A recent review of three years’ worth of client applications shows that 34 percent of my clients list polite leash manners as their number one training goal, and a startling 68 percent have listed it in their top three “must haves” for good dog behavior. Getting towed around the neighborhood by a poorly mannered dog can be frustrating and embarrassing (and sometimes, downright dangerous!) for pet owners. And I must imagine the dogs are feeling a bit frustrated too, what with all the gagging and choking. Many of my clients ask, “why does he pull so hard?” So, a couple of yaers ago, I shared with Dogster readers the top five reasons dogs pull on the leash.
Loose leash walking is such a common concern that many trainers (myself included) now offer specialized courses dealing specifically with this behavior. This article is not meant to replace the need for training, and pet owners are certainly advised to do their research and, whenever possible, hire the services of a qualified positive reinforcement trainer in the area for training assistance. This is really important, because virtually always, the humans also need training to learn new walking skills and avoid inadvertently reinforcing pulling behavior.
Let’s examine five things you can do to improve your dog’s leash manners starting today:
1. GET THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
While the right equipment can be critical in establishing new and improved leash manners, remember that training, not equipment, teaches dogs to walk politely on a loose leash. There are no magic tools or quick fixes for leash manners, particularly for dogs that have learned that pulling works well for months or years. You will need the following equipment:
- a standard (not retractable) six-foot leash – Leather is my personal favorite, as nylon can cut your hands if your dog is a very strong puller.
- a front-clip harness (my current favorite is the Freedom Harness) for most dogs – Contact a local trainer for fitting assistance and, if necessary, to teach your dog to like wearing her new collar.
- a head halter/harness (my current favorite is the K9 Comfort Trainer) – I don’t recommend these tools often, but they are often useful with dogs that are much stronger than their handlers or for dogs with leash reactivity issues. If you choose to use a head halter, find a trainer to assist you with proper fit, and dogs MUST be desensitized to wearing them before they are used in the context of a training session. Additionally, you will need training in handling the leash correctly to avoid causing injury to your dog.
- a treat bag with waist attachment
- a variety of high-value treats and/or toys
The following equipment may actually work against you and reinforce pulling or may contribute to secondary behavior problems, like leash reactivity, and is not generally recommended for dogs with poor leash manners:
- Retractable leashes
- Prong collars
- Choke chains
- Traditional harnesses (back-clip harnesses)
2. PRACTICE WHERE YOUR DOG HAS A REASONABLE CHANCE OF SUCCESS
For highly distracted dogs with strong reinforcement histories for pulling, the process of training loose leash walking may begin in the house, then be practiced in a back yard, then front yard, then a park at off-hours, and so on. As the training partner with the bigger and more complex brain, it is your task to choose a training environment where your dog has a reasonable chance of success and to introduce distractions gradually.
3. TIRE YOUR DOG OUT BEFORE YOUR WALK!
For dogs with lots and lots of energy, you may find that your training efforts are more successful if you tire your dog out first – running him off leash in a securely fenced area, playing fetch or tug, going swimming, or doing some scent games or nosework. Many dogs pull the hardest the first few blocks of a walk because they are blowing off accumulated energy – getting the “crazies” out before you begin your walk may help your leash walking training proceed more smoothly and quickly.
4. DON’T GIVE UP!
Generally, the longer your dog has been pulling on the leash successfully, the longer it will take to train appropriate leash behavior. It’s much easier to prevent a problem from occurring than it is to fix a bad habit once it’s been established (is it easier to not start smoking, or to quit once you’ve been smoking a pack a day for twenty years?). Your dog will require your patience, persistence, and consistent guidance to learn to be successful with this new skill. Every walk is a training walk – even once these new skills are taught, they will need to be maintained throughout your dog’s lifetime. Think of loose leash walking as a muscle – it takes time to build, and must be maintained: fitness, be it physical or behavioral, is a change in lifestyle, not just a change in your behavior for a training session, a week, or a month.
5. HAVE A BACK-UP EXERCISE PLAN
Because training polite leash manners takes time, it is useful to have alternative strategies for keeping your dog well-exercised. Swimming, hiking, or playing in safe, off-leash areas; participation in sports such as agility, dock diving, Frisbee, and nosework; or playing games such as tug, fetch, hide-and-seek, or carting are great additions to your dog’s exercise regimen to keep him mentally and behaviorally healthy while you work toward installing new leash manners and skills.
Next time, I’ll talk about some strategies to train your dog for better leash manners. Here is a sneak peek at some of the techniques we’ll be discussing, a training video I did with Cuba when he was a puppy. I can’t believe he was ever so small!
Until next time, happy training!