Watch your dog's signals to learn how he feels


Let’s bring leash walking into the conversation!

98% of my clients either:

  1. Have a request to change leash-walking habits that are occurring with their dogs;
  2. They have accepted the fate that walking with their dog on leash is a punishing event that they simply must endure;   OR
  3. They cease walking altogether.

Which one are you?

You will know whether you are in management -or -manners with your dog on leash if one of the following sounds most familiar:

Leash Walking Management:  The act of bringing your dog back to the place you wish them to walk.  Oftentimes this is done while also saying ‘Heel’ with a strong pull on the leash, an act that may even obtain looser leash for a moment. This can make for a frustrating (and possibly painful) walk for all.  Many people have confused this act of bringing her back to the desired position as ‘training’, “she knows what I want, she just doesn’t do it”.

Leash Walking Manners:  Your pup has been trained where you want her when you snap the leash on. Period. You have communicated consistently, what ‘walk nice’ or ‘heel’ means, and she has strong association with where you want her to be while you’re walking.  You have taken the time to train her. Thus she is not putting tension on the leash and it is a happy leash. The difference is clear, a more enjoyable walk for you both! You are managing behavior if your dog does not have a clear understanding of the behavior YOU are looking for.  When your dog has a clear understanding, in all environments, then training is occurring.

With Stella sitting on the couch, she was able to describe in great detail pulling the bits of asphalt out of her street wounds and the sting of grass burn on the side of her face.  The deep red wounds on her elbows were still visible. Stella and Doug Miller invited me in to assess some behaviors that had become unbearable with their 2-year-old German Shorthair Pointer, Pepper.  They were truly at the end of their rope, I mean, leash.

The story, which may be familiar to some, is that Stella had recently been walking Pepper when an off leash neighbor dog ran out to them, surprising both, but eliciting lunge response from Pepper. She ran at such force toward this dog and traffic that Stella lost her balance, went down and was dragged across the lawn holding a death grip on the leash. She did however hold tight, and Pepper eventually wound down to a stop.  With fear that this had potential of happening again in the weeks that followed, strict angry wielding of the leash ensued.  She “must establish herself as leader from now on”.  [What does that even mean?  With brains only a fraction the size of ours, and no access to the human species sociology lesson, how would they even go about that? Have any of us asked how human that sounds?]   I digress.

To them this was not a question of whether she was trained to walk on a leash, but a clear signal that she was bossing them around.  From ‘leader’ standpoint, it has as many holes as a sprinkler.  Rather, it is a clear indication that the behavior is reinforced on some level, and since reinforced behavior has a high probability of continuing to occur, then it makes perfect sense why Pepper continues to pull where she wants to go. Pepper simply has not adjusted her own behavior! They need a plan.

What did our walk with Pepper look like?

As they removed her harness from the hook, they were able to chase her down, get it hooked up…we all sighed with relief that this first acrobatic maneuver was accomplished. Although there was a bit of frustration from Doug and Stella, it was nothing compared to what was to come.

They opened the door and she raced out ahead, reaching the end of the leash with pain recorded on Doug’s face.  Presumably from Peppers point of view, she is in her environment, with all those scent receptors she was putting into action, and was ready to gather as much information in as short a time as she could.  Doug and Stella did not exist any longer, except as an irritant of the other end of her leash.  These behaviors escalated, pulling them to and fro, and I knew I had seen all I needed to see for the following protocol to be put in place.

A condensed version of a similar leash training plan as follows:

  1. Choose a new word for walking on leash with your dog. (They chose to use ‘walk nice’)
  2. Choose a walking tool that is kind. A harness is a widely accepted tool. A ‘choke chain’, ‘prong collar’ or any other such options for hooking the leash is unacceptable. You will be apt to stay in management with these tools, as they are typically used for dogs that are coined ‘difficult to control’.  These types of tools that cause discomfort can be thrown way away when you have applied successful training protocol.  This will also be discussed at length in reactivity segment.
  3. Your dog is calm when putting on harness and leash, with conditioning for her to walk into her own harness.  No more chasing around the room, that game’s over! At least as far as the leash and harness are concerned.
  4. Reliable ‘wait’ command, and release through door
  5. Orientation command in place going out the front door, so your dogs eyes are on you instead of fixated on what is happening in the ‘hood, outside the door.
    • High value reinforcement, and high rate of reinforcement:
    • High value reinforcement: consider using something you only use when walking. High value may be bits of chicken, freeze dried animal parts, (beginning every 2 steps, and move up gradually from there).
    • High rate of reinforcement:  recognize your dog has been walking a certain way for period of time, and hasn’t gotten the memo that you are changing it up. It is fair, then, to give her as much information as you can while walking, and reinforce accordingly. It is important that your dog make the association of the new behavior often and with most yummy currency.
  6. The first few minutes of walk is dedicated to sniffing. Sniffing is notoriously calming signal for our dogs, so you are ahead in offering your dog the opportunity to engage if that is a way that helps de-stress. Humans are often quite task oriented, we have certain amount of time, certain route, answer texts/emails to your dog.
  7. Leash walking manners in the house and back yard only until ‘walk nice’ has relevance, that it is trained, and loose leash has been accomplished. Begin walking in front of house only  AFTER success is guaranteed in the house and yard.

If your dog goes back to her pulling ways, stop and wait for her to move back toward you.  At which point, and this is very important part of the whole procedure, the reinforcement is not provided until Pepper is back in position and walking nicely again.  If it is provided earlier, Pepper may learn that pulling and coming back to you is what you are looking for. Be very clear that the only time she gets a treat from you is when she is in area by your side, with a happy leash, or a leash with no tension!
Begin working in lowest distractive environments, until you become more relevant partners with the leash.
Recognize that if the walking surface is so hot that you cannot hold your hand on it for 5 seconds, then do not consider expecting your dogs paws being able to handle it either. Not only will it be painful, it may also be why your dog is in a hurry, thus pulling on the leash.

Note:  Like many dogs, Pepper has exhibited leash reactivity toward several triggers in her environment, so they are staying very close to home where they can turn and get back home quickly in the event a mean ole’ trigger shows up. In this segment, I am addressing leash-walking, not reactivity-on-leash.  Although reactivity issues are addressed with reliable leash walking manners in place, much more protocol is put in place to modify this highly emotional response to your dog’s environment.  Well-trained leash walking manners is a must to modify reactivity, while on leash, but alone is not the fix. It will be fun to talk in the next blog about one of THE most popular calls that come into my call center with is reactivity while our dogs are on leash.

BTW, the Millers have been enjoying following their protocol to the letter, because it has improved Peppers relevance to walking on leash.  It’s not such a punishing experience, so she gets walked more often. Doug and Stella have quit the exhausting job of managing Pepper’s leash walking and adopted training her to the manners they want instead.  Win!

Next blog we move on to reactivity work, and her dislike of large black and small white dogs, squirrels, bicycles and skateboards.

Patti Howard, BS, CCS is behavior and training specialist, and owner of Your Canine Resource in Olympia WA.  Be on watch for her upcoming book, ‘Your Dog Can’t Do Anything Wrong’, due to be out in Spring 2018.