Tips For Teaching Your Dog Loose Leash Walking

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Pulling or reacting to passers by while on a leash is such a common complaint I hear from people about life with their dog. And, understandably so.  If you have ever been that person on the other end, you know it can turn what was supposed to be a care free walk into a major stressor very quickly.

tips for training dog loose leash walkingWhen I observed several handlers recently who were having this issue, I noticed something in common. One thing that struck me was the disconnect I saw between human and dog, even in an environment with fairly low distraction – on a driveway.

Sure, they were tied together by a cord known as a leash but there was no REAL connection. The dogs were focused on everything else around them. If they wanted to sniff something, they would stop and sniff. If they wanted to get somewhere quicker, they would just walk faster (with their owner following).  Two things the dogs did not do were walking by their owner’s side and occasionally looking at their owner.
In each case, it was as if the owner was not present except for the tension or jerk on the leash when the dog behaved in a way the owner did not like.

If those dogs were so disconnected in a low distraction environment, it was of no surprise to me that those same dogs would react by barking, jumping and/or moving toward other anything else that gets their attention, disregarding the human at the other end of the leash.

The problem is, with every practice, the dog is learning all kinds of unwanted behaviors. And he is learning that the environment is far more important than paying attention to his owner.  With each walk, I predict their disconnect will continue to grow.

Here are just a few of the reasons why loose leash walking may break down:

  1. Lack of clarity in criteria. Ask yourself, what exactly do you want your dog to do when you go for a walk? (Do you want your dog to be at your side or a little in front of you? Do you want your dog to sit when you stop? What do you want your dog to do when a person or dog approaches?) If you cannot answer that question, then you cannot give your dog the clarity he needs. Without clarity, he will come to his own conclusions about what to do during a walk. And guess what? You may not like his choices.
  1. Lack of practice and proofing. When you know what you picture ‘loose leash walking’ to look like, spending up front time teaching him that criteria with consistency in an environment where you both can focus will greatly impact your success. Then ‘proof’ this behavior with distractions, adding difficulty only when your dog can continue to loose leash walk as you want him to. Please click here to read more about proofing behavior.
  1. Lack of consistency. If you ‘sometimes’ follow with a taught leash as your dog runs toward a distraction, then guess what? You may be contributing to an even stronger behavior of running toward a distraction as you dog becomes a slot machine player. Please click here to read more. Know that once you begin teaching your dog about loose leash walking that you need to consider every walk a training walk.
  1. There is a weak reinforcement history associated with you. This is a really important foundation. If, in other contexts, you intentionally or unintentionally use aversive strategies to modify behavior (like yelling at or squirting your dog with an irritant or simply do things that make your dog uncomfortable), then the value for him to focus on you may have been weakened. Remember, every waking moment your dog is taking in feedback from his environment, and is learning where the value is for him. The more you teach your dog with clarity and positive reinforcement, the more he will want to listen to you.
  1. There is a strong and established history of reinforcers from the environment that are competing against you. If your dog has had a lot of practice paying more attention to the flowers, fire hydrants and moving animals, and they give him all kinds of good things like sensory stimulation and an outlet for his energy and prey drive, it very well may be worth his while to do all that he can to get to those stimulus as quick as possible. The value would far outweigh the value of responding to you. Plus, when he is in his over aroused state, he may not even notice you yelling or pulling on the leash. I’ll point out here too that this also goes for reactive issues. If your dog has a history of getting a heavy jerk on his neck at the presence of scary dogs or people, then those dogs and people may likely become even more scary as past experience has taught your dog an association between them and unpleasant jerks on his neck. However, great for you is that you can actually use those distractions to build value in your dog’s eyes for doing the behaviors you want him to do. Please click here to read about the Premack Principle.

Now that I’ve gotten these reasons out of the way, I want to remind you…you can have a training walk and still have fun together. In the middle of your walk, ask your dog to do another behavior you have worked on or after a few ‘good’ steps, pull out an awesome toy.

Tugging As A Dog Training Tool

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I have been working on down/stay/release and recall this month with an awesome and super smart dog. (I know, not unlike lots of other dogs I have worked with.)

In training, I talk a lot about building value for behaviors by using reinforcing consequences that are of huge value to the learner (to the learner are the key words). For this sweet boy, tasty food like chicken and cheese are pretty great but tugging trumps everything.

And so, as I began teaching ‘release’ as the last part in the behavior chain of sit or down, wait, then release; I have been using the opportunity to tug a lot as the consequence to releasing on cue. As we have been building on this, I have been mixing things up though so he often will not know whether his getting up from a down and running to me will result in a good, short game of tug or a piece of tasty food or a short game of chase.

There are many directions I could take this post from here. I thought I’d write about tugging today because it can be a powerful tool in your reinforcement toolbox during training.

tugging with your dogFirstly, I’ll address a common statement. I have heard many times that tugging can make dogs aggressive or allows dogs to assert dominance over people.  Here is the thing. Dogs already have predatory energy. It is part of who they are, and tugging – properly, with rules – gives dogs a release for that energy.

Some Benefits of Tugging. There are many.

Tugging strengthens behaviors…and relationships. A few weeks back, I wrote about how classical conditioning affects emotional states and training.  With enough pairing of a release cue and an opportunity to tug, your dog will come to associate the release cue with the awesome fun, which will in turn mean that the stay will become associated with the positive emotional state of the release cue. Of course operant learning (meaning your dog is also learning that good consequences happen when he stays until released) is also at play. And likewise, with you on the other end of that tug toy, you will become associated with the fun opportunity to tug too, which adds to your dog’s reasons for wanting to listen to you. A double whammy of goodness!

Tugging is an outlet for redirecting inappropriate use of teeth. Tugging (again, properly with rules) not only gives dogs and puppies something appropriate to mouth, it is great exercise as well. And we know the benefits of exercise as it relates to behavior problems.

Distractions are less important. Dogs in lower arousal states will notice more of what is going on around them, and is more likely to register those distractions. Think about yourself, and how, when you are really focused on something that you are not thinking about your stressors.

Tugging properly with rules is great for teaching self control. When you teach your dog that the game starts with your cue, stops with inappropriate play, and ends on your cue, you are teaching your dog valuable skills in impulse control. And the great part is, your dog won’t even know you are in class!  He/she just knows it is all about having fun.

What are tugging rules?

Rule One
Tugging begins only when the human cues it. This means your dog will not start the game on his own by bringing you the toy or grabbing for it while you are holding it. I like to use ‘get it’ as this cue. As soon as I say ‘get it’, I present the tug and make it super enticing for the dog to want to play.

Rule Two
Your dog should drop the toy upon your cueing him.

To teach this, begin by giving your dog the cue (I use ‘get it’), and before your dog’s arousal heightens (after just one or two seconds), hold the toy firmly and still, say your release cue (I use ‘out’) and then present a very high value piece of food near his mouth. The second he releases his grip, mark that with a verbal cue like ‘yes’ or a clicker and give your dog the piece of food.  Later, keep your food behind your back until he let’s go and then give him the food…and you can also offer another game of tug. (Remember – to give your cue first to begin the game.)

Once you teach Rule Two reliably on cue, then you will need to proof Rule One, meaning, practice swinging the toy around and if your dog goes for it, the toy should be taken away. Only when you give the cue will the game begin. You can also ask for a control behavior first like sit, then release the sit with a cue and then say ‘get it.’

Rule Three
Game stops before your dog becomes over aroused and also if your dog’s teeth touch your hands. Stop the game with your out cue.

Short games of tug, between 3 and 10 seconds, will keep you both focused and will leave your dog wanting more.

Rule Four
Test all of the rules. Not following them means there will be no tugging. Period. But give your dog more opportunities to succeed. With consistency, your dog will learn the rules and you will have a great opportunity for mental and physical exercise, strengthening your relationship, and fun!

Rule Five
As you advance, teach your dog that it is controlled behaviors like sit or down that lead to more games of tugging. Teaching your dog to calm himself from arousal is a great skill.


Okay, now you’ve got the game rules. Now go out there and have fun!


Are You Teaching Your Pet Unwanted Behaviors?

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The other day I was working with a client whose dog had a ‘bad’ habit of pulling really hard on a leash to greet oncoming people. It is actually not an uncommon behavior problem that I get called upon to help with.

On that appointment, over the course of one hour with numerous short sessions, that same dog learned to stay at his owner’s side with a loose leash while I walked up to pet him. Much more work will be needed with different people in different settings but the learning process was begun.

How did that change occur so quickly?

Really, it comes down to where the value is for the animal. Whenever I see a dog or parrot or other animal doing something that is unacceptable, the first question I ask myself is – what is reinforcing that behavior? In other words, what purpose does that behavior serve for that animal because if a behavior did not help an animal get something of value, then the behavior would weaken.reinforcement for pets

Often what that means is that people, as their caretakers, can often be the cause of unwanted behaviors without even realizing it.

Dogs are incredible observers. They spend their waking hours watching and learning and figuring out the best way to get what they need and want.

I thought I’d share a few of the ways you may be ‘teaching’ unwanted behaviors without realizing it.

Ignoring your dog UNTIL he does a behavior you do not like. (I see this with human kids too.) When I was assisting with a class I saw a student standing with his dog sitting at his side. However, while his dog was doing exactly what that man wanted his dog to do, it was only when his dog got up and barked at the dog next to him that the man looked down to talk to his dog, tell his dog to sit and say ‘good girl.’  Here, that dog was learning *if* I sit down calmly, I get no attention but *if* I get up and bark, my owner talks to me and tells me what a good girl I am.

Punishing GOOD behavior. If you call your dog to come when he is playing outside, and he promptly comes running but only to have you bring him inside so that you can leave, you will be teaching your dog *the fun stops* when I come when called.

Reinforcing unwanted behavior without realizing it. If you open the door when your dog is jumping on it, you are teaching your dog that jumping on the door gets it to open. If you put your dog’s leash on him while he is barking, jumping and whining, you have just taught him that barking, jumping and whining get the leash attached which then leads to an awesome walk.

I wanted to share this as another reminder that teaching occurs daily with every interaction. Training is not only about the formal sessions where you are teaching obedience or trick behaviors. It is about those every day moments where you catch those behaviors you want to see more of, and find a way to make those behaviors valuable to your pet; while making sure you do not give value to the unwanted behaviors – and even set the environment up so those unwanted behaviors do not occur in the first place.



July 4 Safety Tips For Your Dog

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The time is drawing near. July 4 is many a dogs’ least favorite of holidays. Loud, unpredictable noises accompanied with big light displays can be very scary.

I’ve written about July 4 safety tips before and have revised them below.

July 4 dog safety tipsWhile you are attending your community parade or other holiday event, if your dog can become over-stimulated or afraid around crowds, unfamiliar sounds and sights, the best place for him/her is at home. You will not be doing your dog a favor by forcing him into a stressful situation. Desensitizing your dog to stimulus should be done in a controlled environment, always with your dog under threshold. Please see the bottom of this post for more on systematic desensitization.

If you spend outdoor time with your dog during the day, remember your heat safety precautions be careful to prevent your dog from overheating. A few things to keep in mind – find shady places to relax, give him/her plenty of water, minimize time spent walking on black asphalt or other surfaces that absorb heat, if your dog enjoys water then hoses, sprinklers and baby pools can provide many opportunities for exercise, watch your dog for any signs of heat related stress.

If you are entertaining, remember to keep alcohol and other toxic food away from your dog. Always actively supervise children around your dog to redirect them if necessary. Hugging, kissing, straddling, poking, pulling on body parts (like a tail), and chasing should be prevented. If your dog has been known to do unwanted behavior around guests, some suggested things you may want to consider are – planning ahead to teach him/her alternative behaviors, make sure he/she has high value enrichment activity toys, and/or give him more exercise before your guests arrive.

This is a good time to double check that your dog has proper identification in case there is an unplanned escape outside a door. Still, make sure to secure your door including a doggie door or screen windows if you have them.

Preparing for fireworks

Provide your dog with plenty of mental and physical exercise before the fireworks begin as a tired dog will be less apt to react.

Know that many dogs are afraid of the loud, sudden noise of fireworks and they may also be sensitive to the vibration caused by the noise. You may see your dog shiver, pant, pace, hide, or do destructive behavior. He/she may turn away from food. He could even try to escape out of your home or your yard which is why making sure your house is securely closed is so important.

Make sure that your dog has an accessible safe place (from his/her perspective – NOT yours). You more than likely have seen your dog retreat there on other occasions where something scary occurred – maybe it is underneath a desk, in a closet, or under a bed. If you are leaving your house, make sure your dog can get to that safe place. Some dogs, however, react by moving and being active. If possible, try to have your dog in an area away from windows with the shades drawn.

If you are at home during the fireworks, spend time with it in the safe place and provide your dog with attention and comfort if your dog seeks you out. You will not be reinforcing fear, and so long as you remain calm, your presence can help your dog cope. If your dog is not too anxious, you may even be able to do some counter conditioning where you give your dog a piece of high value food (like meat or chicken) immediately *after* a boom.

Sometimes wearing a thunder jacket or DAP collar can help; however, not with every dog. And playing white noise, or a television loud enough to mask the noise may help. You may want to consider lower frequency sounds to cover up the low frequency sound of the big booms. (But please make sure that does not scare your dog BEFORE July 4) I found a low frequency station called Low Frequency Vibrations on Pandora.


If your dog has severe cases of situational phobias like fireworks, you may want to talk with your vet about fast acting anxiolytic medication.

What A Bollywood Class Taught Me About Pet Behavior

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The other day I went back to the dance studio where I have many happy memories from past group ballroom and salsa lessons. I heard about a Bollywood class and I thought it’d be fun to learn. Or try anyway.

You may be thinking right about now, what does this have to do with pet training. Please continue reading and you will see where my thoughts are going…

So, theretips to exercise your dog's mind and body I was in a room of familiar and unfamiliar faces who had taken several other Bollywood lessons before that night. Our teacher was wonderful and she has such a warm, inviting smile that she wore frequently.

Before turning on the music, we began by learning some footwork and practiced several times. I was doing great and feeling confident. I remember looking around the room and seeing how others were doing also. Our instructor went through some of the steps more times so that we could get them.

Next, she taught us the arm work. Again, it was not really that complicated. Some of the moves required arms to flow, others to raise and lower or use our shoulders, or sway our upper body backwards and sideways. I was able to follow along up to that point fairly easily.

The trouble came for me when we put it all together. The steps and movements that I didn’t have any problems with until then suddenly became really, REALLY difficult. And when the music was added, I was extremely challenged. No longer could I even look around the room. I found myself having to stare at our instructor trying to follow along as best I could but I didn’t do a good job. My muscles were tense. My moves had no fluidity to them as my body became rigid just trying to do everything together – which by the way, I did not do very well.

When the music ended, I realized my heart was beating pretty fast too even though we really were not doing anything you would consider aerobic, especially for someone who can exercise on aerobic machines for an hour or more without problem.

And finally, I get to how this relates to our pets. In an earlier post, I wrote about an activity we did at the Karen Pryor Click Training Expo demonstrating how difficult it is to focus on a thinking task with distractions. So I won’t focus so much on that here.

What I do want to focus on is the element of mental exercise. I am often reminding clients that exercise is for both the mind and the body, and when you do an activity that engages both the level of stimulation is greatly magnified.

Some easy ideas for exercising your dog’s mind and body:

Positive training using clickers to shape behaviors while teaching him behaviors AND giving him exercise all at the same time.

Foraging/food enrichment toys where your pet has to work to get that tasty food that is inside.

Play tug and fetch, and other active games (while also teaching game rules such as ‘take’, ‘out’, ‘come’, ‘sit’, etc.)

Have a doggie play date with another dog who plays well with your pet.

If your dog likes water and likes to chase, take out your hose, turn it on and move it around. You can even add in training to this by teaching your dog to do a calm behavior like sit until released with the reinforcement being the movement of water.

For water loving dogs, you can put water resistant balls and toys in a kiddie pool filled with some water.

What other ideas do you have? I’d love to hear.


Words To Give You Thought

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a quote about dogs and people

Putting The Joy In Learning Through Classical Conditioning

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I talk a lot about how animals learn from their consequences; and how, those immediate consequences of their behaviors are what determine the future rate of those behaviors. In scientific terms, this is called operant learning or operant conditioning.

classical conditioning in dog trainingHowever, there is another type of learning that is also very important to understand when it comes to helping our pets – and our relationship with them – to succeed. It is called classical conditioning, a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first taught us about classical conditioning over a century ago when he measured the salivation response to dogs being fed. In his famous experiment, he gave his dogs food and also rang a bell. After numerous repetitions, he rang the bell on its own without food and found that the dogs still responded with an increase in salivation. The bell, which began as a neutral stimulus, had become a conditioned stimulus.

Why is this such an important concept to understand? Because just as our pets are continually learning whether or not to repeat behaviors based upon whether those behaviors serve to get the animal a consequence of value; they also have the ongoing capacity to develop associations – positive or negative – with occurrences in their environment.

As I have heard trainer Kathy Sdao say numerous times, the emotional response to the second stimulus infects the emotional response to the first stimulus occurring just before.

The examples of this can be endless. The clicker which initially has no meaning to the animal, only acquires a positive response from the animal after it is repeatedly paired (with the clicker sound coming first) with a consequence of value to the animal. The sight of a leash acquires a positive response after repeatedly being paired with an outing.

Equally important to understand is that something your dog initially has a positive response to like a piece of chicken or favorite toy, can also take on a negative response if it is repeatedly shown just BEFORE something negative. I have seen dogs come to put their tail down and walk away as their owner begins making a stuffed kong, when the kong is only given to the dog after being put into a crate and left there for eight hours (if the dog has a negative association with being in its crate).  Many dogs begin to pant heavily, shake and seek shelter when they feel an air pressure shift as that air pressure shift has come to be associated with feared thunder storms. When an owner jerks his dog’s leash as another dog approaches in anticipation of his own dog’s barking and lunging behavior, his dog my begin having even more heightened heart rate and attention to that other approaching dog as it has come to be associated with a leash jerk.

Here is another reason why understanding this can help or hinder you in your training. Think about the ultimate chain of events – you give a cue, your pet does a behavior, and then that behavior is followed by a consequence. Each step of the first two steps is immediately followed by a consequence, and thus has the power to cause the same response as the event that occurs immediately after it.

In other words, with enough pairing, your pet’s behavior will cause the same response (whether that is an emotional response, salivation or other) as its consequence. AND the cue then, with enough pairing, will cause the same response as its consequence (with is the behavior).

When you train using positive reinforcement (with let’s say a clicker or verbal marker) then everything about that lesson is about causing positive responses. The food given at the end of the chain infects the marker which infects the behavior which infects the cue. And so the cue then takes on the same reflexive response for your student of salivation, energy release, mental stimulation, etc.

If you are wanting to build strong behaviors and have success in your training, it is important that your cues always are predictors for your learner of good things.

If, on the other hand, you give a cue, your pet does the behavior (or does not immediately do the behavior), and something negative occurs, then everything in that chain can become associated with something aversive. An example of this is if you call your dog to come and he ignores you, and the consequence is receiving a shock (remote collar) which causes your dog to feel pain and to jump. Then ultimately sniffing the flowers (or whatever your dog was doing at the time) and your cue have the potential of being associated with a feeling of pain and jumping.

This is one of the ways that taught behaviors can break down and cues can be weakened – or at least can work to cause your dog to not want to learn from you because it causes unpleasant things to happen.

My challenge to you is this: if you want your dog to do what you cue it to do without hesitation and with a tail wag, then take care to make sure that cue is only associated with positive outcomes.

Dog Training Tip: Just Teaching A Behavior Is Not Enough

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I was reminding someone of this over the weekend. It’s important to remember, just teaching a behavior is not enough. If you want your pet to continue to have fluency with that behavior, you’ve got to continue reinforce it…to remind your pet that choice is going to be of value to him/her. It doesn’t always have to be food – there are so many ways to reinforce behavior.

dog training tip using positive reinforcement

In Your Training, Be Generous With Reinforcement

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I was out somewhere and I saw it again. A man was in a busy area with his dog doing his best to try and keep his dog’s focus from the external environment, only his attempts were not working too well. His dog continued to pull on leash, and with each pull the man gave the collar a jerk and said, ‘No!’. It was obvious the man was frustrated with his dog.

“Ugh, my dog is so bull headed, stubborn, dominant, or bad,” would be words I am sure he would have told me had I asked.

But was this really the case?

Well, what I saw was a dog who clearly viewed her environment as having much more value than listening to or sitting at the feet of her owner. The environment was so valuable, that even the jerking of the leash, which was intended to be a positive punisher to lower the probability of the leash pulling behavior, did not give the dog reason to stop reacting to what was going on around her.

Ironically I had just come from working with another dog and his owner on a very similar issue. However, in just a few minutes time the dog I was working was focused on me and sitting at my side, and able to look at the environment only to turn his head back to me.

What did I do differently?

dog training tip from Cincinnati dog trainer Lisa DesatnikOne of the things I did was I focused on what I wanted the dog I was working with TO DO instead (which was sitting at my side), and rapidly marked and reinforced wanted decisions on the part of my student to give immediate, successive feedback to him. I wanted to make the wanted behavior of huge value to my student by making the lesson fun and engaging for him.

When I teach clients about clicker training or moment market training (whether you use a clicker, verbal or other marker), I teach them the importance of a rapid reinforcement schedule in the beginning. The more opportunities you have in a short training session to let your student know, YES, that was a correct decision, the more your student is going to want to pay attention and learn from you – or at least learn what you are intending to teach.

Your training sessions are not a time to be stingy with your reinforcers. If you want to build high value for the behavior you are teaching, it is your job to give your student a reason to value it. Remember, when you teach by choice, your pet is going to do the behavior that experience has taught him/her gets him a consequence he/she wants. Give your pet many reasons to CHOOSE the behavior you want to see.


Meet Some Cincinnati Dog Super Heroes

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What an awesome group of dog Super Heroes! It was such great fun teaching them at my May class and I am so proud of them for their focus and eagerness to learn. Thanks to the parents for taking time out of your day to bring your kids – and learning too! And of course, thank you to my demo dog Baxter and his owner, Karen Spradlin, and my friends at The Dog Studio for welcoming all of us!

Cincinnati My Dog's Super Hero kids class by dog trainer Lisa Desatnik


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