For many of us, it’s a daily ritual – we pull out our leash, clip it to an excited dog, and head out into the world to go for a walk. But for most dog owners, those daily walks are far from easy.
Loose leash walking, simply, means that your dog is able to walk with you calmly on a loose leash. Sounds easy, but many dogs pull, drag behind, or wind around our legs as we try to move. In this first of two blog posts, I’ll cover what equipment can help make your walks a bit simpler; in part two, later this week, I’ll go over the training techniques that can make your walks easier and more pleasant for both you and your dog.
Equipment is tricky. Every dog is different – some dogs are going to respond better to one tool, while others might find it aversive and prefer something different.
For most dogs, collars are more helpful for identification than walking. Even a standard flat collar can pull on a dog’s neck in a way that is painful or damaging. Very calm dogs may be fine walking on a collar; most dogs will do better at first with their leash attached to other equipment. If you do use a collar for walking your dog, a martingale collar is your best choice – these collars have a second smaller loop that tightens just enough to keep the collar from slipping over the dog’s head if they try to back out or escape, but will not tighten to the point of choking your dog any more than a standard collar.
Over time, as your training progresses and your dog is walking nicely, you may decide to switch from a harness or halter to a collar for walks. This is a great goal, but can take a long time for many people, and other equipment such as harnesses are fantastic tools as you work with your dog. Don’t try to switch to the collar until you and your dog are ready as it will be harder to keep them under control if they haven’t had the right foundational training and they could potentially do damage to their trachea if they are pulling too much.
If you are just using your dog’s collar to hold ID tags, a standard flat nylon collar is a fine choice. For dogs with fur that is prone to matting, a rolled leather collar may be a better option.
I do NOT recommend choke, prong or shock collars for a number of reasons. These used to be used more widely in training, but are being phased out more and more as training practices evolve. Aside from the potential physical damage of these collars, there are a variety of other options available now that are more effective and have less potential side effects.
There are a huge number of harnesses on the market, and some definitely work better than others. Standard harnesses are good for taking pressure off of your dog’s throat, but do not generally help with pulling. Some dogs may pull less on them, but many dogs will pull harder with them on. I recommend them primarily for small dogs who are more prone to collapsing tracheas so the pressure is taken off of their throat.
Front-clip harnesses are a fantastic option for dogs who like to pull on the leash. The leash clip for these harnesses is on the front of the dog’s chest instead of their back, which gives you significantly more leverage when walking your dog. If they begin to pull, the pressure is on the front of their chest instead of spread along their body or on their neck, and they are turned sideways instead of being able to forge forward.
There are also harnesses that tighten slightly under your dogs front legs when they pull. Some dogs seem to respond to these, but generally my experience has been that they are not as effective for most dogs as the front-clip harnesses. If you do try one of these, look for one with padding so it does not irritate the area under your dog’s front legs.
My two personal favorite harnesses are the Easy Walk Harness, which is a fairly standard and simple front-clip harness, and the Freedom Harness, which has leash clips on the front and the back and comes with a leash that can attach to both, giving you more control and more options. (Having those two pressure points can be less stressful for some dogs as well.) But there are many great options available now for harnesses that can safely direct your dog and make your walk simpler.
Head halters tend to be a little more controversial than harnesses – they look a little like muzzles, some dogs hate the feeling of having something on their face, and if used incorrectly they have more potential for physical harm. However, I have seen dogs who are completely transformed and even calmed by head halters, and if used correctly they can be a great tool.
Generally, head halters fit around the dog’s muzzle and behind their ears, and the leash clips under their chin. There are some variations on this design but that is the most common option for this tool. It works somewhat like a halter on a horse – with their head under your control, it is much harder for your dog to pull, and you are much more easily able to guide them.
The most important thing to remember if you decide to try a head halter is never to jerk it or allow your dog to jerk hard on it as it is attached to their head and they could potentially damage their neck with a sharp pull. You also want to take the time to properly acclimate and desensitize your dog to the head halter so it is a pleasant experience and not an aversive one. It is much more pleasant to walk a dog who is calmly walking with you than a dog who is pawing at his face every few steps trying to take his equipment off.
Head halters are not for every dog. They tend to suppress behavior, so they can sometimes mask issues, and some dogs find them scary or aversive. Used correctly, they should never be painful or uncomfortable, so be careful to make sure your dog is okay with the halter before using it.
Personally, I generally start with a harness and only go to the head halter when that is not enough. While they can be fabulous in some scenarios, generally the harness is more comfortable for the dog and simpler to use.
For most dogs, a standard 4 to 6 foot leash is by far the best option for going for a walk. Retractable or flexi leashes can be great on your own property or in very controlled situations, but are dangerous in public and have the potential to cause injury to you if your dog gets overexcited and wraps the leash around you. I’ve seen some nasty scars caused by retractable leashes and only recommend them with the proper training in place and in the right situation.
Later this week, look for part 2 of this post, which will cover teaching your dog to walk calmly by your side on any equipment.
“Set your dog up for success!”
This is my training mantra. I say it in almost every training session at least once, if not many times. It is such a vital element to good dog training that there really isn’t any way for me to stress it enough. But how does “setting your dog up for success” actually play out in real life?
This one is a biggie. If your dog doesn’t have access to the trash while you’re out of the house, they can’t tear it up and decorate your living room with it. Management means that you are creating an environment that allows your dog to make the right decisions instead of the wrong ones. Don’t let them have access to things you don’t want them getting into, don’t put them in situations where you know they’ll mess up, don’t force them into environments where they will be stressed out or scared. And don’t give them a chance to practice (and get reinforced by) unwanted behaviors!
Dogs don’t do something wrong and then sit around feeling guilty about it, waiting for you to get mad. They pee on the carpet and move on, completely onto the next thing as soon as they’ve walked away. So if you have a dog who isn’t housetrained, for example, giving them complete freedom of the house is just asking for them to have an accident. But if you are watching them closely, you can see the signals that they might need to go outside and have a chance to prevent them from making that mistake. Once your dog is reliable, you can gradually give them more freedom and reduce supervision, but keeping a close eye on your dog can prevent a number of problems and create a much more pleasant housemate.
3. Meet Your Dog’s Needs
All dogs need food, exercise (mental and physical) and attention. If you dog is grabbing your remote and waiting for you to get mad and chase them around the room, they’re probably bored and finding ways for you to interact. If they are jumping all over you, mouthing, or barking to get your attention, again, there is probably something missing. Most dogs need at least an hour of good exercise a day (and no, this does not mean running around the yard by themselves). And dogs are social creatures, so they do not do well being isolated all the time – positive attention is vital to their happiness. Play with your dog. Teach them some tricks. Give them some awesome petting while you’re bingeing Netflix. Take them for a walk somewhere new. There are a ton of creative, fun ways to meet your dog’s needs and keep them happier and more successful.
4. Reinforce Good Behavior
One of the biggest differences I see between good dog trainers and the average dog owner is that many dog owners focus on what they DON’T want their dogs to do instead of what they DO want their dogs to do. Most undesirable behaviors can be replaced by an incompatible behavior that we like just by making that good behavior way more reinforcing. You don’t want your dog to jump on people coming in the door? Teach them that sitting when people come in the door gets them instant attention and a whole bunch of treats. Don’t like your dog begging at the table? Teach them to lie on a dog bed in the corner and give them a Kong stuffed with peanut butter to lick while you’re eating, or toss them treats through the meal for staying on their “place.”
5. Work WITH Your Dog Instead of Against Them
Just like people, dogs have many individual differences. They have their own quirks, based on genetics, experience and many other factors. If you have a dog who loves to sniff trees, don’t get upset when they won’t listen on walk – turn it to your advantage by using the opportunity to go sniff a tree as a reward for good behavior. Take advantage of your dog’s individual quirks and make them a power for good instead of training frustration.
6. Don’t Forget: Your Dog is a Dog
All of us humanize our dogs at one point or another. It’s perfectly natural – they’re part of the family for most of us. But it can be dangerous and unfair to your dog to think of them as a person when you put unrealistic expectations on them. There is a lot of debate in the animal behavior community on what emotions dogs share with us, but the general consensus is that cognitively they are about on the level of a toddler. So no, your dog is not sitting around plotting revenge and that’s why they peed on your bed when you left them all day. It’s a lot more likely they were anxious that you were gone, or they just couldn’t hold it and that seemed like a nice soft spot.
7. Patience, Patience, Patience
Again: Your dog is at about the cognitive level of a toddler. If you were trying to teach a small child math, would you get angry and yell every time they messed up? Or would you try to explain it again in a way that was more understandable to them? You and your dog are speaking different languages, and some things are going to get lost in translation. Take your time and move at a training pace where both you and your dog can be comfortable and find success.
As I study for a certification test this weekend, I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of dog behavior books. It’s all stuff I know – most of them are books I read when I was starting as a trainer many years ago – but every time I read them I find little nuggets of genius that help make me a better trainer.
Most of the time, I don’t use the technical jargon from those books with clients. It’s important they have an understanding of what we’re doing with their dog, but it’s not really vital that they know the exact scientific term for each method we’re using. However, there are a few basic ways of approaching learning with dogs that can be helpful to anyone wanting to understand a bit more about how their dog’s brain works.
The behavioral science that we use with dogs will probably be familiar to anyone who has studied psychology or learning theory. It doesn’t matter what species you’re dealing with – behavioral theory stays the same. For our purposes, two methods of learning are most important: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning is pretty straightforward: you are making an association between two things. Pavlov’s dogs are the perfect example of this. His research involved dogs learning that a bell meant food was coming, and the dogs eventually began to salivate as soon as they heard the bell because they knew what would follow the sound. In training, an example of classical conditioning is when we pair a clicker with food so that when the dog hears the click he knows food will soon follow and makes a positive association with the behavior that happened with the click.
What we use much more to teach behaviors, however, is operant conditioning. In simple terms, operant conditioning means that your dog learns that their actions have consequences. In other words, their behavior influences what happens next. There are four types of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive and negative do NOT mean good and bad here – they are used to talk about adding something or subtracting something. Reinforcement means the behavior the dog performed will increase in frequency; punishment means the behavior will decrease.
This is confusing for a lot of people, especially since “punishment” usually implies something bad in our minds and so does “negative,” while “positive” is generally associated with good things. This is why most trainers don’t use these exact terms with our students – most people are familiar with positive reinforcement, but the meaning of the others tends to get muddled unless you’ve spent some time studying their meaning.
Most modern trainers stick to positive reinforcement and negative punishment, for a number of reasons, but mainly because they tend to be the most effective, the most humane, are the easiest for people to use correctly and have the least number of potential side effects.
With that in mind, here are examples of each type:
Positive reinforcement: The dog does something you want them to do again, so you give them something they want. Example: The dog sits when you ask him to, so you give him a treat.
Negative punishment: The dog does something you want them to stop doing, so you take something away that they want. Example: The dog barks at you for attention, so you remove your attention by walking out of the room.
The other two types of operant conditioning are no longer used by most knowledgeable trainers unless other possibilities have been eliminated, and even then should be implemented by someone who knows what they are doing, as they have the most potential to be done incorrectly and cause more harm than good. For that reason, it is extremely rare that I will even consider minor versions of these and I am NOT recommending the examples used:
Positive punishment: The dog does something you want them to stop doing, so you add something they do not like to the situation. Example: The dog pees in the house and you yell at them.
Negative reinforcement: The dog does something you want them to repeat, so you take away something they don’t like. Example: The dog stops barking at a scary dog so the scary dog is moved out of sight.
The average dog owner does not need to remember these exact terms, but knowing the idea behind them is helpful to understanding how your dog learns.
If you have more interest in learning about some of these concepts, or other ways of viewing how our dogs think, I highly recommend these books, which are all considered staples in the dog training community, and can benefit anyone who lives their lives with dogs:
Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor
The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell
Your dog is tensed on his bed, a bone pressed between his front paws. As you move closer, he stiffens, and you hear a low growl. You reach for the bone, and he snaps.
This is a clear-cut example of resource guarding. This is a totally natural behavior in the animal world – a stray dog, for example, may have to guard the scraps of food they find to be able to eat. In theory, pet dogs should have moved past the need to guard the things they see as resources – after all, they have everything they need in our homes, right? But in reality, many dogs still display this behavior, sometimes in a way that can be dangerous for the people and animals interacting with them.
Dogs view a lot of things as resources – food, toys, their dog bed, sometimes even their people. Food and chews like bones are the most common source of resource guarding, so I will use that as an example throughout this post, but many things can be subject to guarding by your dog.
So what do you do when your dog is resource guarding?
Step one is prevent the situation from escalating. If your dog has a bone, and starts to guard it, do NOT take try to take the bone. Many dog owners think that allowing the dog to keep the bone is reinforcing their bad behavior, but actually, your dog generally is guarding because they feel insecure about the resource, so taking it away will just make the behavior more intense in the future as you will now be viewed as even more of a threat to their resources. Trying to take the bone also significantly increases your chances of a bite happening. There are no “winners” when dealing with aggressive behavior – safety is far more important than showing your dog who’s boss. Remember: your dog is not guarding their bone because they are being dominant or to defy you. Most of the time, they are reacting instinctively to the worry that you going to take their resource away, and are trying to prevent that from happening.
There are a few resource guarding protocols online or in publication (“Mine!” by Jean Donaldson is a great reading option for people with resource guarders). The basic idea of many of them is the same: you want to create a good association with you approaching when your dog has the resource they are trying to protect.
You will need to set up a safe scenario here first. So let’s say your dog guards his food bowl at breakfast. When he has his breakfast, approach only to the point where he knows you are there, but is not yet reacting – you want to stay at a safe distance and keep your dog under threshold. Once you get to the right spot, toss a super-tasty treat (I like to use something really high-value like hot dog or chicken) into his bowl or as close as you can get and walk away. Repeat this step until your dog is totally comfortable with you approaching at that distance. If he seems happy and relaxed with your approach, start gradually moving closer and closer. In most cases, you should eventually be able to touch or move the bowl without the dog reacting negatively. This works because every step of the process heavily pairs your approach with really good stuff, so you getting closer becomes something awesome instead of something scary.
This is a very simplified version of dealing with a complicated issue. If you have a dog who guards his resources in a way that is dangerous (lunging, snapping, etc.), enlist the help of a behavior professional to make sure your training plan is set up in the correct way. The goal is to always keep the process safe and effective, so that your dog goes from growling when you approach their bone to wagging their tail in excitement.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.