Friday, December 3, 2010

The Shoemaker's Children Go Without Shoes...

I have a confession to make. Here goes...(deep breath)

Dexter, the love of my life, the dog who can retrieve a bottle of water from the refrigerator on cue, find my car keys when asked, and perform a bazillion behaviors smartly and fluently...cannot walk on a loose leash.

Not such a big deal, except I am a DOG TRAINER and get paid actual MONEY to teach other people how to walk their dog on a loose leash!!!

But...I gotta "get real" and admit that my loose leash training with Dexter has been a huge failure.

I have  been inconsistent. In so many ways. It really boils down to being lazy, if I am going to be completely honest. Having the luxury of almost seven acres at your disposal makes for rarely pulling out a leash. Except, sometimes I would like to take Dexter with me, out in public. But when I do, he becomes overly excited and I end up spending the entire time either in the parking lot or in the car, hoping none of my students happen to walk by.

Alright, so it's a problem. But I am a dog trainer-I can solve this!

Step one: determine what I would like him to do while leashed...this will require some thought. Simply stating "I do not want him to pull" leaves too much ambiguity. Of course I do not wish him to pull, but that is not stating what I want him to do, is it?

So, what DO I want him to do?

Got it! (snapping fingers) I would like Dexter to move into the slightest amount of pressure felt from the collar and leash. And I want him to do this while we are in any location-at home or in public.

Now I have a clear goal. The next step is to figure out how to get there! How can I communicate to Dexter that I want him to move with the leash and not against it? After all, I have taught him that to get to point B from point A, just pull your human along! To be fair, from his perspective, I am incredibly s-l-o-w with my two legs as compared to his four. Have you ever watched a dog move while off  leash? They don't walk stiffly one step at a time. They trot, usually with nose to the ground. Their natural stride is way faster than ours-even small dogs!

Walking on a loose leash, matching our human stride, is a very unnatural behavior for a dog. If we expect them to do this, we have got to find a clear way to do it and also a method that is enjoyable for the dog as well. 

Why must it be enjoyable, you may ask? Because what is life without joy?! Think about it-if you force your dog to walk at your side, which you can, then what are you  saying? "You are mine and will do as I say when I say it. Oh, but you are also my best friend and I love you!" Because I chose to bring another species into my home (no one forced me!) I feel obligated to treat him in the fairest way possible-this means finding a way to teach him that is pleasant, effective and fun (for both of us!)

Back to Dexter...

Thankfully, I do not have to reinvent the wheel here. I am going to try a method originally meant to teach horses how to have a "soft mouth" by using the slightest pressure on the reins. I don't know who thought to use this with dogs, but it is generally accepted that Shirley Chong was the first. I will not go into as much detail as she has beautifully laid out, but if you would like to try this method yourself, her instructions are available if you click on the link provided (her name).   Grisha Stewart also has a description of this method including videos on her wonderful website, Ahimsa Dog Training and there are probably more of you search around online.

Essentially, the way it works is this:

Start with the dog on a flat collar with a leash attached (the collar must be a flat, buckle type) and fitted to the dog's neck as you normally would.

Make sure you are in a small, boring room (there will be plenty of time to add challenges-right now you are in Kindergarten) to start.

Take the leash in your hand and apply the tiniest, tiniest amount of pressure. The moment the dog moves in towards the pressure-click/treat!

The end result: A dog that responds to the leash as a cue-not as an anchor. The leash becomes a living, interactive opportunity for reinforcement.

Real Life

Dexter is a hound. As such he is very tuned in to the environment. Excitement is his middle name and relaxation is not in his vocabulary. For him, I am using a combination of the above described leash method along with Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed "Look At That!" 

So, without further ado, here is video  taken after only a couple of training sessions. We will have many, many more to go until this behavior is automatic for Dexter, but I can finally see a light at the end of this tunnel!

Happy Training!


  1. Does this work for kids, too?

  2. "I would like Dexter to move into the slightest amount of pressure felt from the collar and leash" -- isn't that backwards? I would think you want him to move away from the pressure, to relieve the pressure.

  3. Actually relieving the pressure is the more accurate way to put it. Clearer, anyway!

  4. I love this post. As a massage therapist, I advise people all the time about stretching, water consumption, posture techniques, etc. Truth is, I should be looking in the mirror when I tell people this. Same thing with training my huskies. With consistency, they're GREAT learners. Problem is, it's a combination of laziness, busyness, and frustration that keeps me from being as consistent as I should be. It's comforting to know that even your heroes (yes, you're a hero to me!) have confessions to make. Thank you for sharing. As always, you're an inspiration and a comfort. :) Love you!

  5. Good thing we always have tomorrow to be the people we aspire to be, yes?

    Thank you for the nice comments Bonnie-love YOU!!!