Walking Past Wildlife: Loosen that Leash for More Control
Almost everyone who walks their dogs, even through a quiet residential neighborhood, faces situations where the dogs see or hear some “trigger” and lose their mind. So do I. But now I know what to do—and what not to do.
My “aha moment” came several years ago when I was walking my two Labradoodles down our road, and we spotted several deer grazing some distance away in a neighbor’s yard. Both dogs launched into their usual reaction: barking and lunging madly to get atthem. (Two or more dogs will often redirect onto each other in this kind of situation.)
At the time, I was a new student of Tellington TTouch, which teaches how to improve behavior by getting our animals into balance physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I was learning that physical balance helps animals (and humans) to become calmer and able to think, rather than being reactive. When fear, frustration, or high arousal activates the sympathetic nervous system, animals literally cannot think and behave normally. It’s a matter of physiology, not choice. Clearly, we want to keep our pets in a calmer, thinking (parasympathetic) state as much as possible.
Brake and Release
So that day, instead of launching into my own usual response—dragging them away from the deer—I consciously used the leash as a brake only, just to stop them from advancing in that direction. Once stopped—this is the most important part—then I could relax the leash. After only about three lunge-stops, they were able to stand on a loose leash, in balance. The barking had stopped, and they were just staring and panting. When I said, “Let’s go,” and turned away, to my amazement they turned and came with me. Voluntary disengagement from big game? Wow.
Ever since, we have seen deer countless times on our walks, and the Doodles have always been able to turn away and come along because I focus on keeping the leash loose as much as possible. Keeping my own body relaxed and in balance helps them, as well.
I also use the Look at That game, which gets them to look back at me instead of staring too long at their triggers. But that’s another topic.
Now Scout can easily pass by deer just 25 feet or so away. Oddly, my puppy Torre (actually an adolescent, at 9 months old) is far more excited by squirrels and bunnies. Those little critters drive her nuts. So I just stop and wait while she barks and lunges in frustration. Between lunges, I relax the leash. After several seconds of this, she will sit because that’s her default when she wants something. (See my February post for more on that.) After a few seconds in a Sit, she will remember that I’m there behind her, and when she turns toward me, I can mark (click or Yes!) and reinforce that reconnection with me. Now her mind is back where it belongs, and she can walk on nicely.
If I tried to drag her, kicking and screaming, past the squirrels taunting her, she would get even more upset and so would I. And I could possibly be injured. It sure wouldn’t teach her not to do that again. Emotions block learning. Instead, taking off the physical pressure so that she can calm down pays off for both of us.
No Balance, No Control
Too many handlers try to gain control of their dogs by applying more pressure, especially on the collar, and pulling their dogs even more off balance, as I used to do. While it may move the dog away from the wildlife (or another dog, or kid on a bike), this response actually increases the dog’s stress and inability to self-control.
What’s more, tightening the leash telegraphs that you’re nervous, that something unpleasant or scary is about to happen. People unwittingly create a cue for reactivity that way even before the dog has seen the trigger.
Pulling them backwards or sideways or just holding tightly makes dogs feel unsafe, helpless, and trapped by the leash. Not a formula for calmness and self-control.
Whereas relaxing the leash allows the dog not only to regain his balance and sanity, but also restores his sense of control, relieving stress. Movement also helps to relieve stress; we just need to limit their movement in these high-arousal situations, not try to make them sit or lie down. Contain instead of restrain is one of the mantras of TTouch.
How to Do It
To keep your own balance and to be able to relax the leash after a stop, keep your elbow(s) close to your side. Never let yourself get into the water-skiing position. When the leash tightens, come to a slow stop. You can then step up to your dog’s shoulder and let out just an inch or two. Or you can extend your arm a bit and take one step forward. Using your second hand lets you shorten and brake on the leash better. TTouch has many leash-handling techniques that can make a big difference.
If you need to get calmer behavior on leash, first replace the collar or ill-fitting harness with one that’s well-designed and fits comfortably. Having two points of contact, on the front and over the shoulders, works better for dogs who chronically pull than a front-attachment only.
I specialize in showing people and dogs how to make walks more pleasant. If you’d like to fit your dog with a comfortable and effective no-pull harness, a double-clip leash for better balance, or learn new leash-handling skills, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org or 410.253.8196.