Canine Fear/Anxiety Dos and Don’ts
Part II: Leashing Up
1. Don’t use a back-clip harness, unless your dog’s physiology requires it for health/safety reasons. (Physiological reasons might include a weak trachea or injured back or neck.) A back-clip harness (a harness that attaches to the leash above the dog’s shoulderblades) is designed to give a dog maximum control while on leash. This is desirable for sled dogs and tracking dogs, when we want them to be able to pull to their heart’s content without feeling a thing. But put an anxious/fearful dog in the driver’s seat, and you have an anxious/fearful driver. Where you go, and how you get there, will be decided by your dog’s anxiety. At the very least, your dog will pull away from all fear triggers: along comes that skateboard, and pup yanks to the opposite side of the sidewalk, hiding behind your legs. The result: the enemy, the skateboard, soon leaves, and your pup’s fear has succeeded; so he’ll be sure to struggle even harder against you next time. At worst this can lead to aggression: fear/anxiety is the most common cause of canine aggression, and on a back-clip harness if your dog decides to attack, you have very little means of control over his head and neck to stop him from doing so.
2. Front-clip harnesses (ones that attach to the leash below the dog’s neck, in front of the shoulderblades) give the handler slightly greater control than the back-clip version. (The “E-Z Walk” is one of the more popular versions of front-clip harness.) I find two problems with front-clip harnesses for fearful/anxious dogs. First, they can plant their feet and it’s very difficult to get them to budge. In trigger situations fearful dogs often won’t respond to the lure of treats, which leaves you basically helplessly stuck on the sidewalk as your dog refuses to pass that bus, or subway grate, or pack of schoolkids. Again, in addition to simply being frustrating, allowing the dog’s anxious and mistrustful behavior to dictate the walk can actually reinforce his fears. Second, many dogs in a fit of fear/anxiety can wriggle free from front-clip harnesses. Obviously this is undesirable and unsafe.
3. My favorite tool for fearful/anxious dogs is the “Martingale” collar. This collar can go on more loosely than normal flat-buckle collars, without the worry of slipping off if you or your dog pulls on the leash, because the loops tighten the collar around the neck. This is especially helpful for dogs who startle easily. If your fearful dog startles at the sound of a motorcycle revving up and jumps sideways and wriggles like a maniac, you don’t risk him wriggling free and running away. Moreover, the Martingale allows you to lead your dog forward by the neck and head, which pulls his eyes and mind forward and his body then follows. Next post will explain how to do this, when your pup plants his feet.
Next: Part III, Building Trust