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Have You Ever Met a Dog Who Is Terrified of Leashes?

I have. Virgil and Morgan had their tails cut off when they were puppies. Here's how I'm helping them learn to trust people again.

 |  May 24th 2013  |   8 Contributions


In my work as a professional dog trainer, I specialize in helping difficult, stressed dogs cope with their lives in a human-run world. After working with a delightful woman and her rescued dog, she told me about two puppies her daughter recently rescued and hinted that they were a handful. 

A month later, I met Virgil and Morgan for the first time. These two lovelies -- named after Wyatt Earp’s brothers -- are liver, red, and white Australian Shepherd-Border Collie crosses.

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Meet Morgan and Virgil, who are afraid of leashes -- and for very good reason.

They took turns lunging and barking at me as I walked over to greet their owner, Gymala. We could barely hear one another over the hysteria. I knew they wouldn’t bite me because they were exhibiting an enormous amount of fear, not aggression, and I would give them no reason to bite. (As an aside, I’ve never been bitten by a dog, even the reactive or aggressive dogs I work with each week.)

The dogs were unleashed. Gymala had told me on the phone that Virgil and Morgan were petrified of leashes, collars, or any type of restraint. 

As Gymala and I sat on her front porch, I tossed yummy treats to the boys, over and over again, without looking at them. I went through two bags. They eventually stopped barking. I knew I'd gotten somewhere when they put their heads down to search for more treats. I asked Gymala to tell me more about Virgil and Morgan while tossing the dogs more food.

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Morgan is checking me out for treats.

Last winter, her husband had found a litter of nine puppies living in an outside pen on a nearby sheep ranch and brought two of them home. They found out later that they were just five weeks old. That is much, much too young. Crucial learning happens with the mother dog and their siblings, and I prefer that puppies stay with mom until they're 10 weeks old. Virgil and Morgan missed out on five weeks of education, which is hard to reinvent.

The next thing Gymala said explained to me why these young dogs were so fearful: A rancher had tied up the puppies, one by one, to cut off their tails. Nine young dogs were taught that a human hand will hurt them, and hurt them badly. Imagine having your toes cut off with no anesthetic.

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Virgil happily takes a treat from my hand. We're taking it really slow.

Virgil and Morgan had every rational canine reason to fear hands, people, and leashes. A hand carrying a leash coming toward them equaled the loss of a body part. A leash equaled pain.

When Gymala first clipped a leash on Morgan’s collar, he jerked against it, then started to wail like he was being beaten. She panicked and let go. Morgan ran down the hall, peeing and crying, and then he sank down in a corner in the mudroom and shook uncontrollably. Horrified, she and her husband did some research. They watched some YouTube videos that said puppies often react poorly at first, but that you should keep trying until the puppy adjusts. 

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Me with Virgil and Morgan, just getting them used to the presence of a leash.

Much later, they tried to leash Virgil. He took three steps and then started to buck, wail, and flail about. Gymala's husband persisted in walking him, and Virgil continued in panic mode, finally pulling so hard that he broke the clasp on his collar and darted under the motor home. "My husband was trying his best to do exactly what that stupid YouTube video -- made by a famous dog trainer -- told him to do," she told me. "It broke my husband’s heart.”

I can get enraged in a hurry for what the cruel, ignorant rancher did to so many dogs. We need to call it what it really is: torture. There is no valid reason for him to inflict this pain on his dogs. He has ruined dog after dog, instilling them with a reason to fear humans. He has an ugly talent for setting his dogs up for lifelong conflict and failure. I wonder how many of his dogs end up being put down for an issue he created.

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Showing Morgan that treats are wonderful things.

One thing was certain: Virgil and Morgan would never be euthanized because they had tenacious Gymala and her family’s loving support. These dogs got lucky, but they would also need to be brave to cope with a human world outside of Gymala’s home. For example, they had to be carried into the vet’s office for routine shots.

I didn’t touch either dog during our first meeting. They tentatively sniffed me, which was marvelous. They barked for a few minutes at me at the start of our second session and I still didn’t pet them. They started to anticipate that I would be a treat-tossing machine. By the third session, I became Virgil and Morgan’s new best friend. Their willingness to trust me speaks to dogs’ resilience and loving natures, in spite of what some humans do to damage that bond.

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By the third session, I was Virgil and Morgan's best friend and they were willing to trust me.

How I got inside their doggie heads and hearts that quickly is complex. It’s best to work with a professional trainer to help dogs exhibiting this level of fear, because the protocol goes way beyond just treat tossing. You can do even more damage to dogs like these if you are not well versed in behavioral science and canine body language.

I shudder to think what a trainer who still believes that dogs are trying to dominate humans would have done to Virgil and Morgan’s ability to trust anyone. It hurts to imagine what would have happened thad a trainer approached them with the false belief that they were lunging and barking as a way to show their dominance.  

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Morgan gets some happy skritches from me.

Now that the boys had faith in me, we needed to change their minds about what a leash represents. We put the leash on the floor and put the dog treats in the middle of the leash, so the boys would have to step on it to eat the yummo cookie. They were willing to do that, but if that had proved too much, we would have shown them a leash from a distance and given them treats over and over again.

Gymala works from home but her office is separate from the house, so she started walking twice a day, holding a leash. She got both dogs to come to her and take food with the leash and the meat treat in the same hand. Little by little by little, Virgil and Morgan are starting to trust that the presence of the leash brings them hot dogs -- and only when the leash is present do the hot dogs magically appear. No leash, no hot dogs. 

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Virgil and Morgan are learning that the presence of the leash means DELICIOUS HOT DOGS.

These brothers will be healed because their owner is committed to helping them. It’s a special joy to be a part of their rehabilitation. I have no doubt that we will have them happily walking on-leash soon enough. We’ll take whatever time it takes to make them comfortable.

In the meantime, it’s an honor to spend time with these brothers, who prove that dogs are quicker to forgive than any human I’ve met. We have so much to learn about love and trust from our canine friends. We think we are the ones teaching them, but often the opposite is true. 

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