At the words “walking the dog,” the scene we picture is nice and relaxed, with the dog ambling ahead on the leash, sniffing here and there as he goes. That’s why so many greyhound owners are completely stymied, when they greyhounds suddenly halt, stare into the distance, and just…don’t…move.
A greyhound who “freezes” on his walk is not, contrary to popular belief, paralyzed with fear. This highly receptive animal senses something of interest, and then a positive feedback loop evolves between him and his concerned owner. This cycle is broken by neither reward nor punishment, but by overriding his distraction with another distraction. Confident (but kind) leadership is required to prevent future incidents of “statuing.”
Don’t despair if your greyhound “statues” on walks! I will teach you the reasons it happens and plenty of strategies for avoiding it. Read on, and make walkie-time happy again.
Misconceptions About a Greyhound Who Statues
The #1 reason for problems between a greyhound and his owner is the assumption that he has been traumatized by racing. This is simply untrue – Greyhounds have several behavioral quirks which are common across various breeds of dogs. To misplace blame for a problem is dangerous, because then the problem is never adequately addressed. It’s like if you had a toothache, and decided to blame it on a food allergy, instead of seeing the dentist.
Misinterpreting the reason why a greyhound is “freezing” is the glue that cements the behavior (and the dog) firmly in place. Then, the behavior is made even worse by emotional mishandling of the event. Let’s have a look at the most common misconceptions of this problem:
Greyhounds were built to run away from their fears, not to stand there and gawk at them. If your greyhound is frightened, he is more likely to try to bolt.
It’s not personal. When your greyhound is statuing, he is only dimly aware that you’re even there.
“Dog Training is Mean”
The best way to stop your dog from freezing is to not let it happen in the first place. Many greyhound owners feel like they’re being mean if they take control of the walk. After all, he has had a hard life, they think, and it would be wrong to browbeat him. Let him enjoy his retirement, right? Sure, but he’ll enjoy it a lot more under the protection of your confident leadership.
This concept confuses leadership with domination. When a parent takes a child’s hand to lead him safely across the street, would you call that an act of cruelty? Providing your pet with good leadership over his lifetime is an act of caring.
Concerned that training is mean, some owners fail to train at all. This form of compassion is lost on a greyhound. The owner can become frustrated, the dog senses it, and the next thing you know, the dog can feel indecisive and just sort of shut down. Ironically, this leads to a disconnect between dog and owner; and it is in this disconnection that the freezing habit can take hold.
Greyhounds inherently understand that there is strength in gentle leadership, the only kind of leadership they will consistently respond to.
“Show the Alpha Who’s Boss”
This advice misses the mark as badly as “Training is mean.” The fact is, you DO have to show them; not so much who’s “boss,” but who’s the benevolent dictator. Bossy, emotional displays are as ineffective as no leadership at all. In fact, a study funded by Universities Federation for Animal Welfare shows that “companion dogs trained using aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare as compared to companion dogs trained using reward-based methods, at both the short- and the long-term level.”
In other words, training that the main goal is blind obedience, rather than success, causes more problems than it solves.
Plus, pop-psych labels like “Alpha” tend to encourage a narrow view, where the big picture is most needed.
The Truth About Why Greyhounds Freeze (Statue)
Simply put, your greyhound will suddenly halt his walk, because something has distracted him. The greyhound is so sensitive, in so many different ways, that it is often hard to figure out what he is reacting to. These distractions fall into two distinct categories: external and internal.
To the untrained eye, a greyhound may, indeed, appear as if he is frozen with fear. More often, however, he has caught a scent or spied something interesting (as a sighthound, he can see 1/2 mile away, and has 1/3 wider peripheral vision that you do… and they have a very curious nature!). Here are some common things which, quite literally, stop a greyhound in his tracks:
- Scent of other animals, trash, or food.
- A sharp, percussive sound, even if it is far in the distance.
- The sight of a small, furry animal.
- A place where he previously saw a small, furry animal, even if that animal is no longer there, or even if it was on another day, month, or even year.
- A place which reminds him of a place where he saw a small, furry animal at some other time, even if he has never been there before.
- The sight of something along his regular route, that is not normally there. This can be a garbage can, something that has blown onto the path, a pile of leaves, or even a lump of snow that melted down from how large it was the previous day.
- A place where somebody stopped to pet him once.
- The end of the driveway at a home where someone lives whom the greyhound likes.
- Not to weird you out, but I have even seen my greyhound freeze as he watches something cross a few feet in front of him… and there is nothing there. I am not sure what to conclude from that; that greyhounds see things we can’t, or the greyhounds hallucinate!
- They also sense when someone they love is returning to them. I have seen this happen many times. Recently, my neighbors were returning home from Florida, after being away for several weeks. When I took Lily out for her second walk that day, she turned left, instead of the usual right, and started pulling toward the neighbors’ house. They were still traveling at the time, arriving about three hours later.
Thinking that the dog must be frozen with fear is an easy mistake to make, though; since the neurochemical response in the brain of a keen greyhound is similar to that of a human having a PTSD reaction. Sadly, PTSD is very common among our active military; but this has led to a ton of accessible research on the subject. Since scientists actually use dogs’ brain processes to learn more about how our own brains work, we can use some of that research here.
The phenomenon that occurs in your greyhound’s brain, when he comes to a standstill, is called a “positive feedback loop.” The error that triggers this vicious cycle is the owner’s reaction, when he interprets his dog’s keenness as “the heightened arousal and hypervigilance which characterize PTSD.” That quote is from a paper about human PTSD by Dr. Patricia Millar, but the neurochemical reaction that causes PTSD in humans is similar to that which takes place in your greyhound when he is feeling “keen.” It is, however, anything but positive, the way we would think of it. It works like this:
1 Dog senses something very interesting.
2 Dog stops to assess and consider it.
3 Owner interprets this behavior as negative – Fear or defiance.
4 Owner’s mood shifts to the negative.
1 Dog senses something (namely, his Owner’s mood shift).
2 Unable to comprehend Owner’s change in mood, Dog stops to assess it.
So, now you see the cycle and how it repeats. I have taken the following concept straight out of an Anatomy & Physiology I course (and I will paraphrase, so it makes more sense in a greyhound context):
“Positive feedback loops are, naturally, unstable. Because the greyhound and his owner keep reacting to one another, the positive feedback loop can lead to runaway conditions. The term ‘positive feedback’ is typically used as long as this interaction continues, even if the dog and his owner are unaware that they are the cause of the problem. In most cases, positive feedback is harmful.”Paraphrase from Patricia Millar, PhD
Each subsequent interaction of this kind is just going to amplify the feedback loop. Fortunately, Millar’s solution to PTSD lines up with the key to breaking your greyhound’s freezing problem. Dr. Millar explains that “the only way to reverse a negative feedback loop is with a positive feedback loop.”
The opposite of that is true, as well – To reverse the positive feedback loop of you and your greyhound reacting to each other, you need to break this paralysis-by-analysis cycle by creating a negative feedback loop…also known as a distraction!
Ways to Stop Your Greyhound from Statuing
- Walk him in a tight circle.
- Walk with other confident dog(s).
- Use treats to train him to respond to a special sound (clicker, whistle, or a sound you choose from your phone), in a variety of environments. Be sure to set aside time just for this training, so it is relaxed, focused, and fun for both of you.
- React along with him, by talking playfully about it, even if you have no idea what he’s looking at: “What is it? Are you gonna git it?”
- Try to anticipate when he will freeze, and head off the problem by shortening the leash and quickening your steps, until you are well past the spot where he usually freezes, and continuing happily along.
- Pulling on his collar can make things worse.
- Stand alongside his head, and distract him by sneaking your foot up behind you and tapping him on the flank.
- Use a Gentle Leader. It works great in these situations, because it presses the dog’s neck from behind, which is something he will instinctively respond to.
Ceśar Milan, famous dog trainer, known as the Dog Whisperer, provides the following practical rules for successful, stress/free dog walking.
- You go first, both coming and going.
- Use a short leash.
- Sniffing around is a reward.
- Leave enough time, so you’re not rushed.
Physical Reasons Why Greyhounds Freeze on Walks
If your dog is not feeling well, he is likely to stop. When this happens, he is either waiting for you to fix the problem, or simply wishes to return home. If freezing up is a new behavior in an older dog, he might be wanting a shorter walk. Some days will be better than others. It’s ok to let him decide when turn around and go home.
Greyhounds have tender paws, even after years at home, and it is not unusual for something off the ground to become embedded in his paw. If your greyhound stops suddenly, look at how he is standing. Some greyhounds will actually elevate the paw. More often, they will be more subtle – You May observe the afflicted paw slightly ahead of its mate, or he will lean a bit, to take the weight off of it. Don’t forget to check between his toes and along the sides of each toe. It is not unusual to find a stone, an acorn, a thorn, or a tick.
Some greyhounds feel uncomfortable walking on certain surfaces:
- Uneven surfaces are tough on arthritic joints.
- A stony path can really zing a corn.
- Discomfort on asphalt can be a sign of either of those problems.
- A greyhound who walks slowly on pavement, rather than bouncing along, may have inflammation in his ears from an infection or seasonal allergies.
If you suspect any of these problems, try walking your greyhound on grass. If he improves, you may be on to something. If you cannot locate the source of his pain, explain the problem to your vet and see if he can find it.
Pro Tip: rubbing a thin layer of toothpaste into each pad will reveal corns. The residue left behind will outline any corns in their distinctive, round shape.
Resources for Further Info
From “Anatomy and Physiology I,” an OER Course
“Feedback Loops and Affect Regulation in Trauma Recovery” by Patricia Millar, PhD
“Does training method matter?: Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare”
Tips on dog walking from The Dog Whisperer, Ceśar Milan