Canine Behavior/Fearful shelter aopted dog
A week ago I adopted a female Papillon mix from a local shelter. She had behavior issues with the staff there, growling and snapping. They could not walk her. She likes me and will walk with me, but is still extremely fearful. The worst problem comes during the walk, at some point she will pull or turn a little and then screams bloody murder. I've had neighbors come out thinking I'm killing her. In all instances, the leash is absolutely loose and I haven't instigated the behavior...the dog causes her own fear by slightly pulling. And I do mean slightly, until she shrieks I don't even realize anything is wrong. She is trotting along with wagging tail one second, then the next screaming and trying to pull away. My question is how do I manage this? She acts terrified of me afterwards as if I had choked her. I can't correct her, I can't praise her (although when she is walking correctly I do praise). I just act normally and once she is calm I pet her. I've heard bad things about halti collars so I haven't tried that, obviously a choke collar is out. She just has a flat buckled collar on. I've thought about a harness but handling her to get it on would terrify her as well. At some point someone must have scared/hurt her via her neck because she is super sensitive and flinches when touched there or on her upper shoulders. Do you have ANY recommendations for making her a happier dog? I'd love to be able to take her on walks where she'd enjoy herself. She loves it most of the time and inside she pretty much "shuts down" so I want to get her out as much as possible to try and make her less timid.
It's very possible that she has a very sensitive neck, either naturally or because of an injury due to prior collar/pulling/choking experiences.
I never walk a dog on a collar as the tissues and structures of the neck are so delicate and easily injured. Often they are micro injuries that go unnoticed for years until the dog develops cervical arthritis or nerve damage. Sometimes the injuries are acute and involve collapsing the trachea, straining or tearing muscle or tendon or even increased intraocular pressure causing damage to the vision.
I understand your concern about handling her to put a harness on. But I would recommend a harness. Specifically, I'd recommend the Easy Walk harness by Pet Safe. It's actually a no-pull harness as the leash is meant to attach to the chest. But, you can put it on "upside down" so that the leash hooks on the back. I do this with my own 10-lb terrier mix because with this harness in its correct position, even though it's a harness, he starts that goose-honk cough that tells me his trachea is being irritated. But when I put it on so the leash hooks on his back, he's fine.
I like this harness because of the minimal man-handling it requires to put it on. It has two connection points. If you keep the one going over her shoulders connected, then you put it on like a necklace. Then the other strap is brought behind both legs and connected at the armpit.
To help her feel better about the experience, grab her very favorite treat (most dogs go nuts for string cheese or chicken breast or hot dog). Start by simply draping the harness over your forearm and offering her a few treats from that same hand (one treat at a time with a pause of about 10 seconds in between). Present the arm with the harness draped over it, give the treat. When she swallows (treat is gone), remove the arm/harness by putting it behind your back. After the pause, repeat. This is helping her learn that when the harness is present, the food is present, but no harness means no food...
When she's comfortably taking the food from that hand with the harness dangling halfway up your forearm, then move the harness down a bit toward your wrist and repeat the whole exercise. When she's comfortable with that, move the harness to your wrist and repeat. Then move the harness so it's over your thumb/half of your hand as you hand her the treats. This one may take a few extra treats since the dangling thing is now really in her face.
Then, you'll hold the harness up with one hand so that the "necklace" opening is clear and hand her a few treats with your other hand fully through the hole. Then, as you're giving her treats, slowly start to present the treat closer and closer to the opening of that hole. Finally, you'll present the treat just your side of the hole so she has to put her head slightly through in order to get her treat. Do that 3 or 4 times, then as she reaches for the treat, move your treat hand away from her slightly so she's pushing her head further through the hole until you can lay the harness over her shoulders while giving her a few treats.
At this stage, you may need someone else to continuously give her treats as you hook the chest strap. Or you can drop a half dozen or a dozen small bits on the floor just in front of her to distract her while you do the chest strap.
With practice, she'll come to at least tolerate if not actually really love the harness going on. The exercise above is classical counter conditioning and we use it to change the emotional response from fear/hesitance to happy anticipation. After a few days (or weeks), you should be able to put the harness on completely and then give her just one treat, or the leash going on for the outing will be sufficient reward.
Take it slow, give her time to build her trust of this new gadget.
I would have a complete vet check, with special emphasis in examining her neck, chest, shoulder areas for injury. There may well be a medical reason why she's so sensitive and reacting so violently with even the slightest strain on her neck and we want to be sure we don't miss anything. In all likelihood this will include a couple x-rays to look for breaks, misalignment or bulging discs. I have always felt that I'd rather pay to have the peace of mind (clean bill of health), than miss something that was totally treatable and feel guilty for failing my dog. . .
When you're out on walks, if she does react, you absolutely can talk sweetly to her to reassure her. She may have seriously scared herself if this is just an emotional response. And you cannot reinforce fear. But you can calm and soothe it by reassuring her that you're here and she's not in any danger. Especially because she's directing her fear at you, the best thing you can be doing is helping her see that it's not you causing her fear. So, by sitting down or squatting and talking gently to her, telling her things like "You're OK. You just scared yourself, but I'm here and I'll never let anything hurt you..." can actually go a long way to calming her. Then, when she's calmed down enough to take treats*, have the really good stuff out. This is not the time for mediocre treats, but rather her very favorites. Again, we're talking about classical conditioning as we help her learn that even in those moments, she need not be frightened. It's not possible to be both terrified and happy at the same time. So, by distracting her even just for a fraction of a second with string cheese or the like, we are helping her move outside her fear. With repeated distraction like that, she will eventually feel safer. Then, you'll see on subsequent episodes, she'll take less and less time to recover until she feels that tug and turns to you looking for the food she now associates with the sensation.
*You can actually just "rain treats down on her" while she's freaking out, and when she's calm enough, she'll start to eat them. But the act of treating her during that moment is NOT reinforcing her reaction because as I said above, it's not possible to reinforce fear. If it's comforting, then her fear is reducing. If it's not comforting in that moment, it will be ignored by her until such time as she's calm enough to be comforted.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist