Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
It is not unusual to rescue a dog from a shelter and assume from its strong reaction that he has never worn a collar and leash before. Indeed, there are countless dogs surrendered in shelters that have never seen a collar and leash before.
Signs your dog may have never worn a collar and leash before:
- Shaking, acting anxious in general
- Whining, crying
- Pawing at the collar
- Moving and jumping like a wild horse
- Rubbing against surfaces in an attempt to remove the collar
- Twisting the head repeatedly
- Backing away in an attempt to slip out of the collar and running off when successful
When dogs exhibit such strong responses it means they are "flooded." Flooding, also known as exposure therapy, is part of behavior therapy. During flooding, a dog is basically forced to face its fears in hopes to overcome them. But there are few guarantees this method works. Imagine tossing a child who fears water into a pool—the child may overcome its fear, or that fear may worsen.
While flooding may yield fast results when it works, it is also more traumatic and less effective. Also, unlike humans who can rationally talk themselves out of a fear, dogs panic until their brain shuts down. There are, fortunately, more effective methods and we will see two of them below.
Why are some dogs afraid of leashes?
In some cases, the dog may have worn the collar and leash before but had a negative experience with it. The previous owner may have subjected the dog to collar grabs and leash corrections or the dog may have felt trapped and resisted it. Generally, a dog that attempts to slip out of a collar by twisting its neck repeatedly and backing away has done so in the past with success and is therefore continuing his "modus operandi."
On the other hand, you may have a new puppy that has never worn a collar before and you want to do your best to make it a positive experience. The following tips apply to both adult dogs and puppies.
How to Get a Puppy Used to a Collar
The following is a step by step guide on how to introduce a collar and leash using desensitization and counter-conditioning. These methods combined help a dog get used to the feel of collar and leash and set the grounds for a positive experience. Let's take a look at both of them.
Desensitization is a part of behavioral therapy that is opposite to flooding. Instead of forcing the dog to face its fears—which may be traumatic and overwhelming—the dog is exposed gradually and under the threshold. If you hold your dog down and slip a collar on, he will be way over the threshold, causing him to panic, shake and cry. If, on the other hand, you gradually expose your dog to the collar, the emotional response will be less intense.
In desensitization, your dog would be exposed to the collar and the feel of wearing it in gradual increments without overwhelming him. This process takes quite some time and much care must be taken to work under threshold. You must be able to recognize early warning signs of stress (becoming tense, attempting to escape, dilated pupils, licking lips) so to not ask too much at once.
Remember: If the experience your dog is exposed to is too intense, this may lead to "sensitization" which is the opposite of desensitization, therefore, the fear will increase rather than decrease. In your case, therefore, you would have to, at the moment, avoid forcing the collar on him.
While desensitization is a powerful behavior modification program on its own, by adding counter-conditioning on top of it, its power will double. Counterconditioning in layman terms means changing the emotional response. If your dog does not like the collar, he may have been conditioned to act fearfully at its sight.
In counterconditioning, we are changing your dog's emotional response and attitude towards the collar, flipping it upside down. In other words, we want to change the negative associations and create positive ones. So if collar = fear, we want to shift it to collar = rewards! No need to worry, your dog does not have to have a degree in math to understand this equation, nor do you need to have a degree in behavioral science!
I will provide you with a step-by-step guide that will combine desensitization and counter-conditioning for proper collar fitting."
How to Put a Collar on a Dog for the First Time
- High-value treats (e.g., hot dog, liver treats, pieces of leftover steak, commercial treats)
- Collar (I like to pick a very light-weight collar for small puppies, such as those breeders use for their newborn puppies)
- Food bowl
- Place the collar in the middle of the floor and the moment your dog goes to sniff it, say "good" immediately followed by a treat.
- If your dog is reluctant to go sniff it, make a small trail of treats that lead to the collar with a bonus treat (something your dog loves) in the middle of the collar.
- When you feed your dog, always place the collar next to his bowl. When the food bowl is put away, so is the collar. The collar comes out only when there is food.
- Hold the collar in one hand and food in the other. Keep the collar behind your back. Show it and the moment your dog sniffs the collar, immediately say "good" and give a treat. Put the collar behind your back once done eating and repeat. What we are trying to do here is make it clear that the collar is what brings the treats and once the treat is eaten the collar disappears too. Once your dog gets used to seeing the collar and actually is eager to see it because he has associated it with treats you can progress.
- Take the unbuckled collar and make it touch his neck for a split second and treat at the same time. Touch the neck and treat; touch the neck and treat. Do this several times until he looks forward to being touched with the collar.
- Now buckle the collar the largest it can be made but don't put it on him yet! Get a handful of treats in one hand and feed it through the loop. His muzzle should slightly get through the loop. Reward and give treats. Repeat several times trying to get more and more of his head through the loop.
- Now unbuckle the collar and place it on his neck and continue the touch neck and treat; touch neck and treat. Finally, try to briefly make the two ends of the collar touch while he is busy eating treats. Remove once he is done. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Try again to briefly make the two ends of the collar touch while he is busy eating treats. Remove once he is done. Finally, try to pretend you are buckling it on while he is busy eating treats. Remove once he is done.
- Try again to pretend you are buckling it on and give treats. This time though buckle it for real but very loose. Give treats and repeat.
- Now buckle it snug enough that two fingers are in between. Make a big deal of it, tell him how good he looks in it and give lots of treats. Remove the collar and stop giving treats and no more praise. Don't remove the collar if he starts to panic or tries to remove it by scratching or rubbing on the floor or furniture (this should not happen though if you followed the steps carefully). Removing the collar when your puppy or dog is trying to remove it will only reinforce these behaviors.
- Consider that getting a puppy or dog used to wearing a collar can take some time. Yes, positive associations with treats can help with pups accepting us putting it on, but after the treat is given, the sensation of that collar encircling the neck remains, so the pup may be back to scratching at it or rubbing his body on things to attempt to remove it. This may create negative associations. So here's how to prevent this.
Something I often have recommended doing is trying to shift the pup's focus off the collar for the time he is wearing it. If we can do this for a long enough time, the pup will start accepting the sensation of the collar as the norm. So it's a good idea to put that collar on when it coincides with rewarding activities that keep the pup's brain focused.
So for example, we may put the collar on right prior to feeding the pup her meals, or right prior to playing with a new toy, or right prior playing some brain games or training or right prior exploring in the yard, or right prior having some fun guests over. Then, right before these enjoyment activities are about to end, we can remove the collar before the pup returns to focusing on it. The word before is emphasized here because we don't want to be late and have to wait for the pup to stop trying to take it off on his own to remove it. Always make a point of removing the collar only once the puppy or dog is calm.
Tip: Try to put the collar on before mealtime and keep it on during the meal. Remove it once your dog is done eating. With time, the collar will become a cue that food is coming! Just like a bib!
If at any time during these exercises your dog appears uncomfortable, go back a step and find his comfort zone again and restart from there. Make it clear that great things happen when the collar is on but life gets boring when it is out of sight!
How to Train a Dog to Wear a Leash for the Very First Time
- Once your dog has become accustomed to the feel of the collar on for gradually longer and longer periods of time, you can then start introducing the leash. As soon as you clip the leash on, give a treat, then un-clip it when your dog is done eating. The clipping sound becomes a cue that a treat is coming!
- Once your dog enjoys having the leash snapped on, snap it on before mealtime and then unsnap it once he is done eating.
- Snap the leash on and now call your dog to you with him dragging it and give a treat. Unclip the leash.
- Snap the leash on and hold it, walk a few steps ahead and call your dog to you, give treats.
Try to avoid pulling your dog harshly on the leash unless your dog is in imminent danger. Doing so will create negative connotations with its use. If your dog starts pulling coax him near you until the leash is loose and give a treat. You want your dog to learn that staying near you loosens the leash and this is the place to stay. If your dog lags behind, try to coax him to catch up and keep walking. The moment the leash is loose when he catches up reward. For more tips on how to train loose leash walking read The Best Techniques for Training a Strong Dog to Walk on a Leash.
Getting Your Dog Used to a Leash Takes Time
As seen, baby steps are the way to go with a dog who has never worn a leash and collar. Remember to never leave your dog in a crate with a collar on as it may snag on it. With time and patience, your dog will hardly notice it is wearing a collar. Leashes will also become very exciting over time, after you snap them on for meals. Once you start walking your dog, your dog will also associate the leash with walks, which often leads to much excitement and happy tail wags!
Note: If you own a small dog, you are better off using a harness since small dogs are prone to tracheal collapse.
Note: If your dog tends to slip out of collars due to conformation (some dogs such as greyhounds or other sighthounds have narrow necks) or learned behavior, invest in a martingale collar.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli