No Pressure!

By Valerie Barry

In Partnership With Dogs

Part of the technique of positive reinforcement training is giving your dog opportunities to offer behaviours so that you can provide instructive feedback.  In order to encourage your dog to offer behaviours, he needs to be confident that your feedback won’t be punishing or painful. Adding punishment to stop a behaviour has the effect of either causing your dog to try the same behaviour “harder” (behaviour becomes worse), or causing your dog to feel worried about the situation or the punisher which will discourage him from wanting to offer behaviours for feedback.

A collar commonly adds punishment – something you might find surprising if you simply walk your dog on a flat collar without any intention of being “punishing”. As soon as there is any tension on your dog’s neck from a collar – whether he adds the tension by pulling or you add the tension by yanking or pulling back – you have a situation that is not conducive to learning.  Tension on a dog’s neck is very uncomfortable and can be physically damaging because the juncture of neck and spine is a relatively fragile part of your dog.  The pressure on your dog’s neck caused by any type of collar (fabric or chain) begins to cut off his air supply immediately causing your dog to start feeling anxious and worried.  The worst thing you can do is start using your dog’s collar as a “correction” device by yanking on it in an effort to stop something like pulling or reacting to another dog.  Worse still, is if you are using a prong, pinch or choke collar or applying a jolt from a shock collar.

dante-harnessWhen you are simply “correcting” your dog vs. teaching your dog how to walk nicely on leash, you are on a path that is far less comfortable for your dog and ultimately less effective.  My years of experience have clearly shown that this path will very likely lead to an anxious dog who begins reacting on leash or whose reactions will get much worse.  Often, these dogs don’t ever learn how to walk nicely on leash.

The best training method is one that teaches instead of punishes.  The best piece of equipment to use when you’re walking your dog is a comfortable, well-fitted body harness instead of a collar or face harness.  A favorite is the Canine Friendly Vest Harness – pictured here.

When I’m helping dogs learn to walk on leash, an important consequence to pulling is an immediate lack of forward movement – I stop walking.  This is a relevant and instructive consequence because your dog’s behaviour – pulling – is motivated by a desire to keep moving.  Briefly stopping until I get a different behaviour is instructive feedback – “when you pull, we stop moving – try something else”.

I use a body harness so that when I stop moving, momentum briefly causes my dog to lean into the “sling” of the harness with his chest and shoulders.  Because there is no discomfort involved, there is no build up of anxiety and my dog begins to think through why he is no longer moving forward or why his forward movement keeps getting interrupted.  If you’re consistent, very quickly your dog begins to offer alternatives to pulling – backing up, turning and looking at you, sitting, etc.  He soon realizes pulling just doesn’t get him what he wants.  There’s no pain and lots of gain!