Monday, April 20, 2009

Leash Training, 101

Check out the latest issue of DogWorld Magazine! There's an article titled "The Importance of Play," by Lisa Hanks. I'm quoted extensively on this important topic. As for today's blog entry, this is another one for our online Natural Dog Training manual. It's a more comprehensive version of an earlier article on training a dog to walk nicely on the leash. Enjoy! Print it out for personal use. E-mail the link to friends!

"Let's Go for a Walk!"
A 6’ leash, preferably latigo leather, or if you have a puppy who might chew his leash when you’re not looking, use a sturdy nylon leash. (Cheaper than buying gallons of BitterApple or a new leather leash every other week.)

A flat, buckle-style collar, as wide as possible. Make sure the leash is tight enough to that the pup’s head can’t slip through it, but not so tight that there’s no “play” at all. Do not use a choke collar, prong collar, or Martingale collar. And under no circumstances should you use a head harness like the Gentle Leader. With young, large breed puppies you may want to use a harness to prevent the pup from putting all his weight against his throat. Just be advised that the harness was designed for pulling. So that will be a bit of a disadvantage. And the harness should be temporary. Once the pup learns to stop pulling, use a flat collar.

You’ll also need either a vest with a large, open pocket, or a bait bag from a dog training supply company, or a nail bag from the hardware store.

Pre-Game Show:
Always let your puppy do his business before a training session.

The first thing to remember is that until your dog is trained to walk next to you without pulling ahead or lagging behind, every walk is going to be a training walk. There’s no, “I’ll take my puppy to the dry cleaners,” or “I need something from the convenience store; I bet my puppy would like to come.” Yes, he’d probably like to come, but you can’t train a dog and carry groceries or dry cleaning at the same time. On the other hand, once the dog is trained to walk next to you, you’ll be able to take him everywhere.

Have some tasty treats readily available in a large pocket or “bait bag.” By readily available (notice the bold letters) I mean that you should be able to grab one instantly. I prefer to use cubed bits of cheddar or muenster cheese; they’re easy to handle, the puppy doesn’t have to chew them, and they’re generally not a problem for doggies with digestive issues. Use what your puppy likes, but keep those three criteria in mind. (Don’t use liver treats; they’re too rich and may give your pup diarrhea.)

Hold the 6’ leash in your right hand, putting your right thumb through the permanent loop, but make a temporary loop by “choking up” and holding that part of the leash in the palm of your right hand. Let me repeat: right thumb through the permanent loop, the temporary loop in the palm of your right hand. This gives you much more control over the dog’s movements than if you put your wrist through the permanent loop and wrap it around your arm or wind it around your fist. The temporary loop should give you the same distance between your hand and the dog’s collar as if you were walking him on a 4’ leash. That temporary loop is important, so don’t use a 4’ leash!

While you’re walking the leash should fall naturally across or in front of your hips. If the puppy moves ahead to sniff something or say hello to another doggie, you can let out some slack so that he doesn’t feel any pressure on his collar. Pressure is the enemy. That’s why we use a 6’ leash. Whenever a dog feels pressure on his collar he’ll automatically pull forward. This is an unconscious behavior called the opposition reflex. So your primary goal is to walk him in such a way that there’s as little tension on his collar as possible.

Your left hand should not touch the leash, except when you need to choke up to make that temporary loop. The dog should always be on your left side while walking, and the optimal position (the “heel” position) is with the dog next to you, in “the pocket,” close to your left leg, with his head and shoulders about even with your left knee. If the dog moves out of the pocket, make a kissing sound to get him to focus on you, then reward him with a treat when he does.

Here are the 2 ways a dog will move out of the pocket:

He’ll stay on your left but his head and shoulders will move forward past your left knee.

He’ll lag, then try to come around behind you, veering to the right, sometimes wrapping the leash around the backs of your knees.

Training Environment:
Once your dog has finished doing his business, find an open, distraction-free environment to do your leash training. If you live in an urban area you may have to improvise. That’s okay, just find the best possible spot you can. 

Starting the Leash Training:
Start each session with your dog sitting next to you in the heel position. It’s probably a good idea to motivate the dog to sit by showing him a treat. This will not only get him to sit, it will also make him realize that you’ve got a pocketful of treats with you.

Once the dog is sitting, say “Ready?” then, “Okay, let’s walk!” and begin walking, praising the dog as you go. Praise is not necessarily being used to reward any behaviors yet. You simply praise him to keep him in a group mood. Since dogs and humans walk at different paces, and have different agenda, he’ll slip out of his group mood pretty easily. Praise is one tool that can help sustain that mood a bit longer than normal.

Pay attention to where his focus is. And once he slips out of his group mood—eg., he moves his head and shoulders ahead of you, or he just starts to lose focus on you—make a kissing sound. With some dogs you may have to do it a few times before they respond. Don’t worry about it, just keeping doing it. When the dog does respond, immediately pop the treat into his mouth, but only while he’s in the pocket.

You’re also going to have to train yourself to reach for the treat (or have it ready), do the kissing sound, and let the slack out of the leash all at the same time. It takes a little time to learn this but it’s important to always keep a slack leash as much as possible.

If you’re too late with your timing, and the dog veers across your path in front of you, or off to your right, that’s okay. Just make the kissing sound, then make an easy, gentle about right turn, maneuvering your body so that the dog ends up back on your left again. Keep making the kissing sound and showing him the treat until he’s walking next to you in the pocket, then give him the treat. He should only be treated while he’s either already in or moving into the pocket.

You’ll now be walking in the opposite direction, so if you want to continue going the same direction you were originally headed, just continue making the about right turn until you’re headed back in the previous direction.

If the dog decides he wants to veer to the right behind your legs, do an about left turn so he’s once again on your left. Make the kissing sound, lure him into the pocket with the treat, keep circling to the left until you’re going the original direction. This maneuver is usually a bit more difficult to get the hang on. But once you realize that that’s the case, you can take a little extra time and thought to teach yourself how to do it.

As you make these gentle “corrections,” followed by a treat while the dog is either in or moving into the pocket, you’ll find that he’ll start to almost prefer to walk next to you. He may even start looking for a treat without hearing the kissing sound first. When he does he should immediately get a treat then as well. (Yeah, you’re going to use a lot of treats, but remember, until the dog is trained to walk next to you, every walk is going to be a training walk.)

Time Frame:
Keep the sessions short (about 3 mins., followed by a play break, then 3 more mins., followed by another break, then 3 more, and you’re done). Don’t worry that you won’t be making progress quickly enough. The slower you go initially, the faster you’ll get there in the end. Just trust that when you do this properly, without stressing the dog, she’ll begin to automatically gravitate to a spot next to you on her walks.

Each session should end with a rousing game of tug or fetch. Remember, the dog thinks she
’s on a hunting expedition. Walking next to you feels unnatural to her, so her hunting instincts need to get some sort of payoff at the back end.

Also, be on the lookout for any signs that the dog is bored, anxious, stressed, or losing interest. If so you can either take a break for some nice, easy massage. Or if the dog seems really stressed
—panting, unable to focus on youtry stroking her very firmly down the topline, from the base of the skull to the tail, as if youre pushing excess nervous energy out of the spinal column, releasing it through her tail (but don’t massage her tail). Do this three or four times and the dog will usually either yawn or shake herself. You could also do some gentle massaging of her shoulders and haunches.

After three or four days you should see some definite progress. But remember: this needs to be done as a training session, not part of a trip to the bank or the copy store, etc.

After three or four days you can add some variations. One is what I call the “kiss-n-tug” where you give a tiny, almost imperceptible tug on the collar, followed by the kissing sound, which is then followed by a treat. You can also do a “kiss-n-walk” where the kissing sound is followed by the words, “Let's walk!” Then you can start doing both of these exercises together. Pretty soon the tiny tug on the collar is a signal to the dog that walking next to you, and focusing on you, is a pleasant experience. (This is not a real, obedience-level “heel” by the way; it’s just one way of keeping the dog walking next to you, in the pocket.)

I also talk to and praise the dog continuously while walking (at least in the beginning). Remember that the dog’s agenda is different from yours. He wants to move ahead, toward some release of his prey drive. Praise will bring him back into a group mood and make him feel that his hunting needs will be satisfied soon enough (by playing fetch and tug when the session is over).

And if the dog stops to sniff something, I let him. If he keeps sniffing and I want to keep moving, I’ll say, “Oooh! Is that a good smell? Oh, you like that smell! What a good doggie! You’re such a good smeller!” Then I change my tone slightly, and say, “Okay...” and he’ll immediately start walking with me again.

If the dog can’t pay attention at all on your walks, you need another exercise: “Walking on the Leash, 102,” which will be posted here soon.

Happy leash training!

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Anonymous said...

Your leash training blog post is very informative. Thanks for sharing! What can you say about the issue of $1 Million shelter makeover?

JB said...

Could you please explain what is so detrimental about a Gentle Leader? In another blog you mentioned that you've written about it often, but I've been looking and haven't found where.

I've been working with an anxious reactive dog. His owner had a Gentle Leader for him. He is different with it on, like he knows he has to 'mind'. I've stopped using it since I read your advice not to, but I'd like to understand why the dog acts so different with it on.


LCK said...

The Halti or Gentle Leader, or any head halter, works by relentlessly punishing a dog for pulling. Every time the dog pulls, his head gets yanked to the side.

Dogs hate that. Dogs are predators by nature, and since they're engineered to sniff the ground, scan the horizon, and keep moving toward "possible prey," the GL interferes with an essential aspect of their natural way of doing things.

Granted, we don't want them pulling on the leash, but the "evil" genius behind the GL is that the device does the punishment so the owner or +R trainer doesn't have to. It's a clever way of keeping up the pretense of being "all positive" because the halter is doing your dirty work for you.

I'm sorry you haven't found any of my posts about the Gentle Leader online. Not all my posts are cataloged in the columns on the left. Plus, some of my older posts are only available on my blog (which I no longer use).

I hope this helps,

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Anonymous said...

I have a lab mix puppy (Shuna). Born wild, trapped by a rescue organization at about 10wks old, she was adopted twice and returned as 'non responsive'. I got her around 18 weeks and she's now almost 7 months. At first terrified of people she has settled down with us and we're working on her (extreme) fear of strangers. What has helped enormously is the fact that my sister & her husband are currently staying with me and they have a siberian husky (Juno -1 year old). Juno loves everyone and fears nothing. Shuna has come a long way and is taking training well. The two dogs romp and play together but we’re still working on Shuna playing with toys etc. She’s not food motivated and not sure what toys are for so finding incentives is difficult. BIG PROBLEM - she won't go for a walk unless Juno is there. If we go on our own, by the time I get her to the end of the driveway she's pulling backwards with all her might, sits, lies down and will only go in one direction - home. So far, we all walk together. However, if Juno and her walker get too far ahead of or behind us, Shuna 'freaks out' goes into panic mode and I'm afraid she'll hurt herself with the amount of choking and gagging that goes on until we catch up with Juno again. My sister won't be here forever and I don't want to lose any progress I've made with Shuna when Juno leaves. It would be so nice to be able to take her for walks on our own but I don't want to force her (I’m not sure if I could, she’s very strong) as it would stress her too much (it's very easily done!) We're working on 'pushing' and leash training but nothing is having any effect on her dependence on Juno. Do you have any suggestions?

LCK said...

Keep pushing.

Also, spend time just "being" with her, without putting any constraints on her behavior. Get down on her level. One of the reasons she's so attached to Juno is that Juno is a dog, and dogs are usually less stressful to be around than people (because we're vertical and we have all kinds of rules that we impose on their behavior).

When you do the pushing exercise, at some point start to introduce the technique of moving away from her. That will induce a natural desire to move with you that will eventually help with the walking on the leash.

You're right about not forcing her. It's sort of like training a young horse. You have to give the dog her head initially, let her sniff the ground, let her go where SHE wants to go, and trust that her instincts and emotions will eventually get her moving.

I hope this helps a little,


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much

It's nice to know I'm not making things worse and I've now got some steps towards making things better.

Since we've been doing the pushing excercises I've noticed she is definitely attaching herself to me more (little by little), and last night, for the first time, Shuna rolled on her back for a belly rub. She's never rolled on her back since she came to us and I'm hoping this shows she is becoming more confident and having a little more trust in us which will hopefully make all the difference.

Your blog is great!

Thanks again


Sarah said...

I also have a question about the gentle leader. I took my rescue puppy to a dog obedience class and they made us get gentle leaders for class. I know you mentioned that it does the punishing for you but how does it punish? Is it pinching them or hurting them?

LCK said...

Head halters force a dog's head to one side or the other every time they move ahead of you.

Dogs are predators at heart. Predators are designed to move forward through space, looking for prey. They like to be able to control their head movements.

Horses are prey animals. They're also designed to move forward, looking for grazing pastures, etc. But, they're also designed to want to be able to see what's coming from behind them.

So halters feel natural to a horse, but very unnatural to a dog.

So the halti isn't painful physically, but it's designed to relentlessly punish a dog every time he pulls ahead of you. Not positive, not nice.

I recommend trying the Freedom, No-Pull Harness.


Sarah said...

Thank you for the explanation. The trainers we had also mentioned that it was just like a halter for a horse and I bought that - but your explanation makes sense... that it doesn't feel natural to a dog like it does for a horse. Thanks for the recommendation - we lost our gentle leader anyway so we will try the harness next time.