Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Why Does My Dog Pull to Go Back Home?
You may have just rescued a shelter dog and discovered that he pulls with all his might to go back home. Many times, these dogs won't even want to leave home and will put on their brakes the moment they step outside. Others will get scared of something mid-walk and will want to head back home immediately, acting scared of anything else they encounter on their way. Some just appear to be scared of nothing in particular; just the mere fact of just being outside is paralyzing enough to want them to make an about turn and head home. But what causes these dogs to want to pull and go back home with all their might?
In most cases, it's fear—a strong, paralyzing fear that makes them just panic and head the only place where they feel secure: their home.
When your scared dog pulls you back home, watch where he heads first. Is it his bed? Will he go under the table? Or on his favorite sofa? Most likely those are the places where he feels the most protected. However, for some dogs, just going inside is the big relief. You can almost hear these dogs sighing as they re-enter their familiar place. Yes, there's no place like home.
Pulling to Go Home Provides Negative Reinforcement
Pulling to go back home is highly reinforcing behavior. Negative reinforcement is at play, which is very powerful and linked to a dog's sense of survival and sense of safety.
In negative reinforcement, a behavior repeats and strengthens because it stops, removes or avoids a negative outcome. In other words, the dog's pulling behavior to get back inside is reinforcing to the dog because it removes him from the scary world he leaves behind. He'll want to repeat this behavior more and more as he gets a strong sense of relief when he heads inside. As irrational as this may seem to us humans, from the dog's perspective, he has just saved his own life.
Humans may feel the same sense of security when they are afflicted by irrational fears and phobias. Ask the person with a fear of flying how big of a relief he felt when he refused to board the plane. Ask the person scared of the elevator how good it felt to take the stairs instead, and what about the sigh of relief the arachnophobic felt when he stepped on the spider before he got to crawl up his leg?
Sometimes we humans also engage in superstitious behaviors that are insignificant but just meant to make us feel better. How many times do we see a soccer player wearing a special shirt or a basketball player making the same, odd hand motions just because it has brought him good luck in the past?
In a similar fashion, these superstitious behaviors are reinforcing as they have helped establish a history of good outcomes . . . and in a similar fashion, the dog's pulling is reinforced because a safety history has been established and the big mean world is left behind.
So what to do with a dog who pulls with all his might to get back home? There are various tips you can give a try, but as with other behavioral issues, there's really no quick fix and slow and steady wins the race!
I have dealt with different forms of leash pulling: enthusiastic pullers, reactive pullers, frustration pullers, but the worst pulling of all I have experienced so far is from panic-driven dogs who pull with all their might to head back home: these dogs are literally pulling for their lives!
— Adrienne Farricelli
How to Reduce Dog Pulling to Get Back Home
In many cases, fearful dogs who are pulling to go back home are afflicted by a strong, almost paralyzing fear. They'll care less if you dangle a slice of baloney in front of them as their mind and body is too focused in fight or flight mode. What happens exactly when your dog is in flight or fight mode?
His body is flooded with hormones and neurotransmitters that cause a variety of physiological changes meant to create a boost of energy sufficient to get the dog out of trouble and survive. Your dog's heart rate and breathing will increase (you'll likely see him panting), blood flow to the muscles increases (so he can sprint into action) and because of this blood flow going to his muscles and away from the intestines, his appetite will be likely suppressed. The pupils will dilate to see better and his general senses will be more effective, but at the same time, his mind will be unable to concentrate and out the window goes his impulse control and soon you'll be dealing with a dog who is way over threshold.
This scenario seems to have little chance for recovery, doesn't it? How can you help a dog who is paralyzed with fear, unable to concentrate and cares less about you, your treats or anything else? What can you do when all his mind, body and forces are concentrated on that one thing which is getting back home? Following are some ideas.
Use the Right Equipment
Your choice of equipment can help make a difference in your dog. A regular buckle collar will only cause your dog to cough, gag and choke. Choke collars that tighten when your dog pulls will only increase the level of anxiety your dog feels. Prong collars may make you feel like you're power steering, but again, the associated discomfort will increase your dog's stress and anxiety.
A better choice is a harness, best of all, a front-attachment harness. Make sure you get a harness that your fearful dog cannot slip out of. If you are concerned your dog can slip out of your harness, let him wear a martingale collar along with your harness, and clip the leash to both the front ring on the harness and the martingale collar or let him wear two leashes, one attached to the harness and one to the martingale collar.
Desensitize and Countercondition
In some cases, where the fear of something on walks triggers the "gotta go back home" syndrome, you can desensitize your dog to that trigger by presenting it in a less threatening form. For instance, if your dog is terrified of trash cans, you can walk him at a distance so they appear smaller and less intimidating. If your dog is terrified of the noise of the trash truck, let him see it from inside the home and feed him treats when he hears and sees the truck.
Encourage Cognitive Responses
While it's true the full exposure to something scary will cause your dog to no longer cognitively function, if you invest some time in training alternate behaviors, some behaviors may become so automatic, your dog may perform them without much thinking involved. For instance, you can train your dog to target your hand at home, and then gradually add distractions.
Practice, practice, practice makes perfect, so perfect that there are chances your dog may be able to target your hand even when he sees a trigger that frightens him at a distance. This may help him keep composure and prevent him from getting to that point of losing it completely.
If you own a fearful dog, you'll likely be constantly scanning the environment on walks. What to do if you notice a sure trigger from a distance coming your way? Perform an emergency exit. Train your dog to turn around on cue quickly, so you can put distance with the trigger and prevent your dog from going unnecessarily over the threshold. Always reward lavishly for turning around with you. See my list of recommended readings to learn more about emergency exits.
Celebrate the Little Breakthroughs
Practice going out of the door and staying outside or a bit when there are no triggers around. If you allow your dog to drag you back inside each and every time you go out, the behavior will reinforce and put more roots because it's highly reinforcing. Try to linger out a bit so your dog can see that nothing bad will happen to him, and that actually, staying out a bit longer yields tasty treats to come out of your pockets.
Make it a habit that before heading back inside, your dog must turn around to look at you and gets a tasty treat for doing this. This will have him thinking more rather than being stuck in the "gotta go inside" mindset. This little breakthrough will open up more and more opportunities for staying out a little bit longer each time. Make it fun!
Mark and Reward Every Step
Every time your dog follows you on the leash away from home, mark it (using a clicker or a verbal marker like yes) and immediately reward. Don't take these little baby steps for granted; let your dog know that he deserves being rewarded for little baby steps.
Boost That Confidence!
Fearful dogs need to be changed from the inside out. Do all you can to boost that confidence, so your dog will have less to fear. Praise lavishly and reward every time your dog investigates something he used to find intimidating. Clicker training is an awesome methodology to encourage tentative dogs to explore their environment. In particular, I like to use free shaping at first, and then we move to basic shaping.
The sport of agility can also be a great way to boost confidence. And don't forget about nosework, using that nose requires lots of concentration and if you can train your dog to use his nose more and make it extra rewarding, he'll have less chances for acting fearful.
Give a Cortisol Vacation
If your dog is continuously bombarded with stimuli that frighten him, chances are high that his body is flooded with stress hormones that let him live his life on edge. The effects of prolonged stress can cause problems in the long run to both the mind and body. By limiting exposure to your dog's triggers for some time, you can give him a cortisol vacation and help him recover from the effects of prolonged stress.
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.
Questions & Answers
Question: When my dog starts to fear something, I try to distract her with a treat to reduce her fears until we can get back home. But she continues to pull on me so strongly that I have no choice but to sometimes carry her until it she feels safe to walk again. I tried my best, but she's still afraid. What should I do?
Answer: When your pup is scared, she is over her threshold. This means, her digestive system and cognitive abilities shut down because she is in a fight or flight situation. You will have to identify what exactly is triggering her fears and expose her to them in a gradual, systematic manner until the fear goes away. If your pup is very fearful, you may need to enlist the help of a professional. You may find some of the tips in this article helpful: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/Dog-Behavior-Why-is-My...
Paulie on July 31, 2020:
I have a 11/2 yr. border collie we have been going for morning walks around July people using fire works made him go to basement his safe place then load trucks scared him then while on the trail all was good until he sniffed a sent and could not get back home fast enough now he wants to go but but all of sudden sniff and go no further will run back home. Not sure what to do
Eileen on September 16, 2019:
My rescue dog goes out the door for walk my husband has him on extendable lead i have my other dog. My rescue will put his brakes on as soon as hes on the path i walk on with my other dog and my husband says bye im going so as the extendable is at full extent so my rescue dog is left sitting on his own and we all just walk away from him to go on a quiet woodland walk which is just up the bottom of a dead end quiet road. He comes running up to join us then he enjoys his walk. But when we turn around to come home he pulls all the way home. I can drive him to a nice field walk were he has no fear but i cant do this every time. I really want to take him on holiday next year so i have a year to get him to over come his fears. Any help please!!!
Linda on June 18, 2019:
I bought a medium sized dog to walk and hike with me now that I’m retired. She wouldn’t walk as a puppy. I use to drive her to the park. Now at 2 1/2 she still won’t walk. She just wants to play ball in the backyard. She gets all excited when I say “walk”. She lets me put the leash on, walks to the road, goes down a couple houses, then the brakes go on. I’ve tried everything and now I’ve just accepted it. Sad really.
Mia333 on June 21, 2018:
I have a 2 year old Belgian Mal. Hes always been a great walker. We normally take nice long walks together. On three occasions ( just started recently) i have had problems completing our walks because he stops walking, starts jumping up at me and nipping on my arms and clothes. I admit it catches me off guard and i can not pinpoint the trigger. When i turn around and start to head back home hes back to normal. Once we are home hes mellow and acts as of nothing is wrong. This isnt a common occurrence but i need to remedy it.
Mickey on October 28, 2017:
My 3mth old Maltese pulls when it's time to go back in the house
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 16, 2014:
Yes, it is sad because they miss out all the fun, socialization and exercise. Most dogs can't wait to go out. Our dogs love their walks too!
Shasta Matova from USA on February 16, 2014:
That's so sad that a dog wouldn't want to be outside. My dog loves his walks. You've provided some useful tips on how to help a dog overcome his fear.