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Cooperation vs. Coercion: Whose Walk Is It, Anyway? Part II

Not long ago, I wrote an article for the dogster blog entitled Whose Walk Is It, Anyway? This was the most popular entry so far...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Oct 6th 2010


Not long ago, I wrote an article for the dogster blog entitled Whose Walk Is It, Anyway?

This was the most popular entry so far on the Behavior & Training blog here at dogster, and drummed up a lot of conversation, both here on dogster and elsewhere online. Many people were excited about the entry, others were shocked and dismayed. I think that perhaps there were a number of misunderstandings related to the entry, so I thought I’d revisit the topic and clarify on a few issues that may have been murky at best, misleading at worst.

The basic point of the entry is that walks should be fun for the dog and the owner. I did not intend to imply that dogs should be allowed to run slipshod over their owners, pulling them all over the neighborhood – doing so is not safe for the person or enjoyable for the dog. Dogs should be trained to walk politely on leash, particularly when teaching them to do so is relatively easy.

It’s also important to remember that dogs are always learning. Dogs pull on the leash for a number of reasons, one of the most common being that it works! Dogs probably think that humans like walking when the leash is tight, simply because we do it all the time.

Walks don’t need to be militant obedience drills. I know that some trainers advocate requiring your dog to walk in heel for the entire walk, but to me, a heel is a specific behavior useful in certain instances – competition, a crowded city sidewalk, walking past something that may be dangerous to your dog (cooked chicken bones lying on the ground, for instance), or in a crowded vet’s office. For the most part, the rule for my dogs on a walk is, “as long as the leash is loose, we’re good to go.” Sure, we may practice heeling for ten or twenty paces, rewarded with finding a stick to tug or fetch with for a second, but I would never dream of requiring Mokie to maintain a heel position for three and a half miles while we’re out on the walk, without sniffing a single bush or fire hydrant, or consuming a delicate blade of fresh grass (a potent life reward for Mokie is selecting and consuming the perfect blade of grass).

So while I do believe that a walk should provide a dog with plenty of opportunities to do things that dogs like, I don’t believe that access to these resources should be earned through unacceptable behaviors. My dogs have learned that tight leashes make the walk stop and that loose leashes are the key to a) continue walking and b) earn access to fun doggy things like sniffing, chasing squirrels, or even running on the leash. I’ve even used the opportunity to pull on the leash to reinforce loose leash walking! In fact, I’m putting “pulling on the leash” on cue with Cuba now, as it’s a behavior which will come in handy when we eventually begin training for carting together. It will be important for me to establish stimulus control for this behavior so that Cuba learns pulling on leash when given the cue earns reinforcement and pulling on leash without the cue predicts the removal of reinforcement (the walk stops).

The primary point of the article was that dogs get punished too frequently for simply wanting to do things that are natural for dogs to like or because they have not been trained appropriately. Although I do not recommend or employ the use of positive punishment or leash corrections in the name of dog training, I especially dislike corrections when they don’t produce any improvement in behavior. I have lived in my neighborhood for about five years now, and many of the dogs I see getting walked in the neighborhood have been on the same prong collar, getting the same number of leash pops that they were five years ago, if not more frequently and more intensely (because now the owners are frustrated that it’s not working, taking it personally, and then taking it out on the dog). What this tells me is that the leash pops aren’t teaching the dog anything – there is no improvement in behavior.

In the training community, there is a saying that “a dog that follows a lure is a dog.” This means that the dog is not necessarily trained, he just knows to follow food. If you were training for five years and still using a lure, the dog has trained you! Similarly, a dog that needs to be jerked around on the leash after five years is not trained. Training tools should be just that – tools used to teach, rather than maintain, good behavior.

I think it’s inherently unfair to continually punish a dog for being untrained if you have not taken the effort to train him to do the right thing through reinforcement. Dogs don’t train themselves – when we punish them for being untrained, we are punishing them for our own mistakes. Few people punish a 3 month old human infant for messing in his diaper. Why? Because he’s obviously not yet potty trained!

Once your dog learns appropriate loose leash walking behavior, walks become much more fun for you and your dog. Everything the dog wants is a potential reward for good behavior. The walk feels less like an obedience drill and is more of an organic exchange of communication between the dog and the handler. All of the distractions in the environment then become potential life rewards for your dog, working for, rather than against you in your quest for good behavior.

I still do use the equipment cue if it is a “training walk.” Training walks are more intense for the dog, so are generally of shorter duration than a less formal walk, particularly when working with a new puppy. I’m working now on teaching Cuba to gait for conformation, and when we go outside to work on that behavior, he wears his martingale style show collar. This means that only gaiting will be reinforced. A less formal walk, where the only criteria is that the leash stays loose is cued by his EasyWalk harness.

All I’m saying is, there has to be some balance. If the dog never is able to earn access to the things he wants, he’ll find ways to steal access, usually through bad behavior. You can’t train a dog to not be a dog, to not want to shove his face into the den of a woodchuck and get a good sniff. The options here are: he earns access to this prized activity through good behavior or tries to find a way to obtain it otherwise, generally through pulling on the leash and disengaging with the handler. You, as the handler, are either an obstacle to overcome or a gateway to provide access, contingent upon desirable behavior.

Are you an obstacle, or are you a gateway?