Fear/Anxiety Dos and Don’ts, Part II: Leashing Up
Fear/Anxiety Dos and Don’ts, Part II: Leashing Up

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




  • Shannon says:

    I recently adopted a former breeding Golden Retriever from a rescue shelter. She is 4 and was at the rescue for about two months. She is very anxious about going outside and tends to buck when we take her outside. I don’t want to force her but she also needs to go outside. Any suggestions?

    • Anthony says:

      Get her out, out, out! Fear only dissipates when the scared dog can learn through consistent, repeated firsthand experience that her perceived threats aren’t real. Instead we make them joyful! Use a martingale collar to lead. Be strong and fun! Don’t stop when she plants her feet; walk through it. Walk far, long, and to every dog park you can find. Bring her favorite toys, balls, and treats. Unlike some other issues, fear/anxiety is fixable — no dogs want to stay in it, if you show them the way out!. Keep me posted.

  • Joan Brothers says:

    I have a rescue mutt who is still so fearful on the noisy streets. We adopted him a 6 months and he’s about to be 6 years. I’ve always used the martingale collar. It kind of comes and goes with the fear but He’s mostly fearful. We live in New York City where the streets are pretty quiet the avenues are noisy so he’ll walk pretty well on the street but will freeze at the avenue. He’ll work for a really really long time and parks with there’s no noise in on Sunday morning so it’s really quiet. He will not take a treat outside at all when he’s fearful can’t get him interested at all.

    I’d love to hear what you think!

    • Anthony says:

      It is all about counterconditioning into fun joyful rewards, typically meaning offleash social play in the park. Calm confident leadership helps . . . since you’re in New York hit me up by email and visit a workshop in Manhattan or Brooklyn or I’ll come to you!

  • Kurt says:

    I have a rescue dog from a puppy farm and he’s very skittish and cautious. How can I put a leash on him?

    • Anthony says:

      You mean he’s biting if you try? Otherwise just put it on and lead, confidently and to fun social rewards! If he’s biting there’s a trick where you can loop it like a lasso and then start walking, it’s less confrontational and safer.

  • Nicole says:

    My doodle is very skittish when in loud environments. She’s slipped out of collars and harnesses before. She gets so nervous that I’m actually scared of taking her on a plane with me when traveling since she freaks out with rolling bags and carts. She has no problem at a dog park or with other dogs. She chooses to run alone instead of with the pack at times. While walking her, she refuses to go passed a certain point. Even if I’m calm and trying to get her passed the area she’s scared of, she doesn’t budge. Basically, I think she’s scared of the outside world in general. I may be moving to a bigger city/louder environment and I’m worried she may not do well. Any advice?

    • Anthony says:

      Often the “not budging” behavior is facilitated by use of a harness. Harnesses are designed for sled dogs and tracking dogs to be able to pull; so when we use a harness on a dog we are putting it in the power position, in control. With a dog who plants her feet, it’s like pulling a cinder block with a string. Though some dogs need harnesses for health reasons eg collapsed tracheae or post-spinal operations, many dogs will do better on walks with a martingale collar around the neck, when used safely and properly. Also called a safety collar because when properly fitted it won’t slip off, it is also kind, gentle, and effective because it doesn’t pull up against the trachea and instead squeezes in from the sides. If your dog plants her feet you can continue walking and tug the leash then immediately loosen — it’s a knack, and again must be practiced safely and properly — and it creates trust and following. Then ideally as many walks as possible go through and past triggering situations (again within therapeutic limits, not re-traumatizing) and onto fun social play in the park. You can then start adding more difficult trust exercises like Lie Down near triggers . . . but starting with trustful walking is always helpful. Let me know if this helps!

  • Nicole gallagher says:

    Hi! First off, I’m so glad I found this site. It has so much helpful info! I have an 8 month old pomsky who is screen fearful of people other than me and my boyfriend, he’s afraid of basically everything that is going on outdoors. Cats. Noises. People. WIND! I personally have crippling social anxiety so it’s hard for me too, I know he can tell when I’m starting to freak out. I’m just wondering how will I know if I’m pushing him to far? I know it’s important to keep going out and experiencing the things that make him fearful. But I don’t want to make it worse. He refuses treats when in his fear really deep. He won’t even look at me no matter what I do or his squeaky toy. Then just tries to dart back towards the house. I try backing up to a place he feels safer and then rewarding but it seems like it’s not helping. I have been using a harness because I’m scared to hurt his neck with a collar when he starts flailing around in a frenzy trying to get away from something. He has a tiny pointy little head and a VERY fluffy neck so I’m worried a martingale collar may slip off. So I guess my two questions are, how far is to far to push him? I feel like I’m forcefully dragging him around to much and it’s sad. And also, on a 20 pound tiny husky looking dog to itch a pointy little face and a fluffy neck is s martingale going to keep him secure? Even from backing out? He’s microchipped and wears tags on a regular collar. But we just moved recently and if he gets loose I know he’ll be gone and hit by a car. He won’t know the way to our back door like he used to. We’re in the city (worcester,MA)

  • Glenn Miller says:

    I recently adopted a chiwawa mix. She is not aggressive but very shy. She will allow petting and holding but she is not interested in seeking out attention. I have to take her out of her crate to take her outside. When she is outside she has taken to hiding behind some shrubs (she snapped at me when I went to get her out of there). I blocked off her access to that area but she still takes off for the house when I place her in the back yard (fenced in). I have tried a leash but she just pulls back towards the house. suggestions? I am not using a harness.

  • Amy says:

    I have a 4 year old German shepherd cross retriever who suffers from anxiety and fear aggression especially in confined busy places. He will try and eat any vet! When out on a walk he is always trying to lead the way but with ears back. When he sees or approaches another dog his hackles go right up until he sniffs them out and then he is fine unless the other dog reacts and then he will retaliate. At the moment i am using a headcollar for maximum control. I was wondering if you recommend the use of anything else? He is going through training everyday however nothing can get his attention when hes outdoors, not interested in treats, toys, games etc. One trainer said he suffers from fear aggression. I got him from the rescue 3 years ago.

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