Leash Manners Need a Dog's Perspective
This article was written for Bay Woof, and published in their September 2017 issue.
It’s frustrating to feel a lack of control with your dog, but take comfort in knowing that leash pulling, as well as other unwanted on-leash behaviors, can be managed proactively without force. You never need to use prong collars, choke chains, or outdated techniques like leash popping (jerking the leash abruptly). There are modern, force-free methods for minimizing leash pulling and leash reactivity. A leash is not a communication device; it’s a safety device.
For successful dog training, owners need to understand things from a dog’s perspective. Plodding along in a straight line is not their natural behavior. And the less natural the behavior, the more practice and consistency needed to make the behavior a well-conditioned habit. Positive reinforcement training asks the dog to choose to offer the desired behavior so we can reward that choice (with treats, usually).
Being on a leash is unnatural for dogs; it’s restricting, which activates their fight or flight responses. Fleeing is not an option when on leash, so dogs must find alternatives to deal with that stress. The most common response is leash reactivity. Reactive dogs have learned that barking, growling, or lunging usually makes people and dogs go away, so they utilize this to keep potential danger at bay. When a dog is reactive on leash, he feels insecure, is fearful of potential danger, and/or feels restricted from being able to flee. An extension of this is leash aggression, in which a dog may become not just reactive but also aggressive toward people and other dogs, trying to forcibly make them to go away. In this state, a dog is overthreshold and unable to respond to commands and difficult to control.
Start With the Right Tool
Dogs naturally, instinctively, and involuntarily resist pressure or restraint. When the leash tightens and the collar presses against your dog’s neck, her natural instinct is to pull. This is called opposition reflex, and it’s why prong collars and choke chains don’t work—they cause pain but do nothing to deter the pulling reflex. Instead of struggling against a natural reflex, work with it. I recommend front-clip harnesses, specifically the SENSE-ation harness by Softouch Concepts. Front-clip harnesses work because they do not engage the opposition reflex.
Identify Causes and Triggers
In cooperation with the right harness, the best method for alleviating leash pulling is prevention. Prevention requires observation: What causes the pulling or reactivity and what is its context? Being observant of your dog’s reactions and understanding triggers are the best management tools. The most likely causes of leash pulling and leash reactivity are excitement, greeting frustration, and fear or anxiety, which are manageable, with consistency and patience. Instead of being reactive like the dog, the handler should be proactive.
Always Keep Your Cool
Emotions run down leash. Your dog will sense your frustration, anxiety, or fear when you anticipate leash pulling or reactivity. Breathe, and maintain patience and calmness. Your dog is just being a dog. When emotional, you will have less ability to control your reactions, and you won’t be able to proactively manage your dog. Think of walking your dog as a mindfulness exercise—breathe, maintain calm, and stay present.
The Name Game
When you become attuned to the reactive stimuli (such as squirrels, skateboards, strollers, and other distractions), you can proactively manage these triggers by asking your dog to “check in” with you as soon as you see one coming. Practice this exercise during on-leash walks: Call your dog’s name. If the dog turns his head and looks at you, reward by saying “yes!” (or whatever verbal marker you use) and giving a treat. Play the name game anywhere, anytime, on walks. Say your dog’s name to check in when you see distractions and triggers coming, directing the dog’s focus to you before he notices the distractions. Don’t teach your dog to ignore you by saying her name over and over. Limit it to twice, and if the dog hasn’t checked in then, show him the treat, draw his face to yours, and reward him.
When Triggers Happen Suddenly
A kid on a skateboard turns a corner and zooms by you and startles your dog. Quick, what do you do? Try the name game or simply dispense treats until the scary thing passes. If your dog is too overthreshold, lead him away from the scary thing. Calmly walk him somewhere else—behind a car, around a corner, behind a fence, etc.—to break his gaze with the trigger.
If your dog lunges and barks at the end of his leash, what then? Practice counter-conditioning techniques. Dispense treats while the scary thing is passing by, and as soon as it’s gone, stop. This teaches your dog that the (formerly) scary thing equals good stuff (treats). When the trigger goes away, the treats go away, so only in the presence of the scary thing do the treats come out. If, however, you can’t get your dog’s attention because he or she is overthreshold, stay calm and wait for the stimulus to pass. You will be able to get your dog’s attention in time. When he is willing to take treats, offer one to help him recover from the scary trigger.
Advocating for Your Dog
Once you’ve had some on-leash issues success, what about other dog owners? Like when you’re on a walk and someone lets his dog head right toward yours, excitedly exclaiming, “He’s friendly!” There is no obligation to let dogs greet. Advocating for your dog’s comfort and safety is more important. If it means exaggerating to make your point to strangers, so be it. You could respond with, “My dog isn’t friendly on-leash,” or simply and more bluntly, “Mine’s not friendly,” and hope they’ll get the message. Be proactive and practice avoidance: When you see people or other dogs, cross the street, position your dog and yourself behind a car or in a doorway, turn a corner, or otherwise avoid the oncoming person or dog. Avoidance is better than the potential alternative of a greeting gone awry.
If an unleashed dog becomes stressed, he can walk away, giving himself space and reducing social pressure. When on leash, however, this freedom is restricted, causing social discomfort, and while in this state of discomfort, an on-leash greeting can trigger reactivity out of fear.
On-leash greetings are not great for social and playful dogs, because they can condition overexcitement. Allowing a dog to greet all he sees may be saying yes, he can get excited every time he sees a dog or person. His excitement is then expressed through pulling, barking, or otherwise, making control difficult. Avoiding on-leash greetings is the best proactive management tool—and a smart precaution—because we usually don’t know anything about the people and dogs we encounter. Even if your dog is social, you can’t know if the other dog or person has good dog social skills or whether the owner is properly attuned to his dog. If a social dog greets another dog in a way that it doesn’t like, an on-leash greeting can quickly turn into a warning bark, nip, or worse. And that interaction could cause an otherwise social dog to become fearful. If you’re feeling certain an on-leash greeting is OK, keep it brief: Count to three and then move along.
Consistency Is Key
In dog training, consistency is always key. All of the work you put into managing your dog’s behaviors will be of no use if you aren’t consistent. Just one instance of letting your training slide will leave an imprint. Remember, every time you work on training, you are also working on building and maintaining trust with your dog. When you proactively scan for possible triggers, you are advocating for your dog. When you do owner-focused exercises like the name game, you are reminding your dog, “Hey, I got this,” and that she can trust you to advocate for her. When your dog can rely on you to react consistently and use commands consistently, you are establishing trust.
To achieve polite, loose-leash walking, your reactions need to be consistent. If you let your dog pull you, you’re building a little more staying power into your dog’s pulling behavior. Consistency is also important when it comes to everyone who cares for your dog. Stand firm in your commitment to force-free training, because it works. Remind everyone in the dog’s life that using consistent commands and training techniques are forms of caring for your dog, and they can help by being part of the training you’re working on.
It’s not always easy to remember training tips when you’re stressed. A neutral third party can help keep human and dog on track, so don’t hesitate to consult a professional dog trainer for leash-related and any other behaviors.