Blog - Walking the Dog Part 2

Posted Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Addressing fear as an underlying cause of pulling on the lead

Last week I talked about factors which can prevent dogs from learning how to walk nicely on the lead despite a normally effective technique used to teach the dog. I talked about how behaviours (such as sniffing) can be used to reward walking nicely in cases where a dog is not motivated enough by food rewards. We also focussed on showing how the lead should be held to reduce the risks of pulling. Please see part 1 on my Blog page if you missed it.

However, I also talked about anxious dogs. The anxious dog that is pulling on the lead is most likely unsuccessfully trying to run away. This is the dog that is pulling forward until he chokes, tail tucked between the legs, eyes bulging, ears clamped, and often panting heavily; and of course, he will not take a treat because the sympathetic nervous system has shut down his digestive system. Usually, when we try to stop dogs pulling on the lead, we would stop moving forward to let them calm down and to ensure pulling on the lead is not reinforced. However, if we used this technique on a fearful dog which is pulling on the lead as a means to escape, then this technique would act as a punisher (by making him stay in a place with which he is not comfortable) and this would be catastrophic to the fearful dog. For a human equivalent, imagine an arachnophobe being locked in the bathroom with a big fat spider! Not nice.

First thing's first.

Firstly, you must get the anxious dog checked over by a vet to ensure there is nothing medically wrong with him. There are many medical causes of anxiety.

So, what should you do?

The example I present here is for the GAD dogs (Generalised Anxiety Disorder). There is nothing specific out on a walk the dog is frightened of. If the dog was frightened of something specific, then you would work on de-sensitising the dog to the feared stimulus.
Before you can teach the GAD fearful dog to walk nicely on the lead you must address the fear. In reality, this is a serious issue which requires the help of a skilled dog behaviourist and probably the help of a vet who may be able to prescribe something that lowers the dog’s anxiety without detrimentally affecting his cognitive abilities (in other words, some drugs will prevent him from being able to learn and remember that outside is safe and are, therefore, not useful as the dog may not remember what he is learning). Never ONLY use a drug therapy without implementing a behaviour modification plan as it is unlikely to be successful on its own. I am going to describe a technique that I have found very useful with many fearful dogs.

Give your dog a holiday!

For a very fearful dog, you may need to de sensitise him to the cues which predict going out for a walk before you can do anything else. The best way I have found to achieve this is to give the dog a little holiday from walking. Many clients find it difficult NOT to take their dog out for walks as they have been programmed to believe that dogs MUST go out for walks or the dog will not feel fulfilled. This is simply not true of the fearful dog. If going out makes the dog scared, don’t take him out for a while. You will need to make sure you create alternative home based activities for this dog though, and there are many ideas of how you can achieve this, for example:

1) Scatter feed the dog’s meals in a safe place. Hopefully he feels secure in his own garden, so this could be a great place to do this. Try hiding bits of his food under plant pots, or behind heavy obstacles like containers. Make sure you use different parts of the garden so you vary the experience. This can be done indoors too.
2) Play hunting games with him, helping your dog to find toys around the house and garden.
3) Teach your dog fun activities such as: leg weaves, high fives, spins and twists etc.
4) If you have space get a home agility set.
5) Teach your dog useful and fun activities such as fetching the remote control.

Whilst your dog is having his holiday, go through the motions as if going out for a walk and then don’t go out. This way the dog learns that although it looks like he is going out, he does not, therefore, becoming less stressed at these cues. This process could take many weeks.

Once the dog is no longer showing signs of distress to these cues, you are ready to move on.

Getting out of the door.

When your dog is happy to have his lead and collar put on without panicking, you should start to walk him towards the door. Don’t just walk him to the door and out though. You need to build up his confidence. So, sometimes you should walk towards the door, stop and take off the lead and collar etc. and go back to normal activities. Other times you should open the front door, feed him yummy stuff (if he will eat it) and shut the door again. If the dog eats the yummy stuff, chances are he might be feeling less fearful. From this point you can gradually build up confidence to stepping out. In this case, you should ensure that if your dog wants to go back indoors (even if he is pulling), you should let him. Allow him to decide how much he can cope with. Never pull him out of the door, he should be able to choose to do this. Using this technique where the dog is able to control his own exposure therapy, more progress is generally made. When he makes the choice to go forward, scatter some high value treats; this both reinforces those choices and acts to make the choices more pleasant for the dog. Dogs tend to grow in confidence when they know they have a way out, and that their handler will listen to them. As progress is made, walks should be tiny. I would go so far as to say, if the dog decides he can keep going, take him back; leave him wanting more. Keep training sessions very short and most importantly, pleasant. If at any time the dog refuses food, you have over done it and are doing more harm than good.

For a very fearful dog, this process is likely to take many months and will often benefit from the vet suggesting or prescribing something that will reduce anxiety. As I said earlier, it’s advised that owners of very anxious dogs work with a qualified and experienced behaviourist as this will help you to keep on track and should ensure you don’t overstep what the dog can cope with, which is very easily done if you lack the experience. An ability to accurately read dog body language is essential as this is the only way you will know how well (or not) the dog is coping. Most dog owners think they know how to read dog body language, but actually, most really do not. It has taken me 12 years of working with thousands of dogs and yet, I am still learning new nuances in canine body language all the time.

Managing stress

It’s very important to work within the dog’s comfort zone. As he builds up in confidence, the temptation is often there to rush it. This would most likely result in relapses which also undermine future potential progress. It is best to maintain a training diary and record exactly what was done each day and how far the dog was able to go before asking to go back indoors, or before the owner/handler decided to end the session on those occasions the dog is happy to continue. It is normal that sometimes the dog doesn't do so well and there may be a day or two of back tracking so a progress diary is important. This way owners/handlers and their behaviourist can keep track of progress. This can be important and good for morale when the rehabilitation process is so slow, which it tends to be when working with the extremely anxious dog.

You will know when you are making progress as your dog will most likely start to walk more calmly on the lead. Alternatively, your dog might start actively pulling towards something of interest as he begins to take more notice of the world around him. In which case, you can start to use standard, rewards based specific loose lead walking training techniques.

Please note, this article is designed as a guide and is not a substitute for a professional consultation. Professional support for anxious dogs is highly recommended. Therefore, if you have a dog that is very anxious, please see a qualified dog behaviourist on the recommendation of your vet.