Clicking With Canines

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Walking on a Loose Leash

There simply is no greater disservice you can do to your dog than allowing it to pull on its leash when being walked. Dogs are not born with the desire to pull on a leash.  Instead, its a behavior that people actually teach their dogs.  It starts with the very first time a collar and leash is put on a puppy.  The puppy simply wants to explore the world, but now with a collar and leash it is prohibited from doing so freely.  The puppy pulls to go forward and the human willingly complies.  After all, its just a puppy right?  

The puppy learns very quickly that keeping the leash tight allows it to go forward AND it keeps their human coming with them.  Simply a fact of life when living with humans!  All appears fine until the puppy grows up.  Going for a walk with your now grown dog becomes a very unpleasant thing to do.

However, all is not fine when a puppy pulls.  The biggest problem is NOT that your puppy or grown dog is pulling you down the street.  By far, the most serious issue is about what is happening to your happy go-lucky, "the-whole-world-is-wonderful" puppy.  By allowing your dog to pull, you may be allowing your dog to become reactive to other dogs, people, and objects.

Dogs learn by association.  Let's say your puppy sees another dog when pulling on leash.  Initially your puppy just wants to go meet the other dog.  It starts pulling hard on the leash resulting in the puppy feeling choked.  You hear your puppy gasping for breath.  You may even pull back on the leash in an attempt to regain your puppy's attention.  This makes the choking sensation worse.  Now, if this scenario is repeated every time your puppy sees another dog, or a kid on a skateboard, or the friendly neighbor across the street, it doesn't take long before your nice, friendly puppy will begin to associate the choking sensation, which acts as punishment, with the other dog, person, or object.

That's right!...your dog will start thinking that the other dog is causing the pain and choking.  From your dog's point of view:  "Every time I see the dog across the street I get choked!  That dog must be doing it too me!  That dog is DANGEROUS!"  Next, you will notice your dog becoming reactive to the other dog, and maybe even all dogs.  As soon as the other dog (or person or object) is in sight, your dog will begin to lunge,growl, and/or bark, possibly with its hair raised along its back.  Your dog is saying:  "There's that dangerous dog again!  Hey, you'd better not choke me this time...GRRRRR!!!"

What happens?  Your dog lunches forward and gets choked again.  But now you think your dog is suddenly being aggressive and to restrain your dog you yank back on the leash even harder.  This makes the choking and pain even worse.  Then you may raise your voice and scold your dog.  This only confirms what he believes he has learned:  "I THOUGHT that other dog was dangerous and I must be right because my human is BARKING at it too!"

A vicious and endless cycle has begun.  Your dog gets worse and worse and you try more force to prevent it from happening.  You seek advice from a trainer and they recommend a choke or pinch collar.  Such devices only make the problem worse.  You may gain control, but your dog learns to simply HATE other dogs or people.  You dog has learned exactly what you have inadvertently taught it:  That other dogs, people, or objects are BAD and the best defense is a good offense.

Sadly, this scenario takes place over and over again.  Take a walk on any of the area's public walks and hiking trails and you will witness dogs on choke and pinch collars lunging and barking at other dogs and people.  Walks with these dogs become too much of an effort for the owners or they are afraid of a confrontation and walking with the dog ceases.  In the worst cases, the dogs become so reactive that they are surrendered to shelters, otherwise re-homed, or put down.

These scenarios can easily be avoided.  With a puppy it is simple:  NO forward movement will take place unless the leash is loose.  Period.  Puppy will learn very quickly that a loose leash allows forward exploration whereas a tight leash means "not another inch forward."

For older dogs who have already learned to pull we can correct our previous mistakes with clicker training.  If the leash goes tight, STOP, anchor your arms against your body and wait.  And wait.  And wait some more, if that's what it takes.  Sooner or later your dog will look back to see what in the world is the problem with you.  As soon as the leash becomes slack, "CLICK" and then offer a treat next to your side.  The dog comes back for the treat, the leash is loose, and you begin to walk forward again.  Repeat as necessary.  Your first walk with the new "rules" will be, no doubt, a short distance.  That's ok.  Your dog will catch on quickly if you are consistent.  In fact your dog should love these new rules:  loose leash not only earns a "click" and a treat, but it also allows forward movement.  "YESSSS, I can do this!" your dog will think.  You should begin this training in an environment with low distractions and slowly build to areas that have other dogs, people, and objects.  (Note:  this is just one way to teach walking on loose leash.  There are many more.)

There is also equipment available that will immediately stop the pulling as well as the choking.  One is called a Gentle Leader and I have them available for $15.00 and will fit them for you at no additional charge.  It is often referred to as "power steering for dogs," and it works like a bridle on a horse.  It allows you to lead your dog, quite literally, by the nose.  It is important that it is fitted properly and that wearing it is made a positive experience for your dog.  Some dogs are reactive to having a strange thing around their muzzle, but most accept it quickly if the introduction is done with lots of treats in exchange for them wearing it.  If your dog is over reactive to the Gentle Leader it should be removed immediately.  When a Gentle Leader is properly fitted, dogs can eat, drink, bark, or even bite.  It doesn't restrict them in any way except to stop their ability to pull on the leash.  Since there is nothing around their necks, there is no choking.  Gentle Leaders do not teach walking on a loose leash, but it stops the pulling so training can proceed.

I am available to help any owner properly fit a Gentle Leader, no charge, if you contact me for an appointment and bring your dog to my classroom.

If your dog is one that really can't accept a Gentle Leader (and there are some), then an Easy Walk Harness may be the better choice.  It is a simple harness that fits over the dogs shoulders with one strap across the front of the dog's chest.  You attach the leash on a ring in the middle of the chest.  If your dog pulls, his weight will cause the dog to go off-balance either to the right or to the left, depending upon which side the leash is on.  Dogs are very sensitive to their balance and the pulling stops.  But more importantly, there is nothing around the neck of the dog so the choking stops.  I have not experienced any dogs that are reactive to these harnesses and highly recommend them.  Unfortunately, to date, they are not sold in pet stores.  If, however, you walk your dog with a traditional type harness you purchased from a pet store or supplier, look and see if it has a ring in the center of the chest which the collar and shoulder straps attach to.  If it does, attach your leash to it, instead of the leash loop provided on the top of the dog's back.  It will work the same as a Freedom Harness and your dog will lose its leverage to pull.

I have Easy Walk Harnesses available for $20.00 and will also fit them for no additional charge.  They are currently not available in stores in the area, that I'm aware of (PetSmarts carry them).  It is very important that they are properly fitted and it does take some trial and error to get them adjusted correctly.

So please...if your dog is pulling you down the street and/or has become reactive to other dogs, people, or objects, give some thought about what the real harm that is being done to your dog and address the problem in a positive way.  If you have a choke or pinch collar on your dog, get rid of it immediately.  Just stopping the choking and pain will change many dog's personality very quickly.  Your dog will easily forgive you for any harm already done.

Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Karen Pryor Academy Faculty Member
P.O. Box 5715
Endicott, New York 13763