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.
When 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:
- 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.
- 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. Everyone would like to have a dog who will walk beside them in a busy environment but that does not happen over night. A common mistake is for dog owners to bring their dog to a park or crowded place before their dog has been able to walk loosely on a leash around increasingly challenging environments. That is setting both the dog and the handler up for failure.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. I may teach a dog that *if* you take a step – or several – at my side and stop when I stop, *then* you (the dog) get the opportunity to sniff a fire hydrant or shrub for example. For a dog that enjoys tugging, I may pull the tug toy out of my pocket for a surprise game of tug after the dog walks beside me. 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, consider walking on mixed surfaces, or other play breaks.