Rein In Your Dog Walks

Rein In Your Dog Walks

By Stacy Braslau-Schneck for Exceptional Canine

Rein In Your Dog Walks

When I picture a good walk with my dog, I imagine us both heading the same way, aware of one another -- but not staring at each other -- with our loose leash forming a lazy curve between us. We're paying enough attention to each other that we'd each notice if the other slowed down or got distracted, without having to do much signaling.

Getting Started
This ideal requires your dog to learn something very unnatural: how to walk at a human's excruciatingly slow pace, without leaning into the leash's tension. Until your dog has learned this tricky skill, I recommend a front-clip harness (where the leash attaches to a ring on the dog's chest, rather than a ring on the back). For dogs that think all harnesses are for sled dogs, I suggest a head halter. Neither of these tools will teach your dog not to pull, but they will certainly reduce pulling while your dog wears them, giving the handler an opportunity to reward the dog for calmer walking. A dog that pulls should not have the leash attached to a neck collar, as this could damage the trachea or thyroid glands.

A fixed-length leash will make it easier for you to train loose-leash walking because it's easier for your dog to tell when he's close enough for the pressure to be off (and it's easier to hold a fixed-leash handle while also holding a reward, like food treats or a toy).

Flexible-length leashes tend to be inconsistent -- sometimes your dog must be close to you and going your speed, but sometimes he can be farther off or moving faster. Being able to move faster might be very fun for your dog, but he can only do it when there's a little tension on the leash already. Teaching a dog to walk on a loose leash is beyond the scope of this blog.

The basic secret is to reward your dog generously for walking without pulling, and to immediately guide him back to position if he starts to pull. There are many methods to accomplish this, which will have to wait for another post.

Your Dog's Position
Personally, I like to have my dog in front of me, where I can most easily see what he's doing, what he's paying attention to and how he's reacting to things. A dog is going to get more mental stimulation (and therefore burn off more energy) if he's allowed to sniff and occasionally pee or mark. (I think of it as posting status updates or comments on others' activities.) But if a dog is fearful or aggressive, or if he has little impulse control, I prefer that he's near my side. The left side ("heel position") is traditional, but a dog should be comfortable on either side of her person.

Handling Encounters
With your dog in your view, you can pay attention to what he's focusing on. For most dogs, the easiest part you can watch while walking is their ears. You can tell when your dog is "locked in" on something by how her ears perk up and focus on one point. If you know that your dog has certain trouble triggers -- cats, squirrels or bikes she must chase, or strange dogs or men he must keep a distance from -- you can alternate between scanning for them yourself and watching for him to notice them.

If you can catch that "Look at that" moment when he first notices a trigger but has not yet started to react -- when the ears are locked in -- you can reward that moment of calmness. Then redirect your dog's attention -- either to you, or to moving past the trigger. If your dog has a serious issue with chasing prey animals or encountering other dogs, you should consult with an experienced trainer or behaviorist about the fine arts of varying thresholds, functional rewards, desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Even dogs that are both friendly and calm when they greet other dogs might find it awkward to do so when trapped on a leash, especially if the owners are keeping the leashes tight so that only head-on approaches are possible. Many dogs seem to only be able to handle such an awkward meeting for a few seconds before they explode into frustrated or frightened barking.

For this reason, many behaviorists suggest that you should avoid greeting other dogs when on-leash. Others simply urge owners to keep the greetings very brief before cheerfully moving on.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/podgorsek

Stacy Braslau-Schneck is a longtime dog trainer and a professional member of the Association of Dog Pet Trainers. She works closely with the Human Society Silicon Valley and is the owner of Stacy's Wag'N'Train, which offers small group classes and private lessons in San Jose, Calif. Stacy writes frequently for Exceptional Canine.