Mastering the Walk Without Whispering
The reason why dogs pulls is not because they are dominant, but because it is not natural for them to walk permanently next to, or behind someone, despite what you may have heard on TV. That means that whenever we clip a leash on a dog we automatically set her up to fail, and yet it is what they need to do because we have leash laws.
What to do?
Stop reinforcing it.
Every step a dog makes on a taut leash teaches her that pulling works, and which way you walk doesn’t matter. Unless a dog has a specific destination, neither changing directions nor backtracking works, because moving is reinforcing in its own right. You add what you believe are penalty yards, but your dog gets to move even more and maybe circle around you – a pleasing consequence for pulling especially for the herding dog.
Reality is that as long as your dog succeeds with pulling, she’ll continue to pull undeterred by frustrated badgering and ineffective tugging, and most corrections are ineffective or your dog would stop pulling. We don’t want to use harsh punishments either, because that potentially causes behavioral issues as a side effect.
The solution is to halt the moment there is tension on the leash, wait until the dog reorients to you and creates a loose leash again, and then you move and only as long as there’s a slack in the leash. When you are about to make your first step together, add your walking cue. Mine is let’s go.
It works, but in the initial stages you won’t cover much ground. I suggest treating the leash walk as any other training exercise: Short sessions and incrementally incorporating distractions, even if you only get to the end of the driveway, while providing exercise opportunities separately on a long line or off the leash. With practice, you will get less and less pulling and can walk with the leash loose for increasingly longer periods, plus the mental training work will tire your dog out.
Dominance isn’t the issue; being attached to a slow-moving biped is. Being outside is exciting for your dog: seductive smells and sounds, and memory of past fun in certain places, compel her to get there speedily.
The way to counter that, and hence decrease pulling, is for you to become more desirable. Don’t walk faster if your dog is bored unless you always want to walk fast, but make yourself more attractive.
Play catch-me-if-you-can in a securely fenced-in space off the leash, otherwise on a long line, and as usual begin where there are no or few distant distractions, and expand from there outward.
Whenever you are snappy and animated, your dog becomes curious about you and pays attention, and that’s when you cajole her to catch up. When she is within a 3-4 feet range, give her your full attention, abruptly change directions, speed up, or toss a food treat. That will make the environment less appealing and you more, and she’ll begin to want to be within the 3-4 feet range because she experiences that life is great there. Then, when you clip a 6-foot leash on, you have loose leash walking.
Being near you becomes a habit, and once it is you don’t have to be that overly high-spirited anymore, but being attentive never stops. Reinforce attention when your dog gives it, and attract attention when she doesn’t.
You can bring your dog closer than 3-4 feet and built heel work into every walk. Instead of tossing the treat out, drop it when she is right next to you, or let her nibble on a closed fist that contains a treat to slow her down, periodically releasing it.
Jennifer Arnold, a dog trainer you might have seen on the PBS documentary “Through A Dog’s Eyes” and you can find out more about at: www.canineassistants.org doesn’t punish when a future assistants dog leave a person’s side, but allows to lick a wooden spoon dipped in peanut butter when she doesn’t. Is it real choice or coercion with a cookie? Jennifer Arnold: “Choice is allowing the dog to find out what feels good”, and she also says that all obedience comes easier with dogs who learn from the start that being by a person is a happy spot.
The spoon only serves as a tool. The dog, in addition, also receives a lot of attention. The spoon eventually disappears, the attention never does.
You want to become the cake and icing for your dog, but that doesn’t mean that you can or should forget the environment completely.
A quality walk is much more than moving: It is being in the environment together, and that includes being sensitive to the fact that some things you might not appreciate are important to your dog and vital for her wellbeing. Exploring with the nose is such a thing, and although I don’t propose letting your dog pull you, she must have autonomy where she wants to sniff. The dog is the one who knows what’s sniff-worthy. The moment when she is done with social media and ready to move with you again is another good time for your verbal walking cue. It’ll become a feel-good signal, my goal with every command, and then you can use it to prompt your dog without triggering anxiety or resistance, which is the case when a command is perceived as a warning and threat.
If you facilitate access to what is important to your dog even if you don’t comprehend it, like a parent does who drives her kid to football practice even though she dislikes the sport, the bond between you and your dog deepens more, and your dog wants to be with you more, and you get more attention, and so on.
Being attentive to one another is walking with a friend. The goal is not walking the dog, or the dog walking the human, but walking together – coordinated cooperation you can’t force with putting a rope or choke collar high around a dog’s neck.
That is the ideal I’m aiming for, and in my experience is achievable with perseverance. However, there can be hurdles:
If your dog has a long history of reinforced pulling, progress can take time. Every person, at some point, experienced how hard it is to get rid of a habit, and it is not any different with a dog.
Change is also more difficult with dogs that are outside a lot unsupervised, or let loose at the dog park as their primary form of activity. They are used to stimulation away from you and will not suddenly pay attention to you just because you put a leash on them.
For some people, the loose leash protocol is impractical. Maybe you walk the kids to school each day, or maybe you love long walks, and it makes no sense to leave the dog at home. Perhaps there isn’t enough time in your day for both training and exercising, and maybe you don’t mind a tight leash all that much, because then you don’t drip over it.
Truth is that people live in the real world, not a theoretical concept, however effective it may be. So, if managing works best for you, that’s okay. A front clip body harness gives you decent physical control and, unlike aversive gear, makes the walk pleasurable for your dog as well. Remember, you can force your dog next to you with certain tools, but you can’t force how your dog feels about you.
My favorite one is the Freedom Harness at www.wiggleswagswhiskers.com.
Still, don’t skip training altogether. It is good mental stimulation, you are working on the connection you ultimately want, and in time leash manners will improve.
There is one more reason why a dog pulls: Anxiety. Merely being
outside can feel scary for some dogs even without the fear triggers present. The
dog is aroused and tries to flee before something really bad happens. She pulls
regardless which direction you are going, and often harder toward the car or
home, the perceived safe place they want to get to quickly.
Other signs that your dog might be agoraphobic are frantic sniffing and/or excessive marking and/or over-reaction, barking and lunging, when a specific stimulus is in sight – a stimulus seemingly benign to you.
If this reads like the reason your dog pulls, I recommend you consult with an experienced, force free behavior specialist. There is a solution for that too, but it can be complex and multi-faceted.