brain →

The Brain Stimulates the Hypothalamus →

The Hypothalamus Activates the Autonomic Nervous System →

The Autonomic Nervous System Stimulates the Endocrine System →

The Endocrine System Produces Adrenaline and Prepares the Body for Aggression.

When adrenaline becomes present, we can observe certain warning behaviors in our pets. The dogs eyes open a bit wider, to gather information, and the whites of the eyes become evident. The tail drops, or wags stiffly. The ears go back. The dogs mouth tenses, and produces more saliva. The dog licks his lips. The dog may also yawn. You may see all of these body language signs of anxiety, or you may only see one. 

If you see any of these early warning signs, respect them. Teach your dog that subtle signals are all they need to get out of a situation, that will remove the need to escalate. 

Best Practices

The Yellow Dog Project Poster

  • Turn around and leave.

  • Use the other side of the road.

  • Hide behind a barrier and distract your dog with food or play until the stressor is out of view.

  • Wear a yellow ribbon to signal to others that your dog should not be approached.

  • Advocate for your dog.

  • Reward your dog with his/her favorite treats, for looking at a stressor without escalating. Over time this builds up coping skills.

  • Create rules, and make sure everyone follows them.

  • No greeting on leash.

  • Get rid of equipment meant to induce pain (prong/pinch collars, choke/slip collars, e-collars, electronic collars, etc.)

  • Punishment ALWAYS makes it worse. While it may suppress the behavior temporarily, it is more likely to escalate it the next time.

  • No Group Walks! (unless the dogs are housemates). This is UNNATURAL. Dogs are more often stressed by these walks. Domestic dogs do not live in packs, and have not lived in packs for thousands of years. Dogs are not wolves, just as humans are not apes. For more information see:

If your pup struggles with leash reactivity, contact a trainer or behavior consultant who specializes in positive reinforcement

Have questions? Want to request a personalized treatment plan for your pet that you can implement? Contact Simply Animal Training!

Sara Richter, CPDT-KA

Sara Richter, CPDT-KA Founder of Simply Animal Training LLC, began her professional training career in 2008 after 11 years as a student in the equestrian world. Sara began as an assistant horse trainer and horseback riding instructor for JGarvey Horsemanship. During the following 4 years she learned the ins and outs of positive reinforcement training, behaviorism, and operant conditioning. In 2013 Sara formed an equine training business known as Equestrianism. In 2014 Sara became a leader with the Local 4H where she taught children to use clicker training with numerous other animals including pigs, sheep, chickens, and even small animals. In 2014 Sara Joined forces with Root Dog Training LLC as a dog trainer, where she learned to translate her knowledge of learning theory and behaviorism, to the unique behaviors of canines. Sara is proud to continue offering Animal-friendly Force-Free services to pets and owners of all kinds. Sara is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed from the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers, and a Canine Life and Social Skills Evaluator with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Sara is constantly advancing her education in animal training and behavior through continuing education, certification, and college courses.