Alright ladies and gentlemen! Let’s dig right in… you sent us your behavior and training questions, and we are going to get started on answering them.
The first thing I noticed about your questions, is that everyone was asking me how to get their dogs to stop doing this, or quit doing that. When analyzing a dog’s behavior, their are two important approaches:
1) Always look to yourself first. You are the ‘leader,’ and therefore if there is a misunderstanding, you should absolve the responsibility. Dogs are practical creatures, and so they repeat what works. They do not choose to be stubborn or vindictive… because those things don’t serve them! If they are not repeating the behavior you seek, it is either because you have not clearly communicated what you desire, or your reward is not enticing enough!
2) Focus on reinforcing the behavior that you do want, as opposed to discouraging what you don’t. Everyone asked us, “How do I get my dog to stop doing ____?” The only way to discourage a behavior you don’t want, aside from being forceful (which, remember, we will never advocate!) is to ignore it. While ignoring the behavior and thereby removing attention can be an effective technique, it is not as instantaneous and does require repetition. If we instead focus on reinforcing the behavior that we do want, it becomes increasingly clear to the dog what behavior earns them the reward that they desire. Remember, dogs are practical creatures… they will repeat what works!
Pulling on the Leash
A few of you shared with us that you have problems with leash-walking your dogs without lots of pulling. Let me first admit; we too, struggle with this! For us, the biggest issue is lack of practice. We are lucky enough to live on a large piece of property, which means that we have the space and safety to be able to do lots of off-leash walking. This has made us a bit lazy when it comes to practicing our leashed manners. However, by following the protocol below, we are able to do a quick refresher course anytime we head out where leashes are required, and then enjoy our time, free from strained shoulders and stressed joints.
If your dog does a lot of pulling, your first instinct is probably to ask, “How do I get my dog to stop pulling on-leash?” If you refer to the points above, you know you should re-phrase that question as, “How do I get my dog to walk calmly by my side?” In my experience, a combination of techniques works best.
Dressing the Part: Proper Equipment
First, I would start out with the proper equipment. For our stronger pullers (ahem, Gaige and Georgia), this means Freedom No-Pull Harnesses, made by Wiggles, Wags, and Whiskers (a division of 2 Hounds Designs). These harnesses offer the ability to put pressure on the dog’s chest when they pull forward, and reward them by releasing the pressure when they stop pulling. What sets the FNP apart, is that it boasts dual-point leash tethering, with loops positioned both between the shoulder blades and also on the chest. This allows you to have mild, medium, or strong control over your dog, as well as the versatility of a leash that is 6 feet in length, or quickly changed to only 3 feet. Furthermore, it gives you more control in social situations. Perhaps most importantly, it is designed to control your dog, while refraining from putting any additional pressure on their throat, back or joints.
Release Some Energy
Once you are satisfied with your walking equipment, you can focus on the training. Start out with a dog who has been sufficiently exercised. Either allow your dog some off-leash time to release some energy, or give them the opportunity to work on a brain puzzle (see previous enrichment post, here, for inspiration) before you head out on your walk. If you are trying to re-train your dog to walk calmly on-leash, you want to make sure that they have been properly exercised so that you are not working against their pent-up energy. Moreover, if your dog is especially reactive outdoors, be it to people, other dogs, or squirrels, first begin in a less-arousing environment, such as the backyard, or even your own house.
Begin by heading down the driveway (or sidewalk, or where ever you usually walk). As soon as your dog begins to pull, turn them in the opposite direction, back towards where you started (the house, the car, whatever). Call their name (animatedly) when you do this. “Fido, come!” This is as much an exercise with recall as it is leash-walking! Most likely, he will be confused, and wonder why he isn’t able to continue his walk. When he comes to your side, give him a treat, and keep walking toward the starting point. Once he has stopped pulling, turn back so that you both are again headed in the direction of the ‘adventure’. Basically, consider that continuing on the walk is the dog’s “reward,” so they should only be allowed to continue on the adventure if they are walking appropriately. For a little while, you may feel like you are constantly turning in circles, but this should not last for more than a few minutes.
Reward, Reward, Reward!
Simultaneously, keep lots of treats on hand. This is the most important part! Whenever your dog is walking appropriately beside you, reward them with the treats, given right at your side. Make sure to also praise them with your voice! This should be a fun experience, so that it doesn’t seem like pulling = freedom and smells and adventure, and being beside you = boring and being yelled at.
Once your dog’s pulling starts to lessen, but is not quite eliminated (you can see the light bulb flickering!) use a ‘sit’ or ‘down’ instead of turning around (or even just a stop by your side, if those skills aren’t yet in your pup’s repertoire). At this point, think of the sit as a reminder for mild forward pressure on the leash, and the turn around as a correction for outright pulling. Would you ground your child for forgetting to clean their room the first time you asked? No, you would first remind them, and then punish them if they continued to ignore the requests. Training your dog works the same way! The punishment should suit the crime, and should be given in increments of severity. We are taking baby steps to get to the point where you will be able to simply say your dog’s name to remind them to come back to your side.
Let your dog be a dog!
While different people have different opinions about this, I believe that you should also give your dog times when they are not required to walk right by your side. You can use whatever cue works for you (“okay” or “release” etc) but it is nice to allow them some structured time to sniff around a bit while walking. Remember that your walks need to be safe and controlled, but walking should also be enjoyable and enriching for your pup. It is important, however, that this time be on your terms, and not your dog’s! This will allow your dog to learn that they will be rewarded for their good behavior by being given some time to cut loose and just be a dog!
In my opinion, a dog that is a leash puller will, to some extent, always harbor that vice. This is especially true in our case, where are dogs do not go on leash every day (or even every week!) so they are not practicing it as often. You may find that your dog will need to be refreshed and reminded of the walking expectations from time to time.
I hope these tips help some of you! Please understand that we can only go so far in giving training advice remotely. So much of dog training (remember from yesterday’s post!) is individualized. The greatest tool you can using when training your dog is your dog’s own communication signals such as body language. Without being right there to see exactly what issues you are facing, there is only so much we can do, but I hope that this at least gives you somewhere to start. I’d love to hear from you if you have some suggestions that I’ve missed, or if you’ve tried these tips successfully!