Dear Inquisitive Canine,
I adopted Isla (German Shepherd mix) from a shelter about a month ago. She’s approximately 9 months old now and she’s very sweet…95% of the time. However, despite some prior exposure in her young life, to walking on a leash, we can be out for a walk or on a potty trip and for no apparent reason she will go all Cujo on me. Writhing, bucking, and biting…anything that might work to free her from the restrictive nature of the leash. There are no other dogs present, no people, no stimuli to warrant Cujo showing up. She’s just royally ticked off that she’s on that leash and by golly, she wants to be free of it.
The best I can do at this point is to get a death grip on her collar, which affords me some protection from those pearly white, sharp teeth, and calmly talk her down off the ledge. Sometimes that works on the first go, sometimes not. Even if I have treats on me, for other pursuits (sit, down, stay), I feel like giving her a treat, once she’s calm from the meltdown, will give her the wrong idea. I even bought a muzzle, but I’m 64 years old and getting that sucker on her is simply NOT happening. I am in the process of de-weeding a fenced area in my back yard and giving her the supervised opportunity to burn off some pent up energy, but that may make it worse when she is leashed.
Any suggestions, short of getting one of those padded suits (which won’t bode well in a Texas summer) and toughing it out?
Isla’s Worn Out Mom
Dear Isla’s Mom,
Sounds like you’re both getting quite the workout! It also sounds like there are a few challenges that definitely need to be addressed. We’d be happy to provide a few dog training tips.
- Triggers – although you mention there’s no apparent reason, if the “Cujo behavior” keeps happening, there is likely a trigger somewhere. Even if it’s an internal trigger such as, “We’ve been out here for X amount of time and now I’m bored and frustrated.” Consider the time-factor. Is it immediate? After she has gone potty? Is it the overall pace of the walk? Would she rather run than stroll?
- Function of the behavior – Keep in mind that all behaviors have a function – to either get something or avoid something. Does Isla enjoy the Cujo game with you? If she does, and you don’t, then switch up the game. Reinforce the behaviors you like and want, before she goes into her whirling dervish mode. Walking nicely on leash is what you want, yes? Teach her that skill and reward her with treats, petting, praise, and anything else you can give her while out in public. (A game of tug or fetch perhaps?) If you teach and practice those skills first, then she’ll know what the right choice is.
- Treats – what types of treats are you using? For a situation as challenging as leash walking, you might need to up the game. Higher value such as little bits of boiled chicken or steak might be more motivating for her. Isla will let you know what she prefers. And, make sure she’s hungry. (Not starving.) If you’re feeding her a big breakfast, then going on a walk, she’s less likely to want food. So, use her meals to your advantage while training her.
- Shape her behavior – because of her age, and this particular challenge, you might want to start out with shorter but more frequent training sessions. Instead of 30 minutes, go for 2-3 10-15 minute sessions. This is especially true if she starts going Cujo at a certain point. For instance, if she’s fine up until the 12-minute mark, then go for 10 minutes. Give her a break then go again. This might be a bit more inconvenient for you, initially, but once she’s trained you’ll be able to venture out for longer periods. It’s also good to practice in lower distracting environments – around your home and yard, before heading out to the streets.
Remember to reward behaviors you like and want, teach Isla what you want, and set her up for success so she learns what the right behavior is and can make better choices.