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My Pet World: A traumatized dog finds walks on a leash challenging

Cathy M. Rosenthal, Tribune Content Agency on

Dear Cathy,

Three months ago, we rescued a two-year-old German Shepherd mix from Pima Animal Care Center. She was a stray, so we had no history on her. She was found hanging upside down on a fence. She was skinny and had lost two or three toes, part of the footpad, and a piece of her right ear, all of which had healed. The poor thing was terrified, and it took quite a while before she didn't shake when we petted her. We've been extremely gentle and caring with her. She is a quick learner and grasped "sit," "stay," and "come" in no time. She is very treat-motivated.

The problem is she isn't sure about taking a walk. When we go outside, she sits and stares at everything before we can start our walk. If she sees or smells something or someone or hears a garage door open, she freezes, sits, and stares. She will usually start walking again if we toss treats ahead of her, but that requires a lot of treats for each walk. We've never had a dog that wasn't eager to take a walk. We would appreciate any suggestions.

— Corinne, Tucson, Arizona

Dear Corinne,

When a dog experiences something traumatic, all the sights, scents, and sounds associated with the experience have the power to trigger fear. Thankfully, you don't have to know what those exact fears are to help her. But let's start with what we do know. Her hesitancy in walking on a leash may be triggered by the leash tugging at her collar and reminding her of what it felt like to be hung upside down. So, my first suggestion is to walk her on a harness or head collar instead. That change may be enough for her to move forward. If it's not, then training is key to helping her overcome her fears and learn she can always trust you.

Start by introducing her to a clicker and teaching her the clicker marks the correct behavior, which is always followed by a treat. To do this, say her name, and when she makes eye contact, click, and give her a treat. Do this about twenty times a day, twice a day to begin. Then, retrain her to "sit," "stay," or "come" with the clicker. As she learns what the clicker means, she will focus more on you and less on the outside world, which scares her.

Next, walk her on a leash in an area with few distractions. Ask her to "sit" and "stay" while placing treats about two feet in front of her. Then, say "heel" and start walking towards the treat. The moment she takes a step in that direction, click the clicker, and give her a treat. Then walk back to the original spot and repeat the exercise. The treat on the ground is her motivation, so don't let her eat it. Instead, click and give her a treat from your hand, so she is paying attention to you. From now on, don't put treats on the ground to incentivize her to walk. Hold the treats in your hand, so she has to look up at you (and the treat) for what to do next. If her mind is focused on you, she will not be as affected by everything around her.

You might also consider signing her up for Rally Obedience training as well. Rally Obedience involves walking a dog through a course and stopping at appointed stations where signs give instructions on what skills to perform next, like turn right here. The more you train with her and improve cross-communications, the more she will trust you and the better able she will be to ignore her fears.

 

Dear Cathy,

We have a cat who will be 16-years-old in August. In 2020, she got sick and spent five days in the hospital. She recovered but since has quit using the litter box. I have tried various products to entice her to use it. We're getting older, and it's getting harder to bend down to clean the messes. Do you have any suggestions?

— Scott, Delray Beach, FL.

Dear Scott,

In addition to keeping the litter box clean (sifted daily and new litter added weekly) and ensuring the box is not in a high traffic location, remove the top of the box and purchase a litter box attractant to lure her back. If this doesn't work, then add a second litter box. She may associate the current litter box with her illness, and a new box can sometimes help reset everything.

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(Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to cathy@petpundit.com. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal.)

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