Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.
Q: We have two Italian Greyhounds, a seven year old male and a four year old female. The female has not allowed us to leash or harness her since she was about six months old. She is extremely nervous and skittish and generally difficult to deal with. She can run in circles for hours. As you can imagine, getting her to the vet or anywhere in general is a nightmare. Have you ever heard of this, and can this be corrected? We have had no problems like this with the older dog. Thanks.
A: While it might seem as if you’ve got one single issue with your younger greyhound, from what you’re saying it seems as if there are smaller, individual problems that are snowballing together.
On the one hand, she seems as if she’s leash-phobic, which isn’t entirely uncommon, and on the other she seems to be exhibiting the classic signs of a more general type of anxiety.
Let’s address the leash sensitivity first since it presents a pressing safety concern for her.
Almost no dog is born liking their leash. It’s something they eventually learn to love, tolerate, or even hate depending on the rewards associated with them putting it on. Going for walks, play, and general fun will make the leash much more attractive for a dog who likes those things.
Stepping back for a moment and putting it in human terms, in many ways on a behavioral level a leash to a dog is the same as a tie is for a man.
No man, young or old, likes wearing a tie the first couple times, but if they’re consistently told they look handsome in it – or if they get paid a million dollars to wear it – they’re going to learn to really like it.
Alternatively, if someone has to wear a tie to a job that they only kind of like but they get paid pretty well to do it, then they’ll tolerate the tie but – more often than not – will look forward to pulling it off the second they’re out of the office.
Finally, if the only time someone wears a tie is to go to funerals then the powerful negative associations they’ve made to the tie will essentially guarantee they’ll hate every second of wearing one.
Bringing it back to your anxious greyhound, for whatever reason she’s put herself in the “funeral” associative camp and your job is to get her from there to tolerating and then loving her leashes or harnesses.
Here’s my advice for how to deal with the leash issue:
- Since her anxiety levels likely spike if she even sees the leash or harness, in the very beginning just bring it out so she can see it and give her jackpot handfuls of her favorite dog treats (or a tidbit of something super-yummy like cheese, hotdogs, etc.). Do this once or twice a day for the first couple days to allow her to begin to associate the presence of the leash or harness with something really, really good. Please remember that if you are using the jackpot method to cut down on her regular meals – she does not need extra weight.
- Once she begins to display excitement when you bring the leash out – even if it’s just excitement for the treats – bring the leash or harness over to her, put it on the ground next to her, and give her the same jackpots or cheesy tidbits as before. At this point we’re trying to build comfort with proximity to the leash or harness and repeat this process once or twice a day for a couple of days.
- Once she’s displaying excitement with having the leash next to her on the ground, hold the leash in one hand while feeding her the jackpot or other yummy goodies with the other. Like before, this is about building comfort with both proximity and having the leash or harness near her head and face so you’ll want to do this for a couple days as well.
- Finally it’s time to move on to putting the leash on her collar or harness on her body – and like before it’s going to be jackpots or other super-yummy snacks while you clip her up and walk her around wearing the leash. Like the man in the example above learning to love his tie because he gets paid a million dollars to do it, your jackpots are her million dollars.
Once you’ve gotten to the point where she’s happy to wear her leash or harness, in the very beginning you are going to go very slowly as she builds up her confidence while she’s wearing it. Dogs feel at a disadvantage when they’re leashed so you must be very careful so you do not undo all the work you’ve done.
With regard to your greyhound’s anxiety, not knowing what’s triggering it makes it a bit harder to pinpoint a specific approach.
My general rule of thumb when it comes to a dog who exhibits anxiety is to check with your veterinarian to be sure that she is healthy and seek out a local behaviorist to be sure you are doing no harm. There are a number of over-the-counter approaches they might try before recommending consulting a medical specialist for pharmaceutical help:
- D.A.P. – Dog Appeasing Pheromone – is something that I’ve used extensively in the past in both my private and shelter consultation practices and I’ve seen encouraging anecdotal evidence that suggests it does help the dog to reduce their anxiety levels. D.A.P. is nice because it comes in a wide variety of forms from house diffusers to collars to pocket-sized sprays, and I’ve noted no negative side effects from its use. (I’ve written about D.A.P. here, which you might find useful to read.)
- Thundershirts – like D.A.P., the Thundershirt is something that I’ve used extensively to address dog anxiety. Essentially, the Thundershirt is a body wrap that cinches snugly around the dog and functions in very much the same way that similar deep touch pressure calms patients with autism or ADHD. In short, the pressure exerted on the body causes the wearer to relax which reduces their susceptibility to anxiety-producing stimuli. I use the Thundershirt frequently in my shelter consultations and have witnessed anecdotal evidence that it does, in fact, work very well – especially considering the highly reactive environment within a typical animal shelter.
Ideally I would like you to address both the leash sensitivity and anxiety in parallel because the confidence she builds from the leash training might lessen the anxiety while the lessened anxiety from the over-the-counter approaches might allow her to better focus on the training.
The leash sensitivity training will take time and patience on your part, but desensitization through positive reinforcement does – and can – work wonders.
And don’t forget while you are working on these items please seek out professional help to assist you with the root cause of your greyhound’s anxiety.
Good luck and let us know how it goes! Stay positive!