We all have our individual training programs for teaching loose-leash walking, but every so often you run into handlers that just don’t get it. They return for lesson two, towed into the training facility by their exuberant pups, clutching desperately to the tight leash and hanging on. When the dog is not pulling on the leash, the handler is! No way does the handler seem to understand how to get that leash loose.
You’ll probably start training by shaping some desirable behaviors, or using a lure/reward for walking at heel, but you are dead in the water if either of the team is committed to keeping that leash tight.
Many years ago, a Volhard seminar gave us a successful technique for these problem dogs and handlers that have been taught so well to pull on leash.
- stand still.
- get the handler’s hands off the leash!
Those leashes that snap around the waist work great for this technique. But if the handler is using a 6ft leash, make a big loop by threading the leash through the loop of handle. Have the handler step into this big loop and bring it up to his/her waist. The leash will stay in place better if the handle loop is in front, coming from the right side. Snap the leash on to the dog’s collar. For safety’s sake, the leash should not be so long as to allow the dog to get up a head of steam should it decide to lunge away from the handler, but long enough for the dog to take a
couple of steps before the leash begins to tighten.
The handler just stands still with no hands on the leash. (You might have to make a mark on the floor and tell the handler to keep one foot on that mark, or stand the handler in a small hula hoop for a boundary.) The moment the dog tightens that leash, the handler takes hold of the leash and uses it to quickly bring the dog back close to him/her. Then, the handler lets go of the leash again. While the dog is paying attention to the handler (wondering what that tug was all about) and the leash is slack, he is rewarded with praise and a tasty food treat. Usually, after a few unsuccessful attempts to control things by pulling on the leash, the dog gives up the pulling act, because it is not working. As pulling isn’t getting what he wants (no reward there), the dog’s attention becomes more focused on the handler, because that behavior is being rewarded.
If the handler is still too tempted to hang on to the leash, add to this scenario one container of treats. One hand is needed to hold on to the treat container. One hand is needed to dispense the treats to the dog when he is paying attention to the handler and the leash is slack. Hey! Wow! The handler now has no hands free to tighten up on that that leash. It takes concentration to keep one hand ready to reward the dog for maintaining a slack leash, or to work out how to still hold the treat yet bring the dog back into compliance if it moves away. That constantly tight leash is history.
Progress moves along quickly, because the handler is now being more observant, trying to anticipate the dog’s actions. It is so much easier to reward the correct behavior than it is to grab the leash and bring the dog back to the handler. So, before you know it, the team is working together, both are paying attention to each other and neither the dog nor the handler is no longer pulling on that leash. Handler confidence is on the rise – we can do it!
You can enhance this concept by introducing a conditioned reinforcer (a word or the clicker) and the handler reinforces any acceptable behavior. That might be a sit, a wave, wiggle your ears, ‘watch me’ or just stand there without pulling. No touching allowed – and no hands on the leash, except to bring the dog back to the handler, as needed. Now the dog focused on the handler and is offering behavior in order to earn treats.
Once this breakthrough has been made and neither dog nor handler is maintaining that tight leash, you are ready to introduce movement. The handler can start slowly walking forward: 1 step, 2 steps, etc., making a small left-hand circle around two chairs. No hands on the leash! If the dog leaves heel position, the handler stops, backs up if necessary and takes hold of the leash to bring the dog back to position then hands off again. If the dog maintains the loose leash/heel position, the handler will praise/reward and resume moving forward. The slow pace makes every step count and the dog will focus on the task at hand and on the handler.
Build on success, enlarging the path of travel to an oval, which brings in straight line heelwork, Move away from the chairs, so they are not passively guiding the dog. Speed up to a normal walking pace. Introduce right-hand circles and turns and weaving through chairs or cones. Once the dog is keeping its attention on the handler and the leash is loose, it is time to add distractions. Walk towards a distraction such as toy or food on the floor, or another dog/handler team. Keep the distraction mild enough that the dog can be successful in ignoring it. In order to make forward progress, the dog must take responsibility for that loose leash.
Some pretty old-fashioned stuff from the 80’s, but it works well on those problem pulling cases.