Saturday, August 13, 2011

"I just want my dog to stop pulling..."

When it comes to teaching your dog not to pull on the leash I have heard it all and you probably have too. "Be a tree!!" they say. "Don't let them walk in front of you!!" they say. "Get a choke chain/prong collar!!" they say. You know what I say? Let's step back and examine this issue from the inside out to learn why it's such a huge problem. Then we can choose what action to take next. This is probably going to get long and I apologize for that, but most articles settle for glossing over what I find to be a very complex and common problem. Just as I tell my students in class, I want you to come away from this with a true understanding of how it works (or why it doesn't).

First and foremost, why do dogs pull? Well, generally it's because they want to get to something (or somewhere or someone) and they want to do so quickly. Another way to look at it is that they aren't so much pulling as they are heading toward something interesting and then being held back by the leash. During most of a dog's day he can simply walk or run to where he wants to go. Now, just when he wants to go forward the most (because it's gotten more interesting), he's got what feels like a ton of bricks dragging behind him.That sensation of being held back only encourages him to pull forward even harder and the result is a very sore set of muscles for the human on the other end of the leash. What's worse, is that any time a pulling dog is allowed to move forward, he is also being reinforced to continue doing just that. Our challenge is to end this cycle.

But before we do that, we have to take into account that your typical dog walk is a veritable dog training gauntlet due to the infinite amount of possible distractions and situations you may run into. These variables make an average walk a true test of how far your dog has come with his/her training. Here is a short list of Dog Walk Variables that can quickly throw a monkey wrench into any evening stroll:

  • Other dogs
  • Small animals (cats, birds, "SQUIRREL!!")
  • Other people (especially children)
  • New/strange sounds
  • Food/trash on the ground
  • Any patch of grass or ground where another dog/animal has been
  • Pretty much everything if you're in a park or brand new place
Expecting your dog to stop pulling on the leash is a lot more involved than it sounds. You are also expecting him to exhibit an extremely high level of self control around the things that interest him most. This is not a simple cue such as "sit" and will take much longer to train. It is important to remain realistic, otherwise the frustration will quickly lead to giving up all together. Here are some critical points to get you on the right track to having a pleasant walk:

Know what you actually want out of your dog.
Loose leash walking (LLW) does not require that your dog walk strictly beside you. That type of walking is called "heeling." Considering how difficult it can be just to achieve a dog who doesn't pull, it's usually best to focus on heeling once your dog has mastered loose leash walking*.

It is also unnecessary to prevent your dog from walking in front of you. This outdated suggestion is based on the myth that the leader of a wolf pack stays in the front. That idea has been proven both untrue and ridiculous (walking in line behind each other is not really conducive to hunting, playing, or generally being a wolf). Allowing your dog in front of you is perfectly fine and does not adversely affect your relationship with him/her. Wasting time trying to keep your dog behind you will make it much more difficult to train her to walk nicely on a leash.

*I do strongly encourage you to reward your dog any time that she steps into the "heel" position beside you even on accident. This will make heel training much easier later on.

Be the most interesting thing to your dog during a walk. You have to become a contender against the sights, the smells, and the squirrels. (Focusing on being a good "leader" is not going to work. Generally, even in a pack a dog doesn't get reprimanded for sniffing a patch of grass.) It won't happen in one day (especially since you've probably been a mere afterthought to your dog for quite some time now when it comes to being on a walk together) but it will happen if you put forth some effort. Reserve the tastiest of treats and the best of moods for your walk. Keep it upbeat and happy at all times!

Mark all desirable behavior. If you aren't familiar with using a marker such as a clicker or the word "yes" then definitely do some research. The short explanation is that a marker tells your dog when he/she has done something that you like. Markers send a very clear signal to the dog that we like the behavior and that it will result in a reward. When you pair a marker with a treat (by clicking or saying "yes!!" then immediately treating the dog) you create that association. It is critical that you mark a desired behavior the instant it happens and then immediately follow that up with a treat. Frequently mark eye contact/focus and walking beside you any time your dog performs these behaviors naturally. This will encourage her to perform them more often until it just becomes routine. Never use your marker word ("Yes!") or the sound of the clicker without a treat. These are powerful forms of communication and you don't want to render them useless.

Allow for some exploration. Treats aren't the only reward that you can offer your dog. If he really wants to go sniff something and you can first get his attention and slack in the leash, tell him "Go sniff!" and let him do so for a little bit. This should be a fun walk for both of you, not military training. Life rewards such a sniffing or a quick play session with a friendly dog that you encounter can show your dog that listening to you doesn't mean he can't actually be a dog anymore. And keeping this in mind will help keep things in perspective for you. Let go of all those training myths and pay attention to how dog brains really work.

When you feel tension on the leash, stop and get your dog's attention. Don't overdo this one. This is what many trainers will call "be a tree!" and involves immediately stopping as soon as you feel your dog pulling on the leash. After calling his name, regaining his attention, and treating him, you can move forward. Lather, rinse, repeat. It is not a bad technique but if you spend too much time standing in one place without getting any focus from your dog it means that there are enough interesting sights, smells, and/or sounds (remember all those variables?) around for him to not really care that you're not moving forward anymore. If he's able to amuse himself even while you're busy being a tree, this technique won't be very effective. This is especially common with smaller dogs, who take up so little space that even while standing still, have a lot left to sniff at. My suggestion is that if you can't regain your dog's attention after just a couple of seconds, tell him "Let's go!" and enthusiastically change direction. Use a higher tone of voice and quicker rhythm in your speech to pique your dog's interest in you. If he changes direction with you (and especially if he does so with eye contact) mark and treat the behavior! If he doesn't immediately walk with you, just keep moving. Do not pop or jerk the leash! We don't want leash jerks to be the cue for a nice relaxed walk. If listening to you becomes associated with unpleasant hostility you might create a much larger problem in the long run (such as leash reactivity, general insecurity, and much longer training time for new behaviors in the future). The purpose of continuing your movement forward is to teach your dog that after you say "Let's go!" you're definitely going to go. Too many people spend way too much time standing there repeating their dog's name as he nonchalantly sniffs a patch of grass or fire hydrant. Doing so is only teaching your dog to ignore his name. If he's already sniffing a hydrant then he's already being actively reinforced to ignore the desperate pleas that have become his name. In that situation, it's best to just tell him "Let's go" and walk away. He MUST learn that:
  1. Eye contact and general focus are rewarding! Walking beside the human (while not yet strictly required) is rewarding! NOT pulling on the leash is rewarding!
  2. Pulling on the leash is not rewarding; it just causes that crazy human to turn around and gets annoying.
Don't get overzealous. Practice in your living room, yard, and neighborhood before taking the show on the road. Think about the dog walk variables discussed earlier before planning out your next walk. Take your dog to a place where you feel you will actually be able to achieve some quality practice time. Do everything you can to increase those GOOD practices and decrease the bad, frustrating ones. Dogs learn by repetition so we must take as many variables under control as we can to create situations where the appropriate behaviors are the ones being repeated. If you have to limit your practice walks to one block of your neighborhood in order to get positive results, then so be it. After your dog has mastered that, you can expand the range of your walks.

Use the right tools! During actual practice sessions, your best bet is a flat buckle collar and run-of-the-mill nylon leash. For dogs just learning, it can actually help to use a longer six foot leash as opposed for four feet or shorter. Six feet allows the dog more space for that exploration time discussed earlier and makes it much easier for you to give the dog plenty of opportunity to "get it right." When he's doing really well and provided the area is safe for this, extend your arm to allow for even more room to explore, then excitedly call him back to you and offer a reward.

Try to resist using a retractable leash for these exercises. It is much harder for both you and your dog to determine how much tension is in the leash as these products use tension to operate.

What about choke chains, prong collars, and harnesses? There are probably going to be very distracting places that you really want to take your dog before he is fully trained and that is understandable. In fact, socialization is one of the most critical aspects of having a well-adjusted dog so we must find ways to limit the chances of your dog practicing bad habits in places where it's not so feasible to practice our training. If you're about to take your dog into a situation that you know is far above his training level, then a walking tool can be a very good idea. I do not consider choke chains or prong collars to be effective or safe options. I strongly prefer special harnesses that allow the leash to be clipped to the front (rather than on the back) or even head halters when fitted appropriately. Normal, everyday harnesses that clip on the back do little to nothing to prevent or limit pulling. In my experience, they also provide a higher degree of mobility for the dog which makes it a little tougher for the owner to keep him from zig-zagging all over the place during a walk.

This is a subject that I could go on about even more than I already, but I feel I've covered enough for you to get an understanding of the challenge at hand. What we often perceive as something very simple ("I just want my dog stop pulling on the leash") usually involves very complex training. Most people start addressing the problem with leash jerks and end up settling for one of the training tools that I mentioned. I have wandered down that very same path using those very same tools and techniques and can tell you where it ends. Ultimately, if you want to truly correct this behavior, you have to be willing to take the steps required to communicate clearly, effectively, and fairly.

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