Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Dogs can be taught not to pull on leash
Last week I responded to a reader's letter about forming a stronger bond and better relationship with her dogs. Her letter read in part: I have two spayed females, a 3-year-old Pembroke Corgi and a 1-1/2 year-old Dachshund/Corgi mix. The dogs don't walk with me but pull me down the street. The Corgi mix has been to dog training and ignores me when we walk. I think there is something missing in how I relate to my dogs, but I'm not sure what it is. I would really like to learn how to form a closer bond with my dogs.
The goal of "loose leash walking" is to walk together with your dog - with neither you, nor your dog pulling on either end of the leash. A dog on a walk is eager to reach an interesting smell in a patch of grass, or explore who's been visiting the local fire hydrant. If we walked as briskly as our dogs, there would be no need for them to pull - we'd be walking in concert together. Unfortunately, a dog's normal walking pace is generally brisker than the walker's average speed, so the goal is to teach the dog to walk at our pace, without pulling.
Considering both ends of the leash, the dog wants to investigate possibly interesting smells; the person wants to walk with the dog calmly by her side, not yanking her shoulder out by pulling. It is possible to meet both goals - easiest accomplished early on training a young dog, but not hopeless even once you've got a puller.
The dog's learning starts the very first time the dog pulls. The leash tightens, the dog pulls forward and gets to the spot he wanted to smell. As readers of this column know, each successful pull "reinforces" it. The reward of getting to the odor teaches the dog to pull.
The simple way to address this issue is through training. Some training approaches involve letting the dog get to the end of the leash and then "correcting" the dog back to the owner's side. That approach is far less successful than teaching the dog where to walk - to walk with you. This means the dog is aware of where you are in relation to him - is able to see you, even if it's just peripherally.
We have our students envision a radius around their left (or right) side from about a foot in front to 2 feet to the side and possibly a foot behind. Any further in front of you than that, and chances are your dog has no sense of how far away he is and will keep walking until he hits the end of the leash, i.e., pulls. As long as he is in your well-defined area walking on a loose leash (you shouldn't be pulling on it either!), you should be praising and occasionally rewarding with food treats. The moment he moves too far ahead - before he hits the end of the leash - reconnect with him. Make a kissing sound or other alert sound that tells him you're there, and when he reconnects, praise and continue walking forward. If he doesn't reconnect, stop walking - just stop. Your dog should not continue moving forward unless he's walking with you.
Loose leash walking means no tension in the leash. Pulling has taught the dog that a tight leash means pull forward. From now on, any tension in the leash means STOP. You stop walking, reconnect your dog with you, and move forward again with your dog.
If this sounds too difficult to do on your own (it really isn't - and you'll find detailed instructions in my book, "The Thinking Dog," ), enroll in a positive, reward-oriented training class (preferably using marker training). Loose leash walking can be accomplished in just a few weeks, if you're committed to it and consistent.
Next week, the final part of this reader's question - how to create a strong, bonded relationship with your dog.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a column topic, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. Past columns are on her website.