Walk the Dog, nicely please!

There’s a great saying in the dog training world, which goes something like this: “In dog training, jerk is a noun not a verb”. In other words, jerk should not be an action that you take when trying to teach your dog leash manners (or any other skills for that matter).

Traditionally, dogs are taught to walk beside their owner by praising them in position and giving a leash pop/jerk/tug/tap/correction/you-name-it when they pull forward on the leash. There is an assortment of collars, leads, and harnesses that are designed to help that jerk be felt more effectively by the dog, which should thus speed up the learning process.

I’ll start by saying i have been there, done that. Like most people, i was taught to jerk on my dogs leash when he pulled. We tried assorted harnesses, head collars, and training collars, all to no avail. Why doesn’t it work?

If i walked up to you and leaned against your side, you would lean back and resist (of course you would, otherwise you’d fall over). This is our opposition reflex, and our dogs have it too. When the leash goes tight, they oppose that force and pull ahead. Combine this with all the pee-mail to be checked, sights to see, and dogs to greet when you pull, and you have a recipe for some very well rewarded behaviour. Pulling works.

Now, if you apply a leash jerk with exquisite timing and precise force, you should be able to stop your dog pulling. The problem? Most owners (and trainers for that matter) do not have the physical training skills to apply that kind of timing. The result? Our intended message doesn’t get through, and you get a dog that still pulls. This is why you will see dogs who continue to pull to the point of injury regardless of whether they are wearing a check chain or other training aid.

So what is the solution? Loose-lead walking is a behaviour that can be easily taught with positive reinforcement when we set our pets up for success, and build the behaviour in baby steps. We love to get people started with their puppies at Puppy Preschool, but it is never too late to start.

loose lead walking

Start in a location with minimal distractions (such as your backyard) and practice moving one or two steps away from your dog and rewarding them when they follow. You can then build up the steps you take between treats, and select the position that you specifically want to reward (left or right side, slightly forward or behind). My own criteria for loose lead walking is that Wilbur can walk on either side of me, as long as the leash buckle hangs down and he crosses sides behind me (so i don’t step on him). When you have mastered the loose-lead walking in the yard, move out to the front yard, start tackling short trips up the street. As you increase the challenge, increase the rate of reward again. With time the walk itself becomes the reward, and the position is maintained through the foundation training you did in the beginning.

For a great poster on teaching loose-lead walking check out Lili Chin‘s work.

So why bother? It sounds like a lot of work! The great thing about teaching any behaviour with positive reinforcement is that your dog will develop a desire to learn and to participate with you during training. I want my dog to walk beside me because they love to be there, not because they’re afraid to move. Better yet, if your timing is off with positive reinforcement you will see it in your dogs behaviour. You wanted your dog beside you, but they’re slightly in front? Change when and where you reward. This is a far less stressful fall out for your dog that the fall out of a poorly timed leash jerk.

When i take my dog for a walk i want him to love being out with me, and to enjoy using his full range of senses to explore the world. My criteria is only that the lead is slack, with that met he is free to sniff, look, listen, and enjoy! Train smart, not tough!



Who’s walk is it anyway?

I grew up with a Jack Russell Terrier who pulled like a demon. From start to finish, whether we walked, ran, or cycled, Mickey would be out in front pulling for all he was worth. It was frustrating, and somewhat embarrassing as Mickey choked his way (sometimes loudly) down the street, but his small size meant it became something we all put up with.

My current puppy, Wilbur, is very different. He walks like a champion beside me on his little front-attach harness, and I couldn’t be happier…until he hears something, or sees something, or smells something. Wilbur stops dead in his tracks to investigate. His ears are pricked forwards, tail relaxed, and his little nose is twitching as he sniffs the air. He is a well-socialised young puppy discovering that the world has yet more to offer. In it’s own way this is frustrating too!

Us humans, myself included, go out for a walk with a view to cover ‘x’ amount of time or distance. We’ll go for a 30 minute walk, or perhaps we want to cover our favourite 5km loop. We don’t want to stop.

Our dogs live through their senses. We take them out of their well-known house or yard, and out into the world of new sights, smells, and sounds – but we don’t want them to stop. How do we explain that to them? How does that even make sense to our dogs? “Hey dog, i want you to keep walking and not stop to sniff or pee or look. It’s called exercise, it’s fun!” ….riiiight!!

walking dog

Wilbur isn’t being stubborn, he’s not trying to dictate what we do or be alpha, and he’s not being lazy. He’s being curious, inquisitive, he’s being a puppy. That goes for your dog too. Dogs don’t act for no reason, look at the whole situation and try to think what could have your dogs attention. Could you spare a moment to let him sniff? Does he actually need to go to the toilet? Can he hear something that you can’t?

So what can you do, when like me you’re standing there while you’re dog is being a dog? Reactively I want to tug on the lead and pull Wilbur along, but that’s not what a leash is for. I don’t want to tug, jerk, or pull when Wilbur is just trying to discover something new. I want walking to be a comfortable experience for Wilbur, and that isn’t what i’ll achieve by jerking on the leash. Instead i give him a moment, then encourage him forward with my voice. I reward behaviour i want to see more, like trotting along beside me. I walk proactively, sticking to the road or centre of the path where i know the scents aren’t so interesting, and i try to stay one step ahead of him – if i see a dog or person up ahead, i’ll step off the path with Wilbur and ask him to sit. This puts him in a position where i can reward him, rather than waiting until he is fixated on whatever is approaching.

Being a good leader for your dog is about being patient, setting them up for success, and rewarding good behaviours. You can’t achieve this by making your dog uncomfortable. And at the end of the day, I’m taking the dog for a walk. I wouldn’t be out there if it weren’t for him, so i do want to indulge his senses and offer him an enriching experience. Over time I can teach Wilbur that he can indulge in those fun doggy things while still in motion, or that he can take that opportunity when i release him to do so, but now while he’s a pup we will keep discovering the neighbourhood together. He’s learning more about the world, and I’m learning more about being a kind and patient dog owner and trainer!