5 Steps to Better Walks, Part 2
My last post explains the importance of using the right harness and leash. Here are five more ways we can improve leash walks. Minimizing pressure is one of the keys because pressure generally triggers pulling. With better handling skills, plus improving the way we use our body and voice, we can influence our dogs to do what we want, rather than try to physically control them.
And remember, pulling back or holding tightly at our end doesn’t help at all. Like your parents used to say when you fought with your siblings, it doesn’t matter who started it!
1. Keep yourself in balance. The habit of holding the leash with one hand and letting your arm extend fully (the water-skiing position) is downright risky. It’s so easy to be pulled off balance and fall if your dog suddenly lunges forward. Even if you use both hands, it’s reflexive to lean back when you’re being pulled forward. Both parties are off balance, and that feels unpleasant, unsafe, and stressful.
Retractable leashes, as I should have noted last time, must be discouraged. Because there is always tension on the cord or tape, it’s impossible to teach loose-leash walking. Moreover, the retractable leash is widely (and rightly) considered potentially dangerous for dogs as well as people. Here are 10 reasons: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-karen-becker/why-i-dont-recommend-retr_b_7657416.html)
Holding the leash: Put the leash loop or sliding handle over one hand (not your wrist), and let the middle of the leash lay across your other hand. Keep that second hand open, palm up, so the leash slides through it. You can close it to brake, take up and hold the slack, and let some out after stopping. Plus, letting it slide out as your dog moves ahead gives her a warning (like the yellow traffic light) before hitting the end of the leash. A slow stop is far less abrupt and jolting than a sudden one.
Important: Keep your elbows bent and close to your body. This really helps you to remain balanced over your feet. It also allows you to release the pressure after stopping.
To quickly move your dog from something unsafe, hold the leash in both hands against your center and step away. Use your body, not your arms.
2. Be clear and consistent. In order for your dog to understand that a certain amount of leash pressure means Stop, you need to actually stop. Be consistent or else your dog will get a mixed message. If you keep on walking when the leash is pulled tight, that’s like driving with the brakes on. Besides, it makes pulling “work” for the dog. Dogs will habituate to that discomfort and learn to pull even harder to go faster or to reach something interesting.
3. Rebalance and Reconnect. Walking in balance is easier when your dog can first stand without any pressure. It’s not commonly understood that being balanced (weight equally distributed) makes dogs feel safer, which is their first priority. It’s calming. Now both of you should feel less tense, can take a breath, and reconnect with each other.
At this point, you have a few options other than just starting forward again:
—Walk up to your dog’s shoulder before releasing the brake, then turn your dog towards you and continue in that direction.
—Use your voice to encourage your dog to come back to your side.
—Do a 180 so that your dog is now behind you and needs to catch up.
—Wait for your dog to look at you. Now she’s really with you, and that mental connection will definitely improve your walks too.
If your dog is worried or excited about something up ahead, stop and rebalance, then immediately change direction to put more distance between you and whatever it is. Dragging your dog away (as I used to do) is counter-productive.
4. Use Positive Cues. I’ve seen people walk their dogs saying No! over and over to mean Don’t pull, Don’t go that way, Don’t sniff, Don’t stop and stare at that, and other restrictions. Instead teach and use clear cues for what you DO want. Mine are Let’s go; This way (make sure your body is facing the direction you want to go); Wait (be still so I can bag deposits), Leave It; That’s enough or Okay (my release word) when the sniffing becomes excessive; and Let’s go home. And for lagging, the clicking sound riders use with horses also encourages dogs to speed up.
5. Begin Walks Calmly. If your dog tends to be so excited about going out into the world that she charges right out the door, dragging you behind, wait for calmness before you put on the harness. Or before opening the door. Or before leaving the front step. Just stand quietly and wait for her to take things in, calm down, stand still on a loose leash, and maybe even look up at you. It may take a half-minute or so the first couple of times, but you’ll be surprised how quickly your dog catches on—and how much nicer the walk can be after starting out this way.
Bonus tip: Take treats with you to reward walking nicely near your side, to distract from something upsetting, and to show that being close and checking in with you—voluntarily—is in her best interests. Happy talk and smiles help too! You will be rewarded with more attention and a nice, loose leash. I never leave home with my dogs without wearing my treat bag.
For readers who live in or near Easton, I can provide harnesses and leashes, make sure they fit, and teach you and your dog leash-handling skills and other tips for having pleasant walks together.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2018