Walk this way

brown dog with leash

Why not?

This post is written in conjunction with the Never Shock A Puppy Campaign. This campaign was formed after the first BlogPaws conference and the Be The Change For Animals initiative was started.


Following are ideas about walking fearful dogs on leash.

1. Fit the dog with a harness which they cannot slip out of. If a scared dogs slips its harness they can be difficult, if not impossible to catch. If you have any doubts consider fitting them with a martingale collar. If you are not sure if a dog can slip its harness, use a back-up leash on a snug fitting flat collar.

2. Use a long line. You can buy a long line in a pet shop or make one yourself out of a clothesline with a clasp attached. If a fearful dog is afraid of its handler, a long line gives them more space to move away from them. Some fearful dogs may need this when being taken out to toilet.

3. If you are using food lures to get the dog to move, fade the lure as soon as possible, so that instead of luring you are rewarding the dog for taking steps forward. Targeting is great for this.

4. Notice if the dog is uncomfortable having someone walking behind them and modify where you are in relation to the dog. My own fearful dog was reluctant to move if I put pressure on the leash while I was standing in front of him. If I stood next to him and asked him to move he was able to.

5. Walk during times of the day when the dog is less likely to encounter any of its triggers. For some dogs this may mean very early morning or late night walks.

6. Mark and reward the dog anytime he walks in an appropriate way. This will vary for each dog and handlers will need to determine where the dog is at in the process of being comfortable on the leash. Toss treats on the ground if the dog is not comfortable coming close enough to take the treat from your hand.

7. Skip the flexi. Scared dogs can bolt and the flexi-leads can give them enough leash to build up some speed. When they hit the end of the line it can be pulled from the handler’s hand at which time it retracts toward the dog. Not only can this be scary for the dog it leaves no leash dragging which could be available for grabbing to gain control of the dog. Not convinced? Check out his blog post.

8. Remember that walking on a leash is like being asked to train for a marathon while holding the hand of a three year old (you’re the three year old). It’s probably not fun or very fulfilling for many dogs so look for ways to exercise your dog off leash.

9. Dogs don’t need to be on a leash to begin to learn polite leash walking skills. Reward your dog anytime they walk next to you by tossing a treat for them to find, then keep walking. When the dog catches up to you, toss another treat for her to find. Begin to increase the number of steps you take while the dog is beside you before tossing the treat. This game can also be played with the dog on a long line. Play this game enough and a leash becomes superfluous and your dog has the start of a ring-worthy ‘heel’.

10. For many dogs leashes have come to predict something scary or unpleasant. If your dog is afraid of the leash desensitize and counter condition them to it by associating positive things with the leash. You can also help by having the leash predict nothing in particular- pick up the leash and do other things besides putting it on the dog. Put the leash on the dog, give them a treat and remove the leash. Mary, on Mary’s Dog Blog has a video showing the work she’s doing with Aaron, her foster dog who is teaching her lots about fear based behaviors.

Here is more information, including videos of teaching a dog to walk politely on leash produced by Ahimsa Dog Training. Note the high rate of reinforcement the dogs receive. Most handlers do not reward a dog near enough to reinforce the behaviors they want.

Before Sunny could be allowed off-leash we worked on the cue for ‘wait’. Fearful dogs often find recalls challenging, and while they may not be able to comfortably approach a person, they may be able to ‘wait’ for their handler to catch up to them. This was one of the early behaviors Sunny learned and helped him feel more comfortable with me moving toward him. Here’s a video of how Sunny learned to ‘wait‘.

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14 comments so far

  1. Deborah Flick on

    Terrific advice. You are so right about the flexi. I never used one with Sadie but I did with my previous dog, Morgaine, who, thankfully, was not fearful. Just as you described, the leash handle slipped out of my hand and poor Morgaine (she was a young puppy) ran screaming around our yard (not really a yard–we live in the foothills so it just open forested land) because something very scary was “chasing” her. I finally caught up with her and in the final analysis all was well. But, if that had happened with Sadie, my fearful girl? I don’t even want to go there.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’ve heard the advice that the handle can be attached to a belt loop with a strap or carabiner so in the event it is dropped it won’t go anywhere.

      • EmilyS on

        but if the dog goes zoomies and the flexi gets wrapped around your leg before you can un-attach the handle, you are in for a WORLD of hurt. I can tell you that from personal experience.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Good point Emily. Youch.

  2. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    I love your tips! I’m especially excited to try #9. I think this could work really well with Buster in getting him to focus on me and also protecting my fingers from the “sharky” way he takes treats.

    I’m also going to post this on my Facebook page!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Much appreciated Amy! Love to Buster and Ty.

  3. Hilary Lane on

    I loved these tips, Debbie! I hate the flexi for similar reasons, and never used it again after my dog Frisbee attacked a seeing-eye dog while he was wearing one! Yikes! Long story…

    Anyway, I love that you laid out the tips in such an easy-to-understand manner. I will refer people to it!

  4. Lizzie on

    Lately when Gracie appeared to be going through a period of regression, she became even more anxious outside, and when previously I had been able to have her off lead, I once again had to keep her hooked up otherwise she would simply turn around and run home.

    Gracie does have issues being on the lead, especially a short one, by that I mean 6ft, which is longer than I use for my other dogs. Anyway I did the unthinkable and started using a Flexi lead to give her the distance from me and also a little more freedom, as she had been used to being off lead. As the Flexi is not a ‘floppy’ lead I find that it works well for Gracie, as she instinctively likes to walk ahead of me, so the lead stays taught. I am forced to walk on grass verges and have to cross roads so trying to manage a 25/30ft line is just not practical.

    I’m not keen on Flexi’s leads for all the reasons that you state but for the moment it is serving a purpose so I’ll keep a tight grip on the handle just in case 🙂

    If I might just add my feelings on heel walking; I don’t really care how near or far Gracie walks from me, if she isn’t pulling like a train then that means she’s as relaxed as she can be, and that for us is progress when outside.

    Nice post Debbie, I followed your advice almost to the letter when I started to work with Gracie on a lead, the neatest thing was the ‘wait’ command which is the first thing she learnt, and definitely the most important for me when outside.

  5. Dan Lutts on

    This is a great post with a lot of useful information.

    We have a fearful dog, Faith, who came to our house almost three years ago, when she was three months old. After three months, we were able to coax her into the living room, which she refused to leave for over a year.

    From Day 1, Faith was petrified of the leash. However, after we finally enticed her out of the living room last May, she’s made remarkable progress — especially in seeing the leash as her friend.

    To your tips on desensitizing a fearful dog to the leash, I’d add a tip about breaking down the desensitization process into stages. Repeat each stage until the dog is comfortable with it (and give treats and praise):

    (1) Put a treat on the leash snap and let the dog eat the treat off of it. (2) Attach a short leash to her collar, and then immediately detach it. (3) Attach the short leash to her collar and leave it on her. (4) Walk her around inside the house on the short leash. (5) Attach a long leash to her collar and leave it on her. (5)Walk her around inside the house on the long leash. (5) Walk her around in your fenced-in backyard on the long leash. (6) Take her out of the backyard on a short walk. (7) Gradually extend the length of the walks.

    Another tip is to adopt a second dog who can act as both a friend and a role model to your fearful dog. We adopted a dog named Mac, who loves going for walks on a leash. Seeing Mac get excited because we were putting a leash on him and also seeing us going out and returning from walks helped Faith see the leash as something positive instead of something to be afraid of.

    I talk about how we got a leash on Faith in my latest post on http://dogtidbits.com/fearful-dogs/fearful-dogs-how-to-get-a-leash-on-one

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your story with Faith. You are so right about breaking down experiences into smaller pieces. It’s a good reminder for folks that that is the essence of desensitization.

  6. thelittlebeardogblog on

    Great advice on the harness.

    My dog has had one from day one but when we picked up our foster dog Annie the one thing that hadn’t arrived on time was her harness. On the trip home we stopped at the park to introduce her to our dog but even before she saw him, she suddenly panicked when we stepped out of the car, snapped her collar and took off into the dusk.

    Thankfully this story has a happy ending!

    We found her hungry, exhausted but otherwise unharmed 3 days later. I’ll never walk a dog just on a collar again – in fact she’s now walked on a harness and collar just to be on the safe side.

    • fearfuldogs on

      OMG that gives me a sinking feeling in my stomach just imaging what it must have been like when the collar snapped and off she went. So glad there was a happy ending to the tale. I almost lost Sunny in a similar way the day after he came to live with us. It was just luck and his inclination to shut down when confronted, that prevented him from slipping his collar. I can say that I doubt I would have ever seen him again alive.

      • thelittlebeardogblog on

        Annie’s instinct was to run like a greyhound (even though she’s a rather overweight Lab). The sick to the stomach feeling lasted for days, even after we found her! Hard to believe now seeing her snuggled up on the sofa next to me.

        I love the blog by the way – it’s been really helpful in my guest to understand Little Bear. Thank you 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Glad you find the blog helpful. Living with these dogs is a challenge but those tail wags are to die for!


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