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



Published On: August 5th, 2013Categories: Dog Training, Dog Training Tips, ToolsTags: , , ,


  1. Shannon August 19 at 8:14 AM

    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 August 19 at 8:34 AM

      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.

  2. Joan Brothers January 17 at 5:17 AM

    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!

    • katie May 3 at 8:34 AM

      gosh i am a new foster parent of a fearful dog who is also very scared of the outside world. hearing there are owners who haven’t had improvement in 6 years makes me so worried. i do really hope you and your pup are able to work with trainer to help them.

  3. linda June 15 at 1:12 AM

    .. I have a pup .. a small minni winni mix. our rescue pup… he has had an inbeded collar so he has a sensitive neck.. does good on a back clip harness. But i have to have my hubby hold him while i put it on .. he is scared of the harness itself.. But once we get it on and start to walk him he is fine.. but i was just looking for a more comfy harness but still have that control .. doesnt take much he is only 7lbs lol.. any suggestions.

  4. Michelle March 9 at 8:53 PM

    Please Help! I am a canine foster carer and a Shar Pei has recently come into my care with severe fear aggression – she is very nervous about most interaction although this is slowly (painfully slowly changing). However I cannot get neither collar nor harness on her to take her out for a walk. I have quite a good garden so she can be outside but you cant beat a good walk and there are a million other reasons she may need to be leashed – if she got out or needed the vet etc. When I try to harness her (she did apparently wear a harness at the original home) she will cower and verbally signal with yowls, then growls, then barking and if you continue to push of course she will snap at you. She will even retreat from a lot of affection. She also has some separation anxiety. I am so sad for her as she is a very god dog – she is obedient and calm (otherwise) and doesn’t toilet in the house at all. Do you have any advice or techniques that might help me?

    • Anthony June 23 at 11:25 PM

      Yes — that is one reason I don’t love harnesses, many dogs don’t like them especially scared or aggressive dogs. A simple martingale collar can be worn all the time and you just come over and pet her, give her a bellyrub, clip on the leash to the martingale when she isn’t even noticing, stand up and head out! Leash techniques are then another challenge — try to keep leash loose with her behind you, you in the lead, walking confidently and happily to fun social rewards.

  5. Victoria March 28 at 2:13 AM

    Hi, I’m struggling with my 1yr old Cocker Spaniel. He’s so anxious when putting on his lead/harness. He’s been wearing one since 12wks. I took the trainers advice and eased him into the situation. It was around him, he sniffed it. We took it all very gently etc. We rewarded (& still reward) good behaviour towards them however, in spite of the gentle approach, he cowers when the lead/harness/both come out. I’ve tried with different leads and different harnesses. None are too tight or hurt him. He gets lots of treats on his walks. And he enjoys his walks, it seems. I don’t want him to hide or be fearful of his lead when it’s supposed to be the sign of an enjoyable experience. How can I help him please?

    • Anthony June 23 at 11:22 PM

      I meet LOTS of dos who hate putting on the harness! It’s a very intrusive action. I prefer walking with a martingale collar that the dog can wear all the time, you just clip the leash on and head out! Less stress, less confrontation, more immediate fun leadership to exploring and getting out and about!

  6. Kathy April 8 at 4:21 AM

    Hi. Any suggestions for getting the harness on the dog without getting bit by a dog suffering from conflict-related aggression? We understand the harness is not ideal for walks, but we would like to clip him into the safety belt in the car with a harness. Or, is there another safer way to ride in the car?

  7. Kate May 13 at 8:31 PM

    My one year old fears any collar, harness, sweater, buckles and especially velcro. I’ve tried all the gradual, patient approaches but she seems to be shying away from me. So these professional trainer approaches are worsening her trust in me to the point she hides when I say the word walk. But once we’re walking, she eventually enjoys it or at least tolerates it. Otherwise she’s very sociable and loves all her other activities.

  8. Kate May 13 at 8:34 PM

    I have yet to find just the right collar or no pull harness and I don’t want to keep pushing new types. She’s very fearful of anything touching the back of her head or neck.

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