Leash & Collar Fear

Dear DogMa:

A small dog that will be staying with me has had a bad experience on the leash–apparently she goes totally berserk when a leash and collar is put on. I am going to attempt training her to walk on the leash so she can eventually be shown. I have been told she gets frightened easily even when playing with dogs she knows. Can you give me some suggestions?

Signed: ML

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Thanks for taking the time to write ML. Both of your “troubles” are relatively common (the second more so with small dogs) and both are symptomatic of a dog generally lacking in confidence. Ergo, the short answer is to build up said confidence…. but I’m guessing you’re looking for more direct advice.

Let’s deal with her collar and leash fear first.

If you haven’t introduced the clicker, I’d highly recommend doing so. Clicker training is by far the best way to build up confidence in a timid, nervous dog. It builds confidence in themselves AND in you… both which are vital in any training situation. If you’ve never clicked before, no worries. It’s easy and fun. Take a browse through my article on training toy dogs for some introductory help.  The article is available at noselicks.com.

Switch from a collar to a step-in harness. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, a toy breed dog should always be walked on a harness vs. a collar. Their tiny trachea is easily damaged so pressure on the neck should be avoided whenever possible. Obviously when competing in Obedience, or when in the Conformation ring you must use a collar… but any other time, a harness is best. Secondly, any previous negative associations can be partially avoided by using a different piece of equipment.

Do be sure to use a step-in harness. There are several types of harnesses on the market today. Figure eights, H harnesses, vest styles… none of these completely avoids neck pressure. The only harness I ever recommend is a step-in harness.

Now, place the leash and the harness on the floor, preferably when she won’t see you doing so. Then go about your day. Walk past them, pretend they aren’t there. Play the clicker game near by. Don’t move on until she’s comfortable with them as nothing objects (just random on the floor stuff).

Try a freeshaping session that involves the harness and leash, which are still on the floor. Click and treat if she looks at them, paws at them, sits near them, walks around them…. ANY interaction should be clikced and rewarded. Your goal isn’t any particular behavior – just interaction. If she’s too nervous to move past looking at them, or possibly taking a step in their direction, then just go back to them being nothing objects.

Play the clicker game as directed above, a few times throughout the next day or two. The more positive interactions the better. She’ll build up her confidence before too long, just as her trust in you is also built up.

Once she’s regularly interacting with her harness and leash (pawing them, sitting on them, pouncing on them, etc) then try picking them up. Watch for any calming signals that might suggest she’s still warry. Averting her eyes, slowing her movements, bowing her head, lowering her ears, sitting down – all might suggest she’s not quite ready to proceed. However, if you have built up enough trust, you may still be okay to continue. Offer her a calming signal in return for hers.

A big open mouth yawn might be appropriate. Move very slowly holding the harness a few inches above the ground. Slowly look away from the harness (and her) then slowly look back. Don’t look her in the eye. Place the harness back on the ground. Approach her slowly, give her a treat and a pet, then call it a day.

Keep up with this routine until she’s no longer fearful, and will allow you to handle the harness around her. It may seem like you’re moving obnoxiously slowly, but it’s important to build a foundation of trust and ease her apprehension before trying to strap her into this scary, scary contraption. Far better to proceed slowly, then to scare the wits out of her and have to start back at the beginning again – with an even more fearful dog.

Eventually you’ll be able to touch her with the harness. Then move to having her stand in place above the open harness. From there you’l be able to do it up. Then let her walk about with it on (play the clicker game while she’s wearing it). Next you’ll attach the leash for about 30 seconds – lots of praise, and then a reward once you take it off. It may take a couple of weeks, but you’ll get to the point where she looks forward to having it on – as every time it’s rewards, praise, and lots of positive attention.

All of this will also help with her general confidence, which will go a long way in her interactions with other dogs. In the beginning, limit her exposure to your dogs. Just a few minutes here with one of them, a few minutes there with another one. As she gets braver, try introducing two of them for play time at once (instead of just one of them). Take small baby steps and it will all work out. Don’t force interactions when she’s nervous or afraid. Happy, upbeat, and cheerful.

Good luck, and thanks for writing.

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