LEASH STRESS By Eggi Chromecek

I would like to report to you about my experiences working with two dogs that manifested extreme leash stress. Both of the dogs exhibited similar symptoms - the moment a leash was attached to them, they would pull on it and shake it violently, to the extent that one could barely hold on to the leash.

Before elucidating the behavior of both of these dogs any further, I would like to mention some background they have in common:

  • Both dogs are female and have been spayed.
  • Both dogs live in families with lots of children, cats, and a second dog in the "pack."
  • They both live on the outskirts of the city and hardly have any contact with other dogs.
  • Both have their leash clipped to their collar, one of which is a choke collar.
  • Both dogs are walked using a flexi-leash, or, at times, on a very short leash.
  • Children in both families play with the leash as a kind of pull toy.
  • The owners like to issue "commands."
  • Both dogs were trained at canine clubs using "positive punishment methods".
  • The owners would go jogging or cycling several times a week with their dogs.


I am not implying that all these similarities concerning leash stress have any significant meaning. One would need data from a much larger control group in order to draw any conclusions. Personally, however, I believe there is a connection that is more than coincidence.


As a first step in working with the families, I explained to the parents/children that the leash was no longer to be used as a toy and that a harness would be absolutely necessary in order to reduce daily stress on the dog.



The largest hurdle to overcome was actually putting the dog on the leash. Every time the leash was clipped on to the dog's harness the dog would instantly begin to attack it and chew on it (see pictures above and on left). When the leash was dropped by the handler the dog would continue its destruction tactics, tossing the thing into the air, shaking it and dragging the leash behind it until it was finally distracted by other scents on the ground.


At the next attempt to put the leash on the dog a treat happened to fall out of my belt pack. The dog retrieved it enthusiastically from the ground. Putting on the leash went without any other ado this time because the dog was never made aware of this happening.


This procedure was now consciously repeated. A handful of treats were spread about on the floor and, while the dog picked them up, the leash was attached to the harness without actually holding on to the leash. As it never noticed anything it also did not react. The families of these dogs were given the assignment to continue practicing this same process on their own, over and over.


The next problem manifested itself whenever the leash was actually picked up and held on to by the owners. As soon as the dog noticed, it would begin to chew and tear again with vehemence. With the help of a little trick it became possible for me to eliminate this behavior.


Handler is luring the dog
with treats, crouching down
& secretly picking up the


She is still distracting
the dog with treats in
her hand but is gradually
standing upright


Now almost upright
and begins very
slowly walking


As the training
progresses the dog
learns to walk without
chewing on its leash


I lured the dog to me with a handful of treats (see Nibbles) to the point that I was able to reach for the leash with the other hand, after which I stood up slowly and inconspicuously. The dog stood still next to me, even though he was on the leash and I held it fast in my hand.


I repeated this trick many times and it worked every single time. The dog always stood calmly next to me. Whenever I consequently took a few steps with the leash in my hand the dog proved to be cooperative and easily led. The practice of this "trick" was also assigned as homework to the families of the dogs.


Even though the misbehavior of biting on the leash was much improved, and in spite of all the efforts made, there were still fallbacks into the old behaviors. In these instances the desired behavior was achieved after the third attempt at the latest. Both dogs are still young (around two years of age) and I am certain that both families will continue practicing vigilantly with them until complete success sets in.



An erroneous method of holding the leash that I have frequently observed among dog owners is that they almost exclusively hold the leash after it has been attached at about a third of the way, or halfway, up, which puts a strain on the leash and signals to the dog that it is now "on the leash". While working with the aforementioned dogs I first became fully aware of the importance of the correct way of holding the leash. Since that time I have added the practice of correctly placing the hands, along with the practice of "learning to heel with a loose leash." (See Turid Rugaas' book "What do I do when my dog pulls?" and Why Dogs Pull on a Lead)


I recommend the use of a standard, 2 meter-long leash, the trick to which lies in the dog having a soft collar hanging loosely from his end. A contrasting colour for the collar has proven to be beneficial. The dog owners are basically to attach the leash to the collar and adjust the length of it according to the need of the moment rather than to tug and pull the animal about. This changes the dynamic of the habit of "heeling" to one in which the human gives in a bit to the rhythm and movements of the dog (walking faster, stopping, walking more slowly, drawing the leash in, letting the leash out, etc.)


It is often helpful to do a "dry-run" with the owner of a dog; the dog trainer pretends to be the dog by holding on to the end of the leash as the owner holds his/her end. In this way the trainer can imitate various maneuvers for the owner to practice the proper reaction without abusing the dog at the other end. Once the owner can successfully deal with a 2 meter leash it becomes time to try out the 3 or 5 meter-length one. But according to my experience the 2 meter leash is still the best one for use in the city.


When walking in the woods or areas that are zoned leash-law enforced it is very practical to use a 2 meter leash, or even longer one - rather than the flexi-leash. But it is more work for the owner to do so. This extra effort would seem well worth the trouble for our beloved dogs.


About the author of this article - Eggi Chromecek

I am Japanese and have lived in Vienna with my husband since 1975. We have a dog. Having grown up with dogs, my extraordinary relationship to them is certainly a result of my childhood. Due to my mother's illness I was often left alone and consequently felt very lonely. Being the youngest child with brothers and sisters much older than me, I was always welcome home after school by our dogs which accompanied me always and everywhere. They gave me the feeling of not being alone.

My first dog in Vienna was Bibi, a West Highland Terrier. She was very funny, lively, easygoing and popular with everybody - everything but a problem dog. She died in 1994 at the age of 12 years.


In 1996 we got our present dog, Dixie. She was very sensitive, easily scared and sometimes even aggressive towards strangers. Although only 9 weeks old, she already was a problem dog. Before she came to us she had lived with another family from the 8th to the 9th week. I have no idea what she might have experienced at that time, I only know that Dixie has been different from all the other dogs I ever had before.


Thus I decided to attend a puppy training course with Dixie. Unfortunately this course took place at ÖGV (Utility dog club of Austria). Not everything was achieved with positive encouragement, but also partly with positive punishment. Already then I instinctively used positive encouragement (praise and treat) which Dixie reacted very finely to and which consequently spared her trouble in the course. This was also a reason why the instructor didn't take much notice of us most of the time. For seven years I stayed with ÖGV and during that time I tried to convince people of the evident advantages of the positive-encouragement training method. I've had little success. I'm still trying to convey my attitudes and convictions in my own dog school.


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