Maggie, all 35 exuberant pounds of her, has lousy leash manners. That is because 1) she is a dog and walking beside me, shoulder to shoulder, makes no sense to her. And 2) because I couldn’t resist working her on sheep when we have training time together. Not to mention teaching her to come when called EVERY TIME and stop when told EVERY TIME, which is critical to dogs who live in the country and are off leash most of their lives. Leash manners are not critical, but that doesn’t mean they are not important, because of course Maggie needs to be on leash when we go to town or the vet clinic. I’ve put leash manners in the “I’ll deal with that when the weather turns,” and given that it was 4 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, I think our time has come. We’ll still work sheep until the snow gets too thick or the ice too dangerous, but it’s definitely time for me to add leash manners to Maggie’s growing repertoire.
Here’s the thing about leash manners, people and dogs: Most owners don’t understand why it is so hard to teach dogs not to pull on a leash. Don’t we humans tend to walk at the same pace, shoulder to shoulder with our other friends? And aren’t dogs our “best friends?” But dogs aren’t primates, and they don’t come hard-wired to walk side-by-side like we do. In The Other End of the Leash I described walking politely beside a human from a dog’s perspective as “walking at the speed of death and ignoring everything interesting.” That’s why we need to teach leash manners as if it were a circus trick. Here’s how I do it; I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the issue. I’ll keep you posted on Maggie’s progress as the weeks go on.
STEP ONE: Begin by doing what you can to prevent pulling in the first place. That means using the right equipment. I like body harnesses that attach in the front (not the top of the dog’s back), like SENSE-ation Harness and Easy Walker. These types of harnesses, as well as head halters, give you more control over the dog and prevent them from pulling you along like a hay wagon attached to a set of draft horses. (I should note here that I only suggest head halters if the dog is especially large, exuberant or the person needs extra help controlling the dog. It is possible to injure your dog’s neck if you misuse head halters, so one needs to be cautious. But they do give you the most control and sometimes are the best option in early stages of training.) A great article comparing different ways to attach yourself to your dog is still on Sophia Yin’s website. Bless her and her memory.
STEP TWO: Decide how you are going to reinforce this great trick your dog is going to learn. (Remember, it IS a trick to your dog–surely it makes no sense to them otherwise.) Food is always my first choice for reinforcing leash manners, because food is highly motivating and easy to deliver in small bits. I’m starting Maggie out with dried beef bits, because she loves them and I can put a handful of them into my pocket without them turning into mush. However, once the behavior is established I’ll add in other reinforcements, like a release to go play with Willie or a release to go run up the hill and find the sheep. Nothing will motivate Maggie more than access to the sheep, but on the other hand, nothing will be a bigger distraction for her. Thus, I won’t ask her to walk by my side on the way to the sheep until she’s mastered the behavior in easier contexts, and then only expect a few steps before I release her to the sheep. Gradually I’ll ask for longer and longer periods in which she stays beside me while we walk up the hill to the sheep.
STEP THREE: As I’ve already noted, you need to be aware of how difficult it will be for your dog to concentrate on you. Think of it as a competition for your dog’s attention–you and the environment are competing and you need to know your competitor well. Always start when it will be easiest for the dog, and gradually work up to asking for walking by your side as the distractions increase. Last night I went outside with Maggie to begin working on leash manners, and quickly discovered she was too distracted to pay attention even to the fantastic food I had in my hand. So I moved into the garage (I also could have gone inside, I choose the garage because it was simpler, given that the other two dogs were in the house). Problem solved, now I could easily get her attention. If you haven’t done a lot of this in other training, it is useful to write down training context as a hierarchy. Easiest environments first, then moderately challenging, then hardest of all. After you finish your list, break down what you’ve written into smaller and smaller units. Success is all about teaching your dog to win, and you have to make it possible for her to do so.
Have you noticed that Steps 1-3 are all about planning? That we haven’t even started training a dog yet? Ah, but those steps are critical ones. Thinking through how you are going to train a new skill is as important as prepping a house before you put on the paint. It’s taken me years to beat it into my thick skull, but the time you take to think through how you are going to approach an exercise can save you massive amounts of time later. Of course, you have to modify as you go along. I thought that working in the driveway wouldn’t be that distracting for Maggie, but it was, so I immediately moved into the garage. But I only was able to do so because I had a hierarchy of distractions already in mind, and knew how critical is was to create a situation in which Maggie could win right off the bat.
STEP FOUR: Now you get to start the fun part! Get your treats, easily accessible to hand out one at a time, and begin working in the context you’ve determined is the one in which it is easiest to get your dog’s attention and where you dog is 100% off leash. You may or may not work with the leash attached, but don’t hold onto it, lest you be tempted to use it instead of letting your dog decide on her own to walk beside you. Start walking around in erratic circles, and give your dog a treat every time she is on your chosen side (left is traditional and that’s the side I use just because…). When I begin I don’t say a word, I just walk around in sloppy circles and give the dog a treat whenever she is beside me. Be VERY generous with treats. For reasons I don’t quite understand, most owners have to be encouraged to give their dog a treat every time it is in the right place. (If you are worried about your dog’s weight, use part of your dog’s dinner for training.) The idea here is to let your dog learn to initiate the behavior by herself. At this stage I may prompt the dog on rare occasion (I smooched to Maggie when she first started to leave the garage before she got her first treat), but in general I let the dog learn on its own that it is really FUN to be beside you. There’s a video in my website’s Reading Room that illustrates Step Four. See Go for a Peaceful Walk (and enjoy the sound of the crunchy leaves).) You can use a clicker when the dog is positioned where you want her, click yourself with your tongue (like I did on the video) or not say a word, just deliver a treat.
I’ve described this process in detail in the book The Puppy Primer. Even if your dog is older I recommend reviewing the steps described here. (I did!)
STEP FIVE: After several sessions of this, you are looking to have a dog who pays a lot of attention to you, and chooses to walk beside you much of the time in a quiet, non-distracting environment. I’m too impatient to never use any prompts–if a dog seems to be losing interest completely I might smooch or slap my leg a few times–but guard against using them very often. You don’t want the prompt to become a cue, such that the dog never learns to initiate what you want by him or herself. Once things feel like they are going smoothly, increase the level of distraction, but do so gradually. A common mistake is going from the equivalent of kindergarten to graduate school in one step. Look at the list of distractions that you wrote out from smallest to largest, and increase the level of distraction (thus, of difficulty for your dog) only one step at a time. For Maggie, tonight we’ll walk out of the garage into the driveway, but only about 10 feet max. If she does well then, the next session we’ll go another ten feet toward the barn. At this point I still won’t have the leash in my hand and I won’t use a cue yet either. I’ll wait to use a cue once I know that the behavior is well established at moderate levels of distraction. However, if I didn’t live in the country and my dog could only be outside on leash, I’d have the leash in my hand and do all I could to move around in any interesting way (NOT straight down a sidewalk in one direction, how boring!).
STEP SIX: If you are ready to bet $10 bucks that your dog will choose to walk beside you 80-85% of the time in a non-distracting environment, it’s time to put the behavior on cue. I distinguish between a perfect “heel” and polite leash manners, so I’ll use a cue like “By Me” or “Left.” To put it on cue, get your dog’s attention, say your cue and move forward one step. If your dog moves along side, give her a treat instantly. Dr. Susan Friedman has a good article on Shaping a Behavior that includes good information about when to add a cue; check it out. Continue walking in an interesting way, and reinforcing your dog every time she is in the right position. Every time you move forward after stopping, say your cue and be ready to reinforce her with a treat if she walks beside you instead of in front of you. Pay attention to the context in which she succeeds and those in which you struggle, and continue to work toward helping her win. Remember that your job is to compete with the environment: It is always interesting and worth your dog’s attention. Are you? Remember too that people don’t have to be trained to walk side by side with you. Even if they aren’t paying attention to what you are saying (!), they automatically walk beside you because it’s what we primates do. No so with dogs; it is hard work for them to walk beside us and anticipate every move while ignoring everything else. I won’t expect Maggie to have great leash manners for many months. She is young and exuberant and doesn’t yet have the emotional maturity to be able to stifle herself for long periods of time in a stimulating environment. But she is also killer smart and fun to train, so I expect her to make great progress.
STEP SEVEN: And Step Eight and Step Nine and … This is the tricky part to write about, because it varies so much depending on the dog and the environment. This is also the stage at which people most often need help, so don’t hesitate to get a coach if you can. At least have a friend observe you–it is hard to know what you are doing while you’re doing it (if that makes any sense!) These next steps are all about gradually increasing the difficulty of the exercise while not going so fast that your dog simply is unable to succeed. For example, I’ll use a body harness for Maggie next time we go to the vet clinic, no matter how far we’ve progressed in her training. That’s one of the contexts that will be especially hard for her, so I’ll avoid a set back by using equipment to keep her from pulling on the leash. Basically, you want to gradually increase the difficulty of the exercise. As you do, remember to increase the frequency of the treats. Say your dog has been doing really well in the back yard, and you give her a treat every 12 or 15 steps. You should increase that to a treat every 2-4 steps for the first session in the front yard, at least until you are sure you still have her attention.
TIPS AND PROBLEM SOLVING: Think of this as a sport that you need to practice. I used to have clients try it with me playing the part of the dog first, to get their timing and movements right. The common mistakes to guard against are:
1. Not enough treats in the first place. Of course you eventually want to never use them at all, but start liberally and always go back to frequent treats when the level of distraction is higher than usual.
2. Stopping the dog yourself. You want to give your dog a treats as it is walking beside you, so don’t stop and unintentionally lure it around to the front. Watch the video in my Reading Room of me doing a first session with a young Border Collie to see how it’s done.
3. Making sessions too long. It is hard work to focus your attention on another when there are lots of other things to watch, smell and hear, so keep your sessions short. You are better off doing three 2-minute sessions a day than one six minute session.
4. Not understanding that the gap between a dog who walks beside you in a quiet environment when you have treats in your hand, and actually taking a long neighborhood walk with a dog who never pulls is large. How long it takes for your dog to learn not to pull is a function of a) how often you train, b) how good a trainer you are, and c) the dog itself. Some dogs are easy, and come as if uploaded with the requisite software package. Others are born to push into their shoulders and drag you across the county. Don’t despair if your friend’s dog is perfect with almost no training whatsoever; we’re all good at something and not so good at something else! Example: My Maggie. She learned to drop her toys on cue in one session. ONE. She learned to Sit on cue in two minutes. But anything that requires her to stifle her energy for more than a second or two is hard for her. After she sits she gets up. After she drops her toy she play bows and paws at me, or goes to get another toy. In addition, I find teaching leash manners boring. Important but boring, so I won’t work on it as often as I should. I expect it will be spring before Maggie behaves on a leash like I’d like her too. But that’s okay–the sheep are always calling to us!
If you’d like a visual sample of what this all looks like, I highly recommend Kikopup’s YouTube video on “loose leash walking.” She does a great job making the steps clear, so ideally, read through my suggestions and then watch the video. And also, please add your comments to all of our readers. Pulling on a leash is one of the behaviors that most owners find most irritating and hardest to fix. I know readers would love to hear what you have done yourself that has worked, or, equally valuable, hasn’t worked. (Note: The hands-down winner of the “Doesn’t Work” category is jerking on the leash when the leash gets tight.)
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: King Charles is back on the farm to breed the ewes, and we almost lost him yesterday. He developed pneumonia after leaving an enclosed barn and coming to our outdoor flock in unseasonably cold weather. Our great sheep vet, Dr. Jeff Kunert, didn’t hesitate to help on his day off, and set out the best antibiotics for him. Within just a few hours, King Charles, who had been barely able to walk, was eating and even bred one of the ewes, or at least made a valiant attempt. I’m watching him like a hawk now, and find him munching hay every time I check on him. Whew.
Brrrr, it is cold. Really cold. No wonder the poor guy got sick. It was 4 degrees Fahrenheit this morning. (Did I mention that already?) Everything is relative, and we’re not winterized yet, so just about everyone is complaining about the weather. It is 17 now and breezy, and it still feels crazy cold. Like King Charles, if we’d had a chance to get used to colder temps it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but it was in the 60’s not that long ago. Jim got out the heating pad for the kitties this morning–I don’t think they’ve left since he hooked it up. Here they are, doing what all smart animals should do in this winter: Getting into bed and staying there til it warms up!