Help with my adopted stray who gets afraid on walks

mwkbearAugust 5, 2014

Hi all,

Back in March of 2013, I adopted a stray dog from a rescue organization. He had been picked up during a snow storm on the street in Brooklyn, NY. They estimated that he was about 9 months old when I got him.

He's an absolutely wonderful dog, loving, sweet, funny, happy and playful...EXCEPT when I take him for a walk on leash. He becomes a totally different animal. He's distracted, fearful, and cowers at all sorts of things. Yesterday, we were walking and a guy on a bicycle stopped by us to compliment him and pet him and he freaked out, just cowering behind me. Even my partner, when I'm walking the dog on leash and we walk by him, the dog seems not even to know who he is, he's so distracted.

As soon as he's back in the house, or out in our yard, he's perfectly normal again. This has been going on since I've had him, and doesn't seem to be getting better. I've tried all sorts of things to get him to focus on me, to calm down, etc, but I'm wondering if anyone has any ideas for fixing this?

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First off let me say Thank You for rescuing your furbaby. It sounds like he was taken for a walk & dumped somewhere. Have you tried just walking him around your yard and then rewarding him? I'm sure others will be along with some great advice for you.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 9:41AM
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Hi Christine. The thing is that he doesn't have any problems being in our yard. He also gets really excited when I bring the leash out and he's all wiggly and waggy...until we walk out onto the sidewalk. That's when his demeanor changes. Obviously, as a stray, he probably had some bad experiences wandering around...people throwing stuff at him, maybe someone on a bicycle tried to run him over or something. All that is speculation because I don't know anything at all about his history.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 10:41AM
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JQ Public

Try contacting the rescue organization where you got your little sweetie. They may have someone who can work one-on-one with you.

When I volunteered to walk a scared dog (he belonged to a neighbor), I eased him into the process. My goal was to give him time to get familiar with his surroundings before going out too far, so for the first walk, we walked only a one house down, then stopped. I sat and talked to him while he nervously looked around, then after a while, we went home. Eventually he became comfortable with going further.

I think that stopping and waiting for my nervous dog see everything (and realize there was nothing to be afraid of) was helpful. I suggest trying that with your dog. When gets scared, stop walking. Stay in one place until he calms down. Keep walks short and upbeat (I talked to my dog in a quiet and calm voice and used lots of praise).

Hope this helps! :-)

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 10:42AM
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Try some leash walking sessions in the backyard, where he's comfortable. Progress to the front yard and sidewalk. Take it slow and let him get used to things. He may be skittish in the great wide open because of his past. Build his confidence on leash in comfortable settings. He sounds like he's not socialized outside so maybe some basic training sessions are in order.

Make sure your dog knows leash specific commands; sit, heel, stop (different than stay), etc. Also, very important here, make sure YOU are in command while on leash. Dogs need pack leaders and if he's uncomfortable "outside", he needs your reassurance as pack leader. That would explain the cowering.

A lot of people don't know how to approach dogs, especially on leash. He may be taking a passive stance because of their approach. Remember, people are "larger" than dogs and some dogs really get spooked by that. Work on the approaching skills as well. Get the pup used to people approaching but you may have to instruct them on the right way to do it.

I'm guessing at home, the dog is allowed to roam freely, including on furniture. He's made your house his (his den, if you will) and that's why he's "normal". Take him out of this normal and he's a different pooch.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 10:54AM
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Congratulations on a rescue dog! I have to agree that using your yard for a site to walk him should be helpful. And to make sure that you are the "leader of the pack". I've watched many episodes of "Dog Whisperer" with Cesar Millan, and have to praise his methods. I suggest you watch them too. You can find them on cable or satelite tv. Or buy season episodes or books at most pet stores. It sounds to me like he's in control and out of control as he's not comfortable. Unfortunately, you'll never know why he's like he is. All you can do is deal with it. Give him your calm, leader of the pack sense of being. The idea of short walks sounds real smart too. I wish you the best.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 11:08AM
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Sounds like some very scary things happened to your pup before he was rescued. A couple of suggestions:

Does he start getting anxious when you put the leash on or just when you are actually out walking? I'd put the leash on in the house 10-15 minutes before you plan to leave the house and just let him trail around with it on. Then prepare for the walk quietly, pick up the leash and head out. No "Walkies!" or "Let's go!"... just calmly leave.

Take a chair out to the front of your property along with a book, your phone, whatever... and just sit with your dog on his leash and not make a big deal about it. Just sit for awhile, ignore him, and let him watch (and deal with) cars, people, and bicycles going by on his own. Sometimes our attempts to reassure our dogs just makes them more anxious, and just reinforces that there is indeed something to be upset about! Try to end on a good note - pack up and go back inside while he's calm and relaxed. If he does well, start moving down the street house by house.

Do you have a friend with a big calm unflappable dog that you can walk with? Let your guy "shield" behind the other dog as needed.

Salami! (tiny pieces---or whatever your dog's highest-value treat is). Take short walks and pause frequently, ask for a behavior (sit, down, paw, whatever) praise and reward. If something scary is headed your way, stop, get his attention, hold a treat at chin height and make it all about you and him.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 2:26PM
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Thanks everyone. I haven't tried walking him in our yard on leash, maybe that's a good place to start. Thanks again!

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 5:40PM
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My dog has certain walks (2-3) that he likes, otherwise he gets afraid, tucks his tail, twirls, looks nervously around, and actually freezes up and won't go forward. I think giving a treat at this point would be wrong because it seems like a reward for behavior. I can force him to walk with me, but it isn't pleasant. He plays at a local field with other dogs and does really well, so I'm not too worried about the difficulty walking. He has the walks he likes, so we can stick with them, and he gets plenty of exercise otherwise.

This week we had occasion to walk a bit with another dog, and he did really well. After reaching the other dog's house, we continued on, and he became nervous again. When we turn around to go back, he's happy. So maybe walking with another dog is something you can try, mwk, if you have that opportunity.

I like the idea of just going a couple houses down, turn around and come back. Offer small treats when he's going along well. Maybe go a little more each week.

Anyway, hope you enjoy your pup anyway as I do mine.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2014 at 9:44PM
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