Buster – The Leash, Friend or Foe?

Learning his ABC’s

Q. Why do dogs pull on the leash? 

a) Because they don’t like feeling restrained?

b) Because they think they know where they are going?

c) Because they think that if they pull you they will get there faster?

d) Because they have learned that when they pull your arm is like elastic?

e) Because when they pull they get closer to where the interesting smells are?

f) So they get to where they want to be?

All of the above!

Leash, Friend or Foe?

Jaz the German Shepherd, proudly leash walking in a great “heel” position with her owner.

The leash is your friend.

It should feel like an umbilical cord hanging in the breeze connecting you and your loved one. You can communicate through the leash in ways that will amaze you.

Most people communicate through the leash as if they are dancing in the dark. They are doing the waltz and their dog is doing the mosh-pit special! Someone is going to get their toes trodden on. They have no idea. Train the dog so both he and you are dancing the same dance, it feels awesome!

Your goal.

The goal is to train your dog so that the leash is superfluous. The law says that you should leash your dog so that is nearly always a good idea. If you are using the leash for restraint, guidance or worst of all physical punishment then you failed to do the training necessary for success. Using the leash can be the cue for your dog to understand that calm, serene and attentive behavior is now expected.

Q. Why do dogs pull on the leash? 

A. Because they don’t like feeling restrained?

With most animals there is something called an opposition reflex, when you push them they push back, when you pull them back they brace and restrain and if they can they will pull forward.

How to train a dog to pull on a leash

That is how you teach a dog to pull on leash, put them in a harness and restrain them gently, you can observe the balance change, leaning forward slightly as their muscles tension. Gradually at first you will feel them pulling forwards, restrain them a little harder and they will pull a little harder. If you repeat this the dog will brace into a pulling posture and over a short period you can see that he will become stronger. Almost like the world strong man competitions where they are pulling trucks. When my Yellow Labrador, Teddy, (also known as Boss Dog) was younger he was a very powerful dog and could pull a Range Rover when he was in harness.

Leash Aggression

The other challenge, a not insignificant point, is that when the dog tensions into the leash or harness, that to another dog even hundreds of feet away, the posture they assume feels, on a primal level, predatorial and aggressive.

They are not seen to be calm and stable but have their weight forward of their balance point. Even subtle movements, fractions of an inch, are very apparent to dogs who are experts at reading body language and predicting what is going to happen next.

This is a survival mechanism honed over thousands of years, sometimes you are the predator, sometimes the prey. This sets up tension between the two dogs which escalates into postures and voice reactions and leads to “leash aggression” descriptions by the owners.

Owners frequently report that the dog is charming in an off leash scenario with almost all dogs and yet when he is on leash he turns into the Tasmanian Devil. What if the factor is not the leash, it is the owners tension in restraining the dog and causing this reactivity? Maybe?

Walking on a slack leash

Curiously, Restraining their dog on a leash is the way most people try to train their dog to walk on a slack leash. Interspersed with jerks on the leash, barking at the dog “Heel, HEEl, BUSTER HEEEL!” and copious amounts of swearing. Then in frustration spending hundreds of dollars in the pet store buying anything and sometimes everything that promises “no pull”!

Doomed to failure?

Ya think?

Here is a clip of Buster on his first loose leash walking training session, the goal is for him to be able to do this in places of high distraction, reliably.

At the moment I set him up for success as much as I can so that I can find the correct behavior, add a verbal label when he is actually doing the correct behavior and reward him. You will hear a click at the end as he managed to do several strides consecutively, positioned well and attending to me on a slack leash. This click is to mark the correct behavior and is attached to a reward that will arrive shortly.

You will notice I am wearing a waist-leash, in fact I have one leash that fits exactly around my waist and his normal leash attached to that. Look for the action, it is a game, Buster loves games, I am the center of his attention for a lot of the time here. This is very early in his training but you can see he has potential to extend the duration of this behavior without once using the leash or collar for anything other than stopping him running off into the road or after a squirrel. (He is only five months old!)

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