Teaching a Dog Not to Be Scared of a Leash or Collar

shutterstock_300456641Sometimes one-to-one training and behaviour sessions require a little more thoughtfulness and patience than others; sometimes they are for issues that, for the dog’s welfare, are very important to address.

I don’t usually video during my training sessions, but because this dog has a problem that, whilst not uncommon (I have seen it 3 times now), is very easy to make a whole lot worse very quickly, I thought I’d video and share some thoughts in the hope that it will help other trainers, dogs and handlers.

Stan is a Whippet; he is only 10 months old and is a happy, lively, friendly little dog. However, following an accident on a walk, he became very frightened of his collar and lead, to the point where he would tremble and try to escape whenever either the lead or the collar came into view. If he was caught and the collar and lead were put on, he would freeze with fear. Obviously this is a big problem for more than one reason: According to the Road Traffic Act 1988, a dog must be on a lead when on a designated highway and dogs must wear an id tag when on walks in public. This really needs to be on their collar, and of course for safety of the dog and other path/road users, dogs need to be on lead regularly when on walks.

If we tried to use food to lure Stan towards the collar or lead, we were completely unsuccessful. Stan would turn his head disengaging from us, start yawning, lip licking and would creep away from us – as far as he could get and still be in the room. So luring was no use to us.

We decided to work on counter conditioning, asking nothing from Stan at all, but when the collar was in view, we fed him cheese. We didn’t ask him to come close to the collar, not look at it, nothing at all. But when the collar was in view, we fed Stan. So we are taking a fear eliciting stimulus (the collar or lead) and repeatedly pairing it with food in order to change Stan’s response to the stimulus.

This kind of training takes an infinite amount of time and patience. Luckily, Stan’s owner totally understood this and was 100% committed.

Alongside this, we trained Stan to place his chin on his owner’s hand, so that once he was happy to be around the collar, we could invite him to wear it. This meant that Stan had control over his environment; he had a choice on whether to wear the collar or not. Choice is extremely empowering for anyone that is fearful. With this training, it took 2 weeks for Stan to be happy wearing a collar – pretty quick I thought.

We then did the same thing with his lead. Here is a video clip of the counter conditioning process that we did. I produce the lead from my bag, Stan is fed. The lead is removed and the food stops.

The sequence of events here is important, lead then food, not food then lead. If we get the food ready first, the food becomes the predictor of the scary lead, and we don’t want that!

In order to attach the lead to Stan, we also worked on desensitisation skills. We need Stan to be happy with his collar being held, for the lead to be closer in his owner’s hand, for the lead to be clipped on to his collar – lots of work still to do. This video shows how we started work. You can see the point at which the training becomes too much for Stan to cope with; it’s very clear. He is happy for us to touch and hold the collar, also happy for his handler to have the lead in her hand. However, as the trigger on the lead clip is moved at the 1:07 time mark, Stan disengages from us; note the change in his ear carriage, spot the stiffen, head turn, he sits, nose flicks with tongue, lifts his paw, stands up and moves away. This is followed by more head turning and lip licking. He couldn’t be more clear right? So we stop.

We now have valuable information. Now that know what Stan’s threshold is, the point at which more training and desensitisation is needed, we can make a plan.

This is exactly what we have done. We are working on a combination of all of the cues that tell Stan that a lead is going to be clipped onto the collar: taking the collar into our hands, picking up the lead, holding the lead, moving the lead clip. We are mixing these up, working on various combinations. We continue to work on the chin target and add duration. Our aims are for Stan to be enjoy the lead being local to him, for Stan to learn that he has a choice over whether we clip the lead onto his collar or not, and to communicate with us by resting his chin on the hand when he is ready for the lead to be clipped onto his collar.

I don’t believe this will be achieved overnight, but I am confident that we will be able to accomplish these goals with Stan. Stan’s owner understands what we are doing and is patient. This training is crucially important, because not wearing a collar and lead is not a safe option for Stan.

Desensitisation and counter conditioning are valuable skills to use with fearful dogs and great care must be taken when using these tools in order to make sure that we don’t push dogs beyond their limits, making their fears worse. Luring is not necessarily appropriate since the drive for food can, momentarily, overcome the fear; however as soon as the food is eaten, the dog can quickly go over threshold and panic.

When working with dogs that have fears, we need to be sensitive to their body language and communication, be observant and respond to changes in their demeanour, be thoughtful of the steps that will be required, and break them down into tiny achievable steps, be flexible in our approach and be ready to stop or change our plan quickly. Keep training sessions short, vary the time of day and place that you train in order to prevent the training becoming a cue of the fearful stimulus, mix up your desensitisation training with other fun training like tricks and obedience (again to prevent training becoming a trigger for the fearful stimulus) and try to end on a high note.

Positive reinforcement trainers like those that that are part of the Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training Network will be able to help with this sort of training and to give you advice if you feel you need support with your dog.

Happy Training!


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Positively Expert: Jo Pay

Jo Pay is an Accredited Animal Behaviourist with the ABTC, the European Co-ordinator for Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training and has spent more than 20 years working with dogs in a variety of roles.


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  • Recalcitrant Truth Seeker

    Thank you so much, I just discovered I have this exact problem - I have 2 Cavalier pups about 4 months old, one doesn't mind the collar at all, the other is terrified of it. These puppies are absolutely happy-go-lucky and sweet personalities; the one with the issue has a strong personality and can be stubborn. To make matters worse, as soon as I clipped on the leash, he totally freaked out, causing my other small dog (3 year old) to freak out and nip at him... and I immediately go to grab the puppy to take the leash off and am fending my other dog off with my other hand. This all happened in an instant. The otherwise super-happy puppy was freaked out and now he is very afraid of the leash and collar as well as my other dog (who is havanese). I feel awful that this happened and need to re-establish trust and ultimately condition him that the collar and leash are safe. These dogs have been playing with each other with no issues before this. I'm definitely going to use the 'show him the collar/leash, then give him food' method; he loves to eat. I'm also going to do things in an isolated environment. Any other advice is appreciated.

  • very useful article, with a proper knowledge about leash and collar and how to use it, even a stubborn dog can be well trained and get obedience.

  • I'm going to try this with my Chihuahua. She cowers and shakes when you put a collar or halter on her and refuses to move forward unless she sees something that she really wants to go see (like food or a friendly person) but it's temporary and as soon as that is gone she goes back to shaking. She will go to bed and lay there for as long as the collar is on if we're indoors. I have tried the slow introduction but not properly as I only gave spotty training. I haven't had the chance to do the slow steps over weeks because we often go places where she needs them on in case she'd get away from me, but with winter coming we won't be going out as much and will have sufficient time between collar required events to do this training more properly.

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