Leash Walking Without The Drama

Freedom is not the absence of obligation or restraint, but the freedom of movement within healthy, chosen parameters.

Kristin Armstrong

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Last week I had a rather full schedule training, including a couple of dogs who were, for lack of a better term, “aggressive”.  And this is how my week ended.

image1-8I really wish I could say I got it doing something exciting. It didn’t happen while I was training dogs.  It happened while I was painting.

I’m officially middle aged.

Anyway, I’m supposed to rest it for at least a week, so as far as sprains go, it’s not too bad.  Now that brings to light a few questions, though:  how am I supposed to do this week’s training sessions, which includes one aggressive dog, as well as 3 super-hyper dogs, whom will undoubtedly need work on leash walking.

The answer is that if I can’t walk dogs with a mildly sprained wrist, then I can’t walk dogs.

The secret to working with dogs is to never make them feel restrained.  In other words, I shouldn’t need muscle to walk a dog.  If I am able to drive a car (which I am), then I am okay to walk a dog.

The biggest complaint I hear about people walking their dog is that the dog is pulling the whole time, causing the owner’s arms to become tired very quickly.  But let’s think about it  rationally:  the dog physically can not be pulling you unless you are pulling back.  In other words, you are pulling backwards just as much as they are pulling forward.  You are trying to muscle your way through the walk.  Even worse, the reason why your dog is pulling is because you’ve restrained them…no, not with the leash, but with the tension attached to the leash.  You’ve engaged their fight or flight response, causing them to pull forward, which in turn engaged your flight or fight response, causing you to automatically pull backwards.

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But what if you didn’t fall into that vicious cycle?  What if you didn’t sink your feet into the ground, and pull back with all your force?  No, I’m not stating you should let your dog run amok while you follow meekly behind.  But rather than using brute force, have you tried answering your dog’s question instead?

Dogs ask a lot of question, all the time.   Answering your dog’s questions is called “Piloting” them.  Some questions you can ignore (“Is it okay if I scratch my ear now?” or “Mind if I take a nap?”).  Others you want to give a profound, hearty “yes” to, (“Should I potty outside?” or “Should I sit politely to get that treat?”).  But the most important ones sometimes require a “no”, such as, “Can I jump on your guest?”, or, in this case, “Can I lead our walk?”.  The answer must be “no“. So how do you “answer” your dog with a negative?

Easy.

Stand up as straight as you can, pretend your dog is a lot taller, and simply invade their personal space.  Keep your feel like a letter “V” so you don’t accidentally step on their paws.  The moment they are no longer “asking” the question, you are done.  So, for instance, if my Sparta were barking at something outside the window, I would simply stand up straight and get between her and the window she’s barking at, and back her off the window using strong, confident body language. I’m “claiming” the window, or, as we put it, answering her question, “Should I be worried about that dog outside?”.  The answer is “no”.

How can I tell when she’s accepted the answer?  She will stop barking for a moment, perhaps look at me, sit down, turn her head away, or even just walk away.  She is no longer actively engaged in the window, or what’s outside, therefore, I no longer have to answer her question.  I’m done.  No force involved.  I didn’t drag her away from the window, I merely crowded her out from it, using my body.

So how does this work on a walk?  Well, let’s start with the three most important steps:
1) Control yourself. No anger, no yelling. Good, confident body language. Fake it if you have to.

2) Control the situation.  Did you just walk out that door with the dog dragging you, and then continue walking? Control each and every moment.  If you lost control, that’s okay, just reboot to regain control.  Don’t just follow the momentum. Create calm.  It’s okay to stop and start over.

3) Answer questions as they come up, using the body language.

Okay, now you’re ready.

Go to the front door.  Put Fido’s leash on.  Now I want you to “claim” the door.  In other words, Fido’s first question is going to be, “Do you want me to lead you out the door?”  Your answer is “No”, so simply pivot on your foot that’s closest to your dog, and now you should be facing Fido, with your back to the door. You yourself should look like you are a door that just slammed in Fido’s face.  Using your body language, gently back him away from the door, using an occasional tug, tug, tug on the leash if necessary, but never holding him back physically. Now he’s calm?  Okay then, you’re ready to walk outside.

Take each step slowly.  If he tries to drag you down the front steps, stop, give a series of gentle tugs until he is close by you again.  His ears should never be past your knees – if they are, he’s leading you.  Simply answer his question; the moment his ears get past your leg, give a gentle tug on the leash, and/or pivot on your foot so you are now facing him, again, looking like you are a door that just closed on him.

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When Fido backs up to where he belongs, and/or looks away, you’re good to “unslam” the door and move on.  No pulling, no yanking, and now restraining.  Merely answering questions.

At first, Fido is going to have a lot of questions that need answering, because let’s face it, he’s always lead you on the walks before.  Stick with it.  Answer his question each and every time he asks if he should lead.  The first 10 minutes are going to be very frustrating for you.  The next 10 minutes will be less so.  The final 10 minutes are going to be like a whole new, positive experience.

Keep calm and pilot on

 

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

 

Separation Anxiety – Five Steps to Help Your Dog Past Their Fear

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.

- Khalil Gibran

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Separation anxiety.  I hate those words so much, because those two short words encompass such fear and terror, inadequately describing the mental state of a dog who is experiencing the condition.  I personally believe that “separation trauma” or even “separation madness” may be better descriptions of this condition, even if only marginally.  Because after all, in order to work with a behavior, an adequate understanding of the emotions of, as well as empathy for, the poor creature experiencing the condition, is absolutely necessary.

First, understand that dogs and wolves are virtually the same creature.  Running parallel along the same course, if you will.  Obviously there are some minor differences (appearance, not the least), but even the rather un-wolflike Cocker Spaniel can breed with a wolf, that’s how closely aligned they are. Humans can only procreate with other humans.

Now, there are a few differences between dogs and wolves that need to be address.  Namely, that dogs are essentially wolves that are mentally adolescent or younger their entire lives.

Some are mentally more immature than others.  Not stupid; nor backwards in any way.  Just not mentally matured to that of a wolf.  To put it in human terms, think of a Lab as a 5-year old child.  They ask a lot of questions, but mostly of a benign, if not mildly annoying nature. Think of the types of questions a 5-year old human may ask:

“Can I have cake for dinner?  Can I play in the mud?”

Nothing dangerous, just merely annoying.

Think of your typical Beagle as more of a 12 year old kid. Definitely more money in their Piloting Piggy Bank, and the questions may not be as constant, but are starting to take a little more Piloting to answer them. They won’t just accept your answer “just because”, and their questions are a little more difficult:

“Can I nip you if I don’t like your answer?  Can I make this intruder you call ‘Grandma’ go away?”

Answering their questions with a “because I said so” isn’t going to work.  They are a little more mature mentally, and require good answers.

Finally we have dogs like the Akita.  I hate that these guys get such a bad rep.  They aren’t bad dogs at all, they just have a lot of money in their Piloting Piggy Banks.  They are like a 17 year old.  They can take care of themselves.  Are they fully mature?  No.  But are they going to take any answer you give them?  Not unless you have have a better reason why they should? (Hint: it should never involve violence nor pain!) In other words, they will love you and be loyal, but they definitely aren’t your minions.  You have to earn their respect, for they don’t give it away willy-nilly.

Now, this is a very simplified explanation.  I prefer to know who a dog is as an individual, rather than what their breed is.  I’ve seen a mentally “5-year old” Akita, as well as Labs that mentally, were like wizened, sage old creatures.  But it’s a rough outline of where to start with dog behaviors.  “Mental age” is one of the first things I use to determine who your Fido is; breed is one of the last.

That being said, if you are at an amusement park with your five-year old child, and they suddenly get separated from you and lost, how is that child reacting?

Not very well, I daresay.  The world is big and scary, and they have questions.  Who will take care of them?  Who will keep them safe?  It’s pure terror until you’re reunited again.

Let’s move on to that Beagle.  If you get separated from a 12-year old kid, they’re a little frightened, but they are mature enough not to immediately hit the panic button, and will most likely be able find an employee of the park to ask an adult how to handle the situation. Still scary, but not absolutely terrified.  They are still a little panicked, but can think rationally. They can cope.

But then we have the 17 year olds, like the aforementioned Akita.   What happens when they get separated from you?

Back to terror. Wait, huh?  I thought they were mentally more mature, you may ask.  Yes, but they may have so much money in their Piloting Piggy Bank that it’s more than yours.  Meaning they’re terrified for you.  Who will protect and care for you while you’re separated.

Ugh.  It can be a vicious circle!  A dog who’s mentally too immature will be scared for itself.  A dog who’s mentally more mature is terrified for you.  How to fix the issue:  a frightened creature who is shredding their bedding and their crate just to get out so they can shred your couch.  Crying, whining, drooling, even urination and defecation in their crate. It’s horrible, and as I said, all driven by fear.

Well, I’m not going to say it’s easy to fix.  As a matter of fact, it’s one of the most difficult behaviors to work with when addressing issues with dogs.  But it can be treated.  Never cured, for that fear will always be under the surface, but it can be managed.  Here’s how.

1) Become Pilot.

I don’t care how much money your dog has in their Piloting Piggy Bank, you need more.  If your dog has $5.00 in their Piloting Piggy Bank (most pitties), then I want you to have $2 million.  If your dog has $100 (most of my Jack Russell Terrorists Terriers) then I want you to have at least $5 million dollars.  In other words, you have so much money in your Piloting Piggy Bank that they start to accept that you answered the last 25 of their questions well (read: nobody died and they are now calm) that the next question they ask will most likely be answered well by you; calmly, with love, but firmly.  You need to make sure you have a buffer of Piloting money, in other words.  Remember, working with separation anxiety doesn’t start when you leave Bella the Boxer to go to work.  It’s an ongoing, non-stop thing.  You’re working on it every time Bella asks if she can jump on you (we call that behavior…well, find out here, and it includes barking at you, nipping at you and trampling you, among other things).  In other words, any questions you Pilot your dog through adds to the money in your Piloting Piggy Bank.

Now, each question is worth a certain amount of money.  For instance, if I drop food on the floor, my Sparta will ask if she may have it.  I need precisely $0.02 in my Piloting Piggy Bank to answer her question.  My Orion, though, will ask the same question, but it’s worth more to him.  I need about $10.00 in my Piloting Piggy Bank to answer that question.

It’s all good, though.  Because I’m rich.  I have millions in my Piloting Piggy Bank.  Enough to cover almost any questions my dogs may ask, including “Am I going to die if you leave me home alone?”  My answer?  No, honey, you’re not. “Are you going to die if you leave?” No, I’m a big girl with lots of money in my bank.  I’ll be safe.”

So start saving that money!

 

2) Make the Abnormal into Normal

Think about the times when you put your dog into the crate: when you leave and when you go to bed.  Both times you are separated from your dog, the thing they hate the most: separation.  So that crate has become a trigger for them.  The Worst Thing Ever is about to happen.  It energizes them, and not in a good way.  You haven’t even left yet, and they’re already starting with that anxious behavior.

We need to change the ritual.  Put them in the crate when you’re home, anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 hours. Yes, I know you feel badly for doing that when they’re already crated so much while you work.  Too bad.  I don’t care how you feel: I care about getting your dog past their horrific fear.  You feel bad.  They feel like they’re having a panic attack.  So just deal with it.  It will be okay. I promise.

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 3) Red Light/Green Light

In order to recreate a behavior, such as calm in the crate, we need to catch the behavior and give it either a positive or a negative.  Now, let’s set the game rules.  The object of the game isn’t to have your dog sitting calmly in the crate.  The object is to catch moments when your dog is just a little bit  calmer than they were a moment ago.  Respond to that with positives.

So you’ve locked your dog in the crate, and they immediately start going bonkers.  Walk away.  Not out of the house, but out of sight.  There will be a moment when the barking, while not stopping, lessens.  Or even a split second where the barking stops.  You seize those moments to slowly move closer to the dog (the positive here).

If your dog’s energy picks up, you will be responding to that with calm, gentle negatives.  Initially, it will be turning away from your dog when they start barking again, perhaps going into the other room.

Keep working at catching each of these behaviors.  Red light (walking away, going into another room) when your dog has increased their energy.  Green light (moving closer to them in a calm manner, and eventually giving them a treat, and or releasing them) when your dog is calmer. Initially the red light/green light will be pretty fast.  But pretty soon they start to understand what behavior gets them released from prison and brings you closer.  Start to up the ante.  Put them in the crate and walk out of the house. Walk right back in.  Red Light/Green Light your dog as necessary, but adding very little of your own energy.  This should be the most boring thing you’ve ever done, according to your body language.

4) Remain Calm and Bored

This goes for everything from greeting your pup to saying goodbye to your pooch.  Everything is boring and normal.  We, like dogs, are gregarious creatures.  We meerkat, as I call it.

We look around at what everyone else is doing.  If nobody else looks panicked, then we don’t panic.  But if you’re in a crowd of people, and suddenly, 2 or three of them start meerkatting, you start doing it, too, because you want to do know what the big deal is.

When it comes to your dog, the answer is nothing.  There is no big deal.  I want you to put your dog into the crate the same way you put your pizza rolls into a microwave. You don’t assure the pizza rolls that everything will be okay.  You don’t act differently, and meerkat before you put them in there.  You just, well…put them in there.  And then walk away.

See!  Homer isn’t worried at all!

5) Remember the Seriousness of the Situation

Your dog isn’t out to get back at you.  They don’t destroy things because they’re angry.  They are legitimately terrified. They have a phobia of being left alone without you.

Think of your phobias.  For me, ironically, it’s a fear of heights.  

Being six feet tall, I don't fail to see the humor in my phobia

Being six feet tall, I don’t fail to see the humor in my phobia

Being afraid of heights is legitimate to me.  Maybe you’re afraid of spiders.  They don’t bother me.  Live and let live, I say.  But the thought of a spider in your bedroom may render you unable to sleep in that room.

I may not be able to empathize with your fear of spiders, but I can empathize with the fact you have fear.  I won’t mock you, nor will I think you’re being a baby.

Now imagine your fear of spiders, and every day, I lock you in a cage with a spider for 8 hours.  Yes, it’s that serious. So rather than blaming the dog, or even worse, ourselves, we can start to empathize with the fear, and help Fido manage the fear.  Be constructively, actively working towards that management.

I’m still afraid of heights.  I get woozy on the second rung of a ladder, and I white knuckle it over the Valley View Bridge.  Every. Damn. Time.

But recently, say in the last year or so, I’ve been able to drive over the Valley View Bridge in the far right lane.  It may not seem like such a big deal for you, but it’s huge for me.  I no longer feel the need to race across the bridge just to get it over with.  I still hate it, but I’m no longer almost incapacitated by fear going over it.  I’ve successfully Piloted myself past my one huge phobia: heights. My fear isn’t gone, but it’s still with me, but it doesn’t rule me anymore.

Let’s not let it rule your dog anymore.  Time to Pilot them through their fear.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio