Relearning leash training for a nervous dog
February 11, 2016 7:22 AM   Subscribe

We've had our timid rescue dog since September. Since we got her, she's become very fearful of the leash and we're unable to get her on it and out the door without a lot of struggle. How do we help her get more comfortable with this?

Pippa came to us on Labor Day as a very timid dog. We were told she had been neglected, and she showed it - she was fearful of just about everything and spent most of her time hiding on the bed.

She's improved quite a bit since then; she's friendly with us, she eats her food, and she goes outside in the yard to do her business. However, she started getting increasingly scared of the leash and going on walks. We had a trainer over who recommended that we not push her into anything that was going to really scare her, so we laid off on the leash and the walks and focused more on getting her comfortable in the house and going out in the yard without the leash on command.

She's doing really well with the current plan, but not being able to put her on a leash or go on walks is starting to cause some problems (getting her to the vet was a challenge!) and it seems like as she's getting less nervous about being in the house she needs to get more exercise.

What is a good routine to get a nervous dog retrained on the leash? She's comfortable being near us, but it has to be on her terms (so coming at her with the leash usually causes her to run), and she's also startled by sudden noises (so the snap of the spring on the leash ring tends to bother her if it slips out of my hand). Once she's on the leash, she's afraid to move - last time I practiced with her I was able to walk her around the house a little bit, but if she leaves the house she'll plant herself on the ground and won't budge. Any recommendations?
posted by backseatpilot to Pets & Animals (11 answers total)
Best answer: Put the leash on the floor in an open, neutral space and sprinkle shredded cheese over it. Let Pippa make friends with the leash on her own terms.
posted by phunniemee at 7:24 AM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

My parents had a dog who hated putting the leash on, and they found that getting a harness that the dog steps into (ie, doesn't go over the head) helped a lot.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:30 AM on February 11, 2016

Response by poster: Right, inevitably I forget something. Her current setup is a Martingale collar and a regular 6 foot lead with a typical spring-loaded D-ring. Her foster had her using a harness, but she was between sizes and the foster told us she was concerned about the dog wriggling out of it; however, she's put on some weight since then so a harness might fit her properly now.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:38 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would recommend starting out with a lasso-style leash. I mean, don't actually lasso the dog like a cowboy, just a leash that slips very easily over her head. Then lots and lots of treats and praise when she lets you do it. Then take it off right away. Try to leave it on a little longer each time you do it. Then when she can stand to have it on without signs of stress for a minute or two, try picking it up and leading her across the room. LOTS of treats and praise at every step. Lots of positive reinforcement is key. You want her to associate the leash with happy things. Once she's comfortable with the lasso leash, try to move to the clip-on leash using the same method.

I have a fearful rescue dog who was never socialized, and he was a tough case at first but now he's a friendly, happy dog. I took him to a shy and fearful dog class and did a lot of work on my own with him as well. I talk a little more about everything I did here. Good luck!
posted by triggerfinger at 7:40 AM on February 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Get lots of high value treats. Things she absolutely adores. Cheese can be good for this.

Get the lead. Put it on the floor in front of you & sit down. When she approaches you and the lead she gets a treat & lots of praise. Showing interest in the leash more treats & praise. Put the lead away. Keep doing this until she's not even bothered then slowly escalate.

To you holding the leash but in no way putting it on her or reaching for her. . . hell ignore her even.
Then moving the leash . then moving it towards her & her not reacting with fear & still not going on her.
Leash touches her body working it slowly up toward her head.
Leash touches her face.
Leash goes over her head & is immediately taken off.
Leash goes on and stays on a few seconds.
Extend time until she seems calm
Put a shorter leash on the collar & let her walk around wearing it for a bit.
You start holding the end.
You can walk her around the house.
Work getting her to approach while clicking the snap in there somewhere too.

I listed some potential steps to give you some idea of how slow to go, you may need to go even slower. Lots of slow steady steps forward is better than rushing it & having to start again. Lots of treats, lots of praise. Some steps will take longer than you think some will be no problem, go at her speed. Do a few minutes several times a day. Always end on a good positive note, watch her body language & do not push her to the point of nervousness. Look for signs of lip licking or yawning, both are activities showing she is unhappy & not wanting to make trouble.

It sounds more work than it is. Use a harness in the mean time if you need to walk daily. It may be a fear of things going over her head or near her head. I had a dog scared of anything near his head at all as he'd been hit a lot. It took me 2 weeks to lead him without him freaking out, longer to get him to walk nicely but that was approached the same way, lots of slow small steps with lots of praise.

Once you can leash her OK you may want to look into dog classes either obedience or agility, not because she needs obedience training or anything but both are really good at helping timid dogs gain confidence. Look for a private trainer instead of a Petsmart chaotic class. They often do group lessons at much the same price as the Petsmart ones, and the private classes are cheaper than you think if you decide to go that way. Just 6 weeks of agility helped bring out my timid rescue guy and he still loves doing it.
posted by wwax at 7:55 AM on February 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

It sounds like 2 different scary things: Leash and the outside.

I am not sure if you have had training with a nervous dog, but I assume there is no "It's ok" sweet talk when she is being fearfu? It rewards scared behavior and can make it worse.

Really get her used to a leash. First give her treats when it is in your hand. Add clicking closed Then give her treats when you chick it on her. When you are around have her wearing it for a few hours in the house. Reward her with primo treats when she acts brave about it and "good girl"s. As she gets more comfortable pull her to you gently so she feels the gentle tug and reward her with bacon.

If she's afraid of both outside AND the leash once she spooks outside and then is tugged at by the leash she could really go into a panic.

I feel like tackling the leash first is a good step, then you can a baby step approach to outside - going slow, rewarding bravery.
posted by ReluctantViking at 7:56 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you looked into the possibility that she has a physical objection to the leash? Some dogs don't like pressure on their neck (esp trachea) at all.

My current shelter dog took several years to be comfortable on a leash because she didn't like anything pulling on her neck. While I really don't like to use harnesses on most dogs, I got her a soft mesh harness to wear when we'd go out. She's not a puller, so it wasn't a big deal. I used that exclusively for a couple of years, then started trying a leash again. She still doesn't like a leash that clips on her collar, but she's fine with a rope slip lead. (I have the cotton-rope gun-dog versions although my dog is not exactly the outdoorsy type.)

If you try the harness, I'd suggest leaving it on her in the house for increasing stretches of time. (This is, many of you will know, how you break a cat to harness. We do a version of the same with horses, but we don't let them in the house.) The leash will clip on the back, and not pull on her neck at all.

As for the walks, it might be a matter of finding out what your dog is comfortable with. Some dogs don't like chance encounters with other dogs; some dogs find the stimulation of noise and scent too much in a busy area. Maybe take her in the car to somewhere quiet and just hang out at a park bench.

Good luck. Be patient. Let your dog be herself with your support, and she'll gain confidence and security over time.
posted by grounded at 6:06 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some good recommendations above. If the foster mom used a harness with success going back to that might be a good move. It might just be that she's sensitive to the around-the-neck leash.

BTW, Pippa is gorgeous - especially those soulful eyes.
posted by mulcahy at 8:19 PM on February 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am not sure if you have had training with a nervous dog, but I assume there is no "It's ok" sweet talk when she is being fearful? It rewards scared behavior and can make it worse.

I've seen this mentioned before, but it just doesn't make sense. The closest analogy I've seen is the idea of not giving a child a sucker at the doctor's office in case it rewards their fear of getting a shot. If dogs can pick up tension in your voice and get more anxious because of it, why on earth wouldn't the opposite hold true?

We're working with an anxious dog right now, and "happy talk" is absolutely a strategy to help him chill out on walks. Although this wasn't always the case, now I can watch his ears relax when I say "good morning" to somebody we see on the street, because that lets him know that I saw them and everything's cool.

Phunniemee has a great place to start; with having Pippa have some snack times around the leash on the ground. If she's still treat motivated, once she gets comfortable with hanging around the leash on the ground, see if you can hold the leash and give her treats at the same time. I love clicker training, personally, because I talk a lot to my dog and a lot of it is nonsense, but the clicker only means one concrete thing: he did something right and he's getting a treat. So if I had to do this for him, I would click and treat if he went anywhere near the leash, and then maybe the next day, I would only click if he sniffed it, or sat by it, or came up to me while it was on the ground beside me. Then, if he came up to me while it was in my hand. When the time felt right, I would see if I could snap that ring while he was in the room, and if he looked at me I could click and treat so he would come to associate the ring with good times and treats.

last time I practiced with her I was able to walk her around the house a little bit

That's awesome! It might feel silly, but if you can work in little bits like that around the house, day after day, eventually they will become longer bits, and one day maybe you can open the back door and walk kind of close to it. Then, in a little while, you can actually walk outside the back door and come back in, etc. etc.
posted by redsparkler at 1:32 PM on February 12, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice. Part of the difficulty we've had is that she's not terribly food motivated, so treats often won't entice her if she's too worked up. She does like cheese, though, so I'll try bribing her with some food on the leash on the ground to start.

She does have other issues with things touching her (she lets us pet her, but she doesn't like us touching her with non-hand objects like towels or toys), so it may also be the case that having a foreign object go near her is too frightening for her.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:19 PM on February 12, 2016

Oh if food isn't a big motivator does she have a favourite toy. A lot of dogs will work for a quick 2 second game of tug of war or some such. So you could slip her lead on or just have it near & distract her/reward her for letting you do so with a quick game of tug of war or chew the teddy bear or whatever works for your dog. A lot of trainers use toys as rewards, or even just a kong with some peanut butter in that they can have a quick lick of so the dogs don't get too full.
posted by wwax at 8:24 PM on February 22, 2016

« Older Public Space (Third Places) in Austin, TX   |   Timing a grad school visit Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.