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Fear of Leash Walking

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Believe it or not, there are dogs out there who are afraid of walking on a leash.  Often resulting in fearful behavior for what most other dogs percieve as an exciting and pleasurable experience.  It is symptomatic of a dog generally lacking in confidence.  This fear is in no way limited to Shetland Sheepdogs, but since some Shelties come with a nervous personailty type already hard-wired, it’s easier for a phobia to develop in this breed.

What Causes a Fear of Leash Walking?

Tyler loves to chomp & carry his leash!

Most dogs associate the sight of the leash with a fun and exciting walk – and they react with exuberent enthusiasm! For some dogs though, the leash creates fear and submissiveness based on their previous negative experieces.

Sadly, this fear in dogs can be the result of abuse received by a person; as a tool for dragging the dog around or using it to confine them for long hours.  In some extreme cases, dogs have even been struck with the leash as punishment.  But if you have a leash fearing friend, most likely your dog is just prone to developing phobias arbitrarily.

Also remember, puppies go through a fear-imprint stage around 10 weeks where they become very wary of strange or new places and things.  So if you still have a puppy at this stage, be patient and consistent with them and understand that there is no real need for a structured walk until they are older.

What You Need

  • A leash, preferably made of leather. About 5 feet is a good length, as it enables control without risk of the dog getting tangled up in the leash. Chain style leashes aren’t recommended as they’re hard on the hands and are heavy on the dog’s neck.
  • A good quality buckle collar, again preferabley made of leather. Do not use a ‘choke’ collar, as this may make the problem worse.  In old-fashioned, punishment-based training, a short, sharp “correction” on the choke collar briefly cuts off the dog’s air supply.  If the dog makes the connection between thier pulling and the air cutoff, the feeling that air is in short supply can – on its own – provoke great anxiety.
  • For extra security with a frightened dog, clipping the leash to the ring of a second, martingale style collar is recommended.

Why Dogs Pull and Reject Leashes

  1. Fear – If a leash is forced on a scared puppy, and/or they are pulled by it because of resistance, it is likely that they will develop a fear of the leash.
  2. Discomfort – If a slip collar and leash are not properly adjusted, your dog will reject them.
  3. Carrying the dog – If a puppy is carried a lot at a young age, they may get used to it and reject a leash.
  4. Limited experience – A dog that is not walked regularly (more that 2x times a day is best) may not get used to a leash.

How to Train Your Sheltie to Walk on a Leash

The aim is to accustom your dog to the lead in small increments, keeping them within their comfort zone during every step.  If your dog already has a fear of the leash, you can expect them to be wary, but watch out for signs of extreme fear.  The trick is to do this process so gradually that you do not create an even greater fear.  The ultimate goal is to desensitize your dog to the point where the leash is no longer a big deal – at least in a negative way!

Signs of Anxiety in Dogs

  • Mild fear: signs may include trembling, a tucked tail, drooling, withdrawal, hiding, reduced activity, and passive escape behavior.
  • Panic: signs may include active escape behavior, urniation and/or diarrhea and increased, out-of-context, potentially injurious motor activity.

Step 1 – Leave the Leash Around the House

Practice leaving it out in full view, preferably near ‘fun’ places like next to the food bowl, in play areas and near their bed.  If you can, get several leashes and place them around the house at the same time.  Once your dog is consistently ignoring the leash left in all these places, you can move onto the next step.

Step 2 – Show the Leash

Once your Sheltie has stopped reacting to the sight of it, introduce the leash to them in a more active manner. You can do this by dangling them off doorknobs that the dog uses to go outside.  Hang it around your shoulders or keep the end in your back pocket with the rest dragging on the floor as you go about your activities.

You can also wrap it around your hand as you pet, groom and offer treats.  Hold the leash in your hand as you prepare and serve thier food.  Keep this up until they’ve stopped showing any signs of discomfort – it may take some time, but remember that you’re aiming to desensitize them for the long term.

Step 3 – Attach the Leash

When the dog no longer acts nervous with this level of progress, you can start attaching the leash to their collar. Put them into a sit, and using a firm, calm voice, clip the leash on.  (Don’t make a big deal out of it: remember, your dog will take their emotional cues from you!) If you act as though it’s not a big deal, they will follow your lead.  Keep things bright, cheery and relaxed.

Step 4 – Move with the Leash Hanging Freely

Once the leash is on, give the dog a minute or two to get used to the sensation of something hanging off their neck.  They may get a little panicky at this stage, and start exhibiting signs of anxiety. If they are showing signs of nervousness, distract them with a game, toy or a little obedience work for a treat.  Don’t attempt to touch the leash at this stage, just let them walk around freely with it attached to their collar.

Step 5 – Repeat and Reinforce the Experience

Take the leash off after a few minutes and praise them lavishly for being so brave!  Give them a couple of small, yummy treats and lots of petting.  Repeat the process several more times before progressing to the next level.  Retreat to the previous step if you Sheltie begins to appear stressed.  You want to give them plenty of opportunity to get used to the sensation of the leash being put on (and taken off) before you start using it to control their movement.

Step 6 – Practice Obedience Training

Next try a short obedience session while the dog is wearing the leash. (A few minutes is plenty of time.) Practice a sit-stay and the recall command, but make sure there is no place for the leash to get hung up as the dog comes to you.  The leash dragging behind them may cause momentary insecurity, but at this point, you should be able to refocus the dog if necessary.

This exercise will reinforce your leadership and remind the dog that they are still expected to obey, even if they are wearing the leash.

Step 7 – Go for a Short Walk

When your Sheltie is reliably obeying your commands with the leash on, you can take them for a short walk while wearing it.  To ease any anxiety, pick a location that is familiar to them.  If the dog begins to act jumpy, simply ignore the behavior and carry on walking.  Keep calm and wait for it to pass.  If it does not, attempt a distraction with a tidbit or toy.  The trick is to get them once again refocused on you.

If your Sheltie remains nervous or panicky after a few minutes, return to a level where they were last 100% comfortable.  Wait a few days and practice the previous stages before taking them for another short leash walk.

Things to Remember

  • The trick is to remain patient and take your time.  Do not rush through any step. Wait until the dog is comfortable with each stage before pregressing to the next.
  • Don’t acknowledge nervous behavior. If you react to it with petting and/or coddling, you are reinforcing that it’s OK to feel anxiety.  Ignore it and carry on.
  • This should go without saying, but never correct or punish a dog for fearful or nervous behavior – it will only be counterproductive to your goal.
  • The more positive associations you can form with the leash, the faster your dog will learn the leash means good things are coming!