Partnership on A Leash, By Valerie Barry

IMG_2583There’s nothing I enjoy more than taking a walk with my dog. I have one dog, Salem, who has been with us a long time. We have learned a lot together over the years and she is just easy to be with and I believe we have developed a wonderful partnership together.

What I really DON’T enjoy is watching someone just “walking the dog” – neither party enjoying it or each one tethered safely to the other but immersed in their own individual experiences. I see owners texting while their dogs drag them along; or dogs getting dragged along as distracted owners don’t notice their dog stopping for a sniff or a pee. Frequently I see problems escalate when owners fail to observe their dogs staring at an oncoming dog; or when the dreaded “flexi-lead” is out full length and dogs or people get wrapped around each other.

When I take a walk with Salem, aside from the pure pleasure of hanging out with my dog, there is also a tremendous amount of satisfaction that I feel knowing that we have developed this relationship with each other. I don’t know how she feels about it, but I feel like we are “working” in perfect harmony:

there is no tension on the leash;
when I slow or stop she does the same;
when I need to take a corner the lightest amount of pressure to the right or left is enough to direct her (often, she has already picked up on my intent);
when we need to pass someone she moves to the opposite side of me;
she either ignores dogs who don’t interest her or has a happy tail wag for others;
if she encounters a dog who gets into her space, she is very skilled at deflecting them and deflecting any unwanted advances and of course I’m there to help her out which I like to think she knows and counts on;
she has happy tail wags and the occasional Husky-like “woo woo” for people she knows and ignores those who don’t interest her.DSC_1370

The longer I work with and live with dogs, the more convinced I am that leash-walking skills are critically important. It goes beyond the need to have a dog that walks nicely on leash vs. the dog who hauls you at full speed down the street. Leash walking really illustrates the relationship you have with your dog and subsequently can either help develop a dog who is confident and easy to be with or who is insecure, reactive and difficult to manage.

The behaviour displayed during leashed walks is often the same type of behaviour I see in the home environment and also illustrates the “problems” that I am called in to help with. Early in my work with a client, in addition to whatever else we are working on, I highly recommend that they work on leash walking skills. Developing this partnership helps build confidence and bolster the relationship you have (or should desire to have) with your dog.

As I train my new dog, Quincy, I have made a promise to her – the same promise I made to Salem: I will teach her what I need her to know to live in our world successfully, and I will teach her in a way that is instructive. I will give her the comfort to know that she can make mistakes and I will help her learn. She can rely on me for support if she is uncertain, and I will give her feedback that is instructive not punitive. She needs to know that she doesn’t have to be afraid of me regardless of her behaviour. Barking and lunging at an oncoming dog is simply her feedback to me. I need to manage the situation so she doesn’t feel the need to react and I need to help her feel more comfortable around approaching dogs. I may use tools to help her during the training process but they will be tools that help us both and don’t use fear, pain or intimidation to work. It’s not about “control” or “dominance” its about teaching and learning.

Quincy’s past is not pleasant and very different than Salem’s, so “working in harmony” may take us a long time, but we will get there and the effort will help her behaviour in all aspect of her life with us. Learning to take direction from me on walks will help her learn to take direction from me in all circumstances and that it is safe to do so. Learning to watch and anticipate my movements keeps her thinking and she will become more aware of my body language as it relates to her. Learning that I am there to support her will help build her confidence around new and potentially scary things.

Leash Walking Goals
These are the goals that I strive to achieve when I teach leash walking to my dogs and to my clients:

1. No tension on the leash.
Quincy practicing a nice loose leash) I want dogs to work to avoid tension altogether – not simply to respond when they feel tension on their leash. This skill requires that your dog focuses some of his thinking energy on your movements and your body language at all times.

2. Stay where I put you.
If I put you on the left, stay there until we change sides – no dodging in front or behind me. I teach my dogs to walk on both sides of me even though I generally use the left out of habit. There are times when I may want my dog on either side and they need to be comfortable with that and stay on the side I put them on. I prefer to pass by pedestrian traffic with my dog on the other side of me so there is no opportunity for inappropriate greetings – from either my dog or passers by (human or dog). My dogs, therefore, learn to easily move from one side to the other at my direction.

3. No barking or lunging.
If my dogs are uncomfortable with other dogs or with people and feel the need to react, then it’s important that my first training efforts are made in that direction. I spend a lot of time working on helping them feel better about and more tolerant of people and dogs.

4. Stop when I stop (move as I move).
Again, I teach my dogs to learn to become more aware of my intent and my body language. I want to be able to stop and have my dogs notice and stop, too vs. having to brace myself for a sudden tug on the leash. Dogs are masters of body language and we telegraph a lot of it when we stop, change direction, speed up or slow down. This is not a difficult thing for them to learn to do.

5. Respond when I ask.
Quincy and Frankie practicing Respond to my name) I need to know I can get my dog’s attention when I need it. If I call her name, I would like her to turn her head and acknowledge that she heard me and is ready to listen. This is an especially important part of the leash walking skill because responding to her name, indicates to me that my dog is mentally still with me and working with me.

If you have a dog who is worried about other dogs and potentially reactive they are generally prone to staring at oncoming dogs. One dog staring at another is very rude and may be interpreted as a threatening gesture. Having your dog respond to her name by looking at you stops the stare and makes the whole interaction between two dogs much better even if they’re simply passing each other by

Two Exercises to Try.

1. It’s Not The Leash.
The leash is merely a tether and a safety device to keep your dog with you. It should not be the reason your dog pulls nor should it be used to deliver punishment like a strong yank. We should be teaching our dog to remain with us regardless of the length of leash between us. A simple, first exercise I do is this one:
Make sure you have some good treats, a clicker (or verbal marker ready), your leash close by and your dog in a confined area like your living room or fenced yard.
Let your dog know you’re about to get to work – “Ready?!” and pick up your leash. Do NOT attach the leash to your dog – simply carry it in your hand (hence the confined area).
Immediately begin clicking/marking and treating for your dog remaining with you while you stand still. Click and treat as fast as your dog can chew and eat her treats.
Next, while your dog is engaged in eating a treat, take a step away from her and pause. Click/mark and treat as soon as your dog makes a move to follow you.
Repeat this last step varying between 1 and 5 steps away and varying the speed at which you leave (from very slow to very fast).
Work up to you moving randomly around the area clicking and treating your dog for remaining with you the whole time.
If at any point your dog leaves you, simply remain in place until she returns.
After about 5 to 10 minutes, end the session – “All Done!” – and put down your leash.

Practice this a lot. Work toward the leash becoming a cue for your dog to remain with you – not because it tethers her to you but because it’s present. Because the leash is not attached, your dog is learning to move with you and stay with you without tension.PICT0048

2. Hello, I’d Like Your Attention.
Many people make the mistake of using their dog’s name as a Recall – come when I call your name. I think this is a bad habit as there are times when I don’t want my dog to come when I use her name. I prefer to use my dog’s name as a way to get her attention – maybe just for praise or affection or to give her some direction – Sit, Down, Come Here, etc. This exercise is very simple and reinforces or teaches your dog to give you her attention when she hears her name:

Have a pocket full of treats and your dog in a confined area like your living room or fenced yard. Let her know you’re about to begin work –“Ready?!”
Call your dog’s name and click/mark as soon as she turns her head toward you. Throw her treat away from you instead of handing it to her. This part is important, as you want your dog to get the reinforcement at a small distance away from you so she doesn’t think she needs to come to you to get it.
Move randomly about the area calling your dog’s name and Clicking for her attention – continuing to throw the treats at a distance.
Occasionally pause and call her name to see if she has gotten the idea that she doesn’t need to come to you when she hears her name – you’re looking for her to just turn her head and give you her attention.
Work for 5 to 10 minutes at a time then end the session – “All Done!”

Do you feel you and your dog have a good partnership? Try these exercises and see how you do! If you’re in our area, join us at our New, “Partnership On A Leash” series of classes in the spring. As always – keep it positive!