Archive for the ‘Leash Manners’ Category

Enjoying the Walk   1 comment

All dogs, no matter what their size, need exercise. Walks can be a great way to not only physically exercise your dog  (and yourself!), but to mentally exercise him through all of the sniffing, exploring and experiencing he does. However, when your dog pulls on the leash, walks quickly cease to be fun. When they’re no longer fun, we tend to take our dogs out less frequently…leading to them getting more excited when they do get out…leading to them pulling harder…leading to us walking them less frequently…and so on, until our dogs almost never go out for the exercise they need. Pretty soon other behavioral problems start to occur due to the excess mental and physical energy, things like barking, digging, chewing, hyper-active behavior, door dashing, and the list goes on. So how can we teach our dogs to stop pulling?

First, think about why your dog pulls. It’s not to annoy you, it’s because they want to GO and see that leaf, and that bush, and what just moved?, and lets keep going, and there’s so much to see we better go or we’ll miss it!, and ooooooh, another dog!! Our dogs pull because it works: when they pull, they get to go where they want. Now, the person on the other end of the leash may be yelling and swearing at them while they go there, but that does not come close to outweighing the coolness of everything around them. Even if a dog is receiving leash corrections, or wearing a prong or pinch collar, often his brain is so consumed with taking in everything around him, and the pain or discomfort just doesn’t penetrate. Combine this overstimulation and automatic reward of moving forward with a natural instinct to pull against pressure, and it becomes clear why our dogs pull!

Now that we understand their motivation, what is the best way to stop them from pulling? Take away their motivation: don’t let them move forward while they are pulling. From now on, whenever your dog is on the leash it is her job to keep the leash loose. When you are walking your dog, the instant you feel tension in the leash beyond what you have decided is acceptable, plant your feet and do not move. Do not call to your dog, do not jerk on the leash, just wait and feel. Eventually, when your dog is not getting rewarded by moving forward, and all of the stimulants around her aren’t changing and staying exciting, she’ll look back at you as if to say, “Well aren’t we going to go?” When she does this the leash will slacken, you can tell her good, and move forward. You may only take one step before there is tension in the leash again, so again, you will plant your feet and wait. Pay close attention to what you can feel through the leash; often you can’t see your dog shift visibly, but she does shift enough that the tension in the leash is relieved. Once you feel there is no more tension in the leash, say, “Good!” and move forward. By making the rule about when your dog gets to move forward based on how the leash feels rather than where your dog is relative to you, you can train your dog to keep the leash loose no matter how much slack you’ve given her. By not speaking to her to encourage her to loosen the leash she learns that she has to keep the leash slack all the time, not just when you ask her to.

At first this is a very frustrating process. You may be standing on the street for 3 straight minutes, waiting for your dog to relax enough to even try to figure out how to move forward again. It may take you 30 minutes to get down your driveway. If at all possible, use walks for training and exercise your dog in other ways; at off leash parks, playing fetch in the backyard, swimming, whatever works; until they have learned the rules. This will help you get less frustrated about how long it is taking you to go down the block, because there’s no need to go down the block! The purpose of the walk is to move any distance without tension, not to cover a certain amount of ground. Depending on how long your dog has been pulling and being automatically rewarded for it, it may take your dog one day to figure out the new rules, or it may take several weeks. Most dogs will start to figure out that when you stop they need to shift back pretty quickly, but it can still take a long time until they are reliably keeping the leash slack so you don’t have to stop. If you are consistent, however, you will end up with a dog who is a pleasure to walk not only at your side, but ranging in front of you, or even 10 or more feet out.

To encourage your dog to walk nicely, it can help to carry a clicker and treats on your walks. Whenever your dog is in an especially good position, or has stayed on a slack leash for a long time (a “long time” will vary dog to dog and by how far in the process they are), click and give him a treat right by your hip (the best place for him to be, no tension there!). This will reinforce that when he walks nicely not only does he get the reward of going forward, he will sometimes get extra treats and to keep going forward! (It can also be helpful to have a clicker and treats on a walk in case you run into a situation where you want focus, a distracting situation your dog does well in, or if you want to practice cues outside your house.)

What if you can’t physically stop your dog because he’s more powerful than you? Try the product that is often called “power steering for dogs”: a head collar. A head collar has two loops which connect beneath the chin. One loop goes from below the jaw to right behind the ears, and the other loop goes around the dogs nose and sits high up on the muzzle, near the eyes. The leash attaches where the two loops connect under the chin. A head collar is not a muzzle; dogs still have an almost full range of mouth movement and are able to take treats, pant, drink, bark, bite, and even vomit if need be. Some dogs cannot hold a tennis ball, because that requires their mouth to open very wide. A head collar works on the same principal a halter does on a horse. Can you imagine leading a horse by a rope thrown around its neck? Unless you had a very well trained animal, you would have a hard time taking the horse anywhere. Attach the rope to a halter, however, and you can control the horse (which is a much larger animal than any dog). By leading the head, you can lead the whole animal. Please remember: You should never give a leash correction to a dog wearing a head collar. You have so much control over their head and neck you can cause serious neck damage if you jerk on them. If you are careful, however, this is a perfectly safe and non-painful product. Introduce the head collar slowly. Ask your dog to put their nose through the nose-loop by holding a treat on the other side, so they can choose how fast they want that contact. Slowly start to buckle the second loop while they’re eating, and leaving it buckled for longer periods of time. Some dogs have a hard time adjusting to the head collar, but almost all dogs will. I like to compare wearing a head collar to wearing glasses. If you’ve ever worn glasses you probably remember that when you first put them on you were acutely aware of them being there every minute. But after a few days, you forgot they were even there! If introduced correctly, most dogs will react the same way, and even if they don’t they’ll certainly put up with it to get to go on a walk! Some of the major brands of head collars are:

Halti
and
Gentle Leader.

There are many brands of head collars, each with some slight differences from the others, but they all work on the same principle.

Another tool that is often useful in reducing pulling is a no-pull harness. There are many types of these, as they can work by swinging the dog’s body around or causing slight discomfort in various ways when the dog pulls. A no-pull harness will give you less control than a head collar, but for dogs with short noses or dogs who do not pull too strongly, a no-pull harness can make a difference. For a summary of different training aids for pulling, including the various types of no-pull harnesses, see this table.

Walks should be a time you and your dog can enjoy together. It is important, especially if you have a larger or more active breed, that your dog gets out for a walk every day. Almost any of your dog’s bad behaviors can be improved simply by exercising him sufficiently. The good news is, with the right tools and the right training, your dog can walk nicely on a leash!

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