Feels unsafeNeo is still a street dog – still a street dog although living in a house. The fact he is living so well in a house is tribute to the hard work and research of his young owners.

He was picked up from the streets at a few months old with several siblings who bullied him. They reckoned the mother was more feral dog than street dog. Neo is now two-and-a-half.

The young couple had fostered dogs for a Hong Kong rescue. Neo had had several foster homes and, a nervous young dog, he wasn’t chosen for adoption.

They brought him home with them.

He is restless. He is ready to jump at any sound. When something passes the house it’s like he doesn’t dare bark. He huffs and his hackles rise.

Neo isn’t unfriendly but he doesn’t seem to bond in the way most domestic dogs do. At times he still seems afraid of his own humans. He is no way attention seeking – in fact, the roles are reversed – his young humans try to get his attention!

Outside and on lead he pulls in a kind of panic, darting about at anything that moves or rustles. They have worked hard at trying to get him to walk beside them, but he comes back only to dart forward again.

On high alert from the moment he leaves the house.

Most dogs that are reactive to things are more so when trapped on a lead. Neo will, for a short while anyway, have experienced freedom on the streets. He could keep his distance from things that scared him. He could hide. It’s understandable how he feels unsafe when trapped on a lead and to make it worse, they often use a retractable lead. This will always have tension.

Neo not only feels unsafe, he is also overwhelmed by too much sensory input/overload.

Each and every walk will be piling up the stress.

Most of the exercise that he does get, in the fields, doesn’t really have freedom. They dare not let him off lead (they will now ditch the retractable lead in favour of a loose long line). They do sometimes hire an enclosed field where he can run off lead. Perfect.

To make things even more difficult, Neo isn’t much interested in food at the best of times. He certainly won’t eat when out – he feels unsafe, on high alert, far over his arousal threshold.

Neo feels unsafe.

Feeling safe is the most important thing. Safety key to survival.

An important task now is to build up the value of food by both how they feed Neo and what they feed him. This should get him to eat better and also give them a valuable tool to work with when he’s ready.

Like most people, they worry about giving him sufficient exercise but they can’t stop him pulling. A frantic dog pulls. Only a relaxed dog mooches and sniffs.

Walks to Neo will be of feeling restricted, frustrated – and scared, particularly if they meet another dog, a person on a bike or a horse,  motorbikes and much more. Off lead he’s fine with other dogs. He can avoid them if he so wishes.

I suggest they forget about normal walks for now because conventional lead walks do no good at all to a dog that feels unsafe. They will work on Neo walking near to them on a loose and longish lead – not a retractable. They can follow him about. If the lead is attached to the front of the harness and hangs a bit loose, they will find he naturally follows them – so long as he’s not overwhelmed and feeling unsafe.

So, work starts at home and around the garden.

What can they do?

Do Nothing!

This is what I suggest. After some loose lead work in the garden, go to the garden gate, open it and stand still for 5 minutes. Give him full length of the lead. It may be tight throughout – but do nothing. They could even take a chair! Eventually, however long it takes, the lead will lose its tension. He may begin to relax a tiny bit. To sniff. He may even show interest in some sprinkled food.

After several sessions of doing no more than this, they should find the lead takes less and less time to go slack.

Then they can take a few steps forward and repeat the process, being ready to retreat if necessary.

These two videos of Suzanne Clothier say it all: Feeling unsafe and Not DOING anything.

Eventually they will be able to help Neo with encountering dogs, men with hats, people on bikes and many more things. This is only possible from a basis where he can feel safe. For this they will need the food – and maybe something he finds fun. He feels too uneasy most of the time to find very much fun at all in anything (apart from playing with a couple of dogs he knows well).

This has taken a year already, and will take a lot longer. Things should now move slowly forward.

4 weeks: I just had to email to tell you I’ve had the most amazing walk with Neo. Distance wise we didn’t go far (about 5 houses down the road back and forth) but he didn’t pull once. I started handing out chicken breast behind my back freely and then moved on to rhythmically dropping it by my side as we walked. He didn’t pull once. He sniffed at a lampost and one hedge but apart from that, we may as well have been in the living room.  He was walking so well beside/ behind me. Also, a car pulled up unexpectedly and two people got out (about 6ft away from us), he looked at them and I handed him lots of chicken and then we just carried on walking away as if nothing had happened. We were out about 20 minutes and this has to be a record!!! I feel like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Nearly 3 weeks: “… this morning as we did our sit in the drive, we’re up to walking in front of next door neighbour’s drive as well as our own doing our loose lead walking and he is staying next to me (mostly) doing my drunk walking and taking treats like it’s no one’s business. We then saw a man with two dogs about 200 yards away crossing the road. Neo saw them and watched them whilst gobbling his chicken from my hand. Success!!!…Thank you so  much, I finally feel like we’re getting somewhere. I feel like I needed your authorisation and knowledge to say that actually he doesn’t need to go for a walk everyday as I would have felt so guilty before. Reading about what dogs actually get out of a walk i.e. not really exercise if they’re on the lead, has taken away any guilt I felt.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Neo and I’ve not gone into exact precise details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where fear issues of any kind are concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)