Loose Lead Walking
I have a variety of posts about walking with the untamed beast who shares your home, as this is a subject that comes up frequently. Rare is the dog who, when you snap on the leash, says, “Cool! I’m tethered to my person so let’s stroll uptown for a brisk constitutional! I think that I will stick close to his side, walk in a straight line, and not bother to check the pee-mail from my buddies, notice the pesky squirrel next door, or the Golden Retriever two streets over, because we are out for exercise not socializing!”
Dogs’ amazing sense of smell makes it very hard to ignore the flood of information wafting up from trees, grass, fire hydrants, sidewalks, breezes, tires, cracks in the sidewalk, benches, sticks, rocks, fences, McDonald’s wrappers, mailboxes, and turtles to name a few. Asking your dog to ignore the literal essence of his being is like asking your bacon loving Cousin Joey to have one piece of dry white toast at the all-you-can-eat Golden Corral Breakfast buffet. It can be done, but at what price?
Lawyer: “Mr. Jones, you agree to allow Sparky to sniff seven objects in one block segments for 10 blocks before asking for a sniff free zone, correct?”Mr. Jones: “I do.”Lawyer: “Sparky, you agree to not dart randomly back in forth in front of Mr. Jones, and that you will not pull him willy-nilly towards ‘imaginary’ squirrels, correct?”Sparky: “Arf.”
It does, however, have to provide for the needs of both parties and you can set yourself up for greater success if you keep some important points in mind:
1) Read Stop, Look, and Listen! again for start up tips such as: exercise your dog before walking, keep your walks short, and don’t dawdle.
2) Your dog is not a robot and will have good, bad, and better days at this. Do your best, end on a positive note, and try again another day.
3) Have a clear idea of what you want from your dog and what it looks like when your dog is loose lead walking. Then and only then you will be prepared to strategically reinforce that particular behavior (ie: only reinforce/reward when Sparky gives you the desired behavior).
4) Reward sustained loose lead walking, not when he first re-engages. That is, if Sparky veers off to sniff a tulip and you call him back to you, walk a few steps with him at your side before you give him a treat. We want to reward Sparky for staying with you, not just for quickly re-engaging with you.
5) Use Jackpots very deliberately to reinforce a particularly good session. For instance, imagine you are walking along a busy street and three noisy dogs come by. Sparky, instead of rushing over to join the fun, looks at you and continues walking. When you are a reasonable distance from the fray (i.e.: Sparky is far enough so that the canine distraction is not tempting), stop and reward him with a jackpot for a job well done, or a diversion well avoided. Jackpots can come in a couple of different forms. One is a fistful of treats given all at once from your hands or dropped in a heap between his front paws. Or, if you want to extend the experience, try giving him the fistful of treats rapid fire, one at a time while praising him for being the best dog ever. You can also use other things he loves. For Bingley I will sometimes throw an armful of never-been-dogified tennis balls into the air for him to chase and pounce upon.
Loose lead walking is a challenge for many dog owners, but patience, a sense of humor, and a clear vision of what and how to reward good walking skills will get you where you want to go.
When clients are beginning loose lead walking (LLW), I have guidelines that help to set them and their dogs up for success. It occurred to me that winter, especially one with as variable weather as we have had, offers many opportunities to put these guidelines into practice and get ready for long spring walks.
- Baby, it’s cold outside! When it’s 14 degrees take short walks. I tell clients who are working on leash manners that it is better, if you can, to take three fifteen minute walks rather than 1 forty-five minute walk each day. That way you have a short time to do a concentrated effort and will be much more likely to avoid burn out (not to mention frostbite) from trying to do something difficult for an extended period of time.
- Baby, it’s really cold outside! As the temperature plummets, bundle up and walk fast on your jaunt around the block. It is easier for your dog not to pull if you walk faster! A dog’s natural gate is a trot, equivalent to a fast walk in humans. It is more comfortable for them than walking or running and is easier for them to settle in to. If you speed up, your dog won’t feel the need to surge ahead of you because you’re right there with him.
- Baby, it’s sorta cold outside! If the temperature allows for a bit of a longer venture, incorporate other behaviors into your walk. If Fido is surging ahead and you are getting frustrated with his behavior, stop! Re-collect. Breathe. Get situated and ask your dog to do a short series of behaviors, such as sit and stay, or sit-down-sit, or down and stay, so that both of you have a break from the stress and distraction of loose lead walking. Combined with #1, you may not cover a lot of distance physically, but behaviorally you may make a big impact as neither one of you gets overwhelmed by the task at hand.
- Baby, it’s almost balmy outside! Be aware of distractions that make it difficult for your dog to concentrate on the task at hand. On warmer winter days when you want to be out for a longer stretch, have a strategy for handling those things that make your dog’s behavior falter. For example, in one of my LLW classes an energetic golden retriever would get excited every time a string of cars went by. The owner, Karen, managed this distraction by having Ginger lie down or sit while a string of cars passed, then getting up and walking while there were no cars. Ginger simply had too much to think about when the cars were passing her. She did a fabulous job, however, when we “took out” the distraction of the cars and let her focus on one thing while LLW.
Baby, it’s nearly spring outside! Even the most experienced dogs will have moments of lunacy on walks, especially on those lovely days when everyone is out and taking advantage of the El Nino weather. Accept that your dog is not a robot and will have times when it seems as if his brain has fallen out. Take some tasty treats along for those moments when you really need to get him to refocus and pay attention to you and not the cute poodle at the next tree. If one small bit of liver is not sufficient to turn his attention back to you, try a fistful! Show him what you have and lead him away from temptation (keep your hand with the treats right at his nose), giving him a piece or two when you get sufficient distance from the object of his desire. Then, do a couple of sits, downs, stays, and move along, enjoying the reprieve from arctic blasts. If treats are not in your vocabulary, consider bringing a toy along that grabs your dog’s attention and that he likes to hold. This can be very Zen for some dogs and helps them to relax into walking nicely by your side.
Teaching your pup to walk civilly on lead is not easy. At least it isn’t easy for most people, hence the plethora of training aides such as head halters and no pull harnesses, not to mention the inquisition inspired choke chains, prong collars and shock collars. If it were easy, all dogs would be prancing alongside their owners without a care in the world. In fact, this is why I offer a 6 week specialty class devoted solely to loose lead walking.
I have published other blogs on the subject (Set you and your dog up for a successful outing!, Stop, Look, and Listen!) which give suggestions on how to get your dog to focus on you and the task at hand. One thing I recommend is:
Keep your walks short.Begin with 15 minutes or less. I would much rather have you take three 15 minute walks rather than one 45 minute walk as this gives you good practice at being on lead, but is short enough to be fun and successful for both of you.
While I have a specific philosophy of training that guides what I do, over the years I have found that I need to pay attention as to how to apply these principles. Each owner must work not only within the framework of who her dog is, but who she is as well. For example, when a dog is young and more easily distracted, I have found that being animated is helpful in keeping the dog’s attention. Some owners are very comfortable using a silly voice, shuffling their feet, whistling, etc. But, for shy individuals, this can be just as big a challenge as actually training the dog. The advice a horse trainer once gave me: Quiet hands, Busy feet, helps me guide owners to their animation comfort zone. The key is being precise in your movements, so you clearly communicate to your dog what you want him to do. If your hands are steady and move only when needed to cue your dog, or deliver a treat, then your voice and pace can be used to keep him engaged in the training, making it possible to be both animated and quiet.
(2) Quickly back up 4 steps and have your dog sit and down. Repeat 3 times, then give a tasty treat.
(3) Quickly back up 4 steps with sit, down, sit. Repeat 3 times and reward.
- Pumbles gets distracted.
- I call Pumble’s name and back up a few steps to encourage Pumbles to move towards me.
- Pumbles comes towards me.
- I turn so that we face the same way and I speed up for a few steps to make it rewarding and fun for her to walk with me.
- 6-7 steps later, Pumbles gets a treat.
* The other four would probably be jumps on people, won’t come when called (or won’t listen in general), barks too much, and is too mouthy.
Claire got her lab puppy because she wanted a happy dog who could be her steady companion on the long walks she loved to take. She envisioned strolling through the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning, greeting friends, buying fresh bread, stopping for coffee on the way home, all the while, her steady Eddie at her side. What she never dreamed of was a dog-reactive maniac lunging at other canines as she desperately tried to restrain him.
Claire sought out a positive reinforcement trainer and learned how to help Eddie with his “issues” by using desensitization and counter-conditioning to the stimuli of another dog. Eddie improved, a lot, and they were able to go on walks again, but Claire remained very careful of the distance she allowed between Eddie and another dog. She noticed that the trainer was able to get Eddie closer to other dogs than she was and chalked it up to experience. She hoped she would get there someday. What she didn’t notice was how the trainer’s reaction to an approaching dog differed from her own. Claire’s reaction to the sight of another dog was to suck in her breath, tense up, and tighten her hold on the leash. It was not a reaction she consciously thought to do, it was simply her response to stress, just as Eddie had his response to stress. The problem was, her response triggered or exacerbated Eddie’s reaction to the presence of another dog.
So what’s an owner to do when his or her unconscious reaction causes the dog to over-react to something? First, be aware of your reaction to an approaching dog. If you tense up on the leash or suck in your breath quickly, then consciously put slack back into the lead, and take a breath. Now, say your dog’s name in a happy voice (smile when you say it, it will help you to sound happy and be more relaxed). When he looks at you, give him a treat. Repeat as needed to keep you both calm. By teaching the dog that tensing up on the leash, a quick sucking in of air, or your general stiffening are actually signals for him to cue into you and relax, you will be able to have more successful close encounters!
One last note, if the idea of even trying this makes you terribly uncomfortable, then get a professional positive reinforcement trainer to help you through the process of desensitizing your dog to your reactions. A great place to look for a trainer in your area is the Trainer Search page on the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website. You can search by zip code and distance.
I get a lot of questions from friends and clients and here is one that I got recently regarding something that I said about needing to be more interesting than the distractions your dog encounters:
A: Allow me to clarify! What I meant was, IF you need to get your dog to refocus onto you, THEN you must be more exciting than pee on a pole. I let my dogs do all sorts of sniffing, but I get to be the one to control the amount of time we spend on each activity (if said dog is on lead). If said dog is off-lead, I am more flexible about time spent on olfactory activities, but ultimately I am the one who decides how long and where we go. Hence, a reliable recall (or Come!) is important to instill in your dog so that when it is time for the off-lead dog to move along, he does!
But, moreover, I was thinking about indoor noise control. While it is difficult for the three canines in my life to believe this, I honestly do not need to have EVERY truck, leaf, bird, biker, insect, or cloud announced to me. Therefore, I need to make checking in with me worth their while. Thus, I want the thought process to go something like this: