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.


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?


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.



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


Night Moves

I go out walkin’ after midnight
Out in the moonlight, just like we used to do – Patsy Cline

If you haven’t been able to tell in all the years I’ve written this blog, I’m a huuuuuuuge geek.  My posts are riddled with geeky memes.  Danika brings it up sometimes (we upload  images, etc. to a shared source, so it all gets pooled together).  The other day I was browsing through the images we’ve used in our posts.  Here’s some of Danika’s recent images she’s used for her articles:

One dog doing a doggie thing.

One dog doing a doggie thing.

Ms. LSP with her brother James Franco. I'm not kidding here.

Two dogs doing dog things.


Where's the doggie dog?

Where’s the doggie dog?

Found the doggie dog!

Found the doggie dog!

Yeah.  For some reason Danika’s posts contain pics of dogs.  I don’t get it. I do it a little differently:

Dog post using Supernatural

Dog post using Supernatural

Just an average day with your typical Shock Jock.

Just an average day with your typical Shock Jock.

I don't even remember why I used this gif, but it's the 10th Doctor, so ...no reason needed.

I don’t even remember why I used this gif, but it’s the 10th Doctor, so …no reason needed.

So, what does this have to do with anything dog related?  Everything.  It’s easy for me to understand dogs, because I realize it’s not about training them.  Not really.  As Edward Hoagland stated, “In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.”   It’s more about working with your dog to build a relationship, Piloting them so they can live comfortably live in a human world.

When clients call me to their house, they are at their wits’ end.  They’re frustrated with certain behaviors they don’t understand.  My job is to try to build a bridge between dogs and humans, and to do that, I need to help humans understand exactly what’s going through a dog’s mind when they exhibit behaviors x, y & z.  Once they can empathize with their dog, it’s so much easier for them to build that bridge, and meet their dog in the middle.  Pop culture helps me build that bridge.  For instance, the concept of Piloting isn’t too difficult (I’ve been doing it since I first found a stray dog while in grade school).  However, the terminology?  How to explain it to people?  I have this man to thank:

Yes, I can quote the movie word for word.  And sometimes still do!  But aside from being one of my favorite movies, it had the easiest analogy for how your dog feels without guidance in a world they understand.  ”Nobody’s flying the plane!”   And when I would bring this analogy up to my clients, it finally clicked for them.  Hence the term “Piloting” was born.

So, after that lengthy introduction, I’ll bet you’re wondering what this post is actually about.  It’s about all you night crawlers out there, as I like to call you.  Those of you who have dog-reactive dogs, and therefore are out there crawling around after midnight, hoping you don’t encounter another dog.  Don’t worry, no judgment from me – I’ve been known to do it, too.

Earlier this week I wrote a post about Progression, and how it’s never about perfection, it’s about working towards a goal.  That’s progress, and that’s a great thing!  That’s what works.  Perfection, on the other hand, is something that can only be found in our imaginations.

And Tom Hardy.  With a dog.  It can be found here.

And Tom Hardy. With a dog. It can be found here, too.

So, back to us night crawlers.

When I was first dealing with Sparta’s dog-reactivity, I had to constantly keep in mind the three most important concepts when Piloting a dog:

1) Control myself (no freaking out, shouting, etc., and calm body language).

2) Control the situation.  In other words, if I didn’t have control of Sparta, I wasn’t going to take another step towards that other dog who was freaking her out.  Don’t add stimulation to a situation if you don’t have control of the situation.  Take your time.

3) Answer questions.  If Sparta was super-focused on something, odds are she was asking a question, and that question must be answered.

The hard part about all of this was Step 2:  Control the situation.  I mean, I live in a place that is crawling with dogs all the time.  People always have their dogs out for a walk.  I was still working on her behavior, so I very well couldn’t just throw her into the deep end of the pool with a “sink or swim” mentality.

That’s how we became night-crawlers.  We perfected worked on Piloting during walks first, and got leash-walking under control when there were no dogs present.  Once we had that accomplished, we were able to start adding dogs.  That meant for the longest time, our walks took place at 11:00 at night.

Magical things happened.  We just had to be home by midnight.

Magical things happened. We just had to be home by midnight.

Gradually, we started to switch out our times earlier and earlier, encountering one dog when we’d start at 10:30, and then perhaps two other dogs when we’d start at 10:15….getting the picture?  Rather than subject both of us to the stress of the usual 150 dogs out for a walk at 6pm, we were able to control our environment to fit our progress.  To this day, I still prefer walking Sparta at night. Somehow it feels like “our time”.

So, back to being a geek.

I couldn’t come up with a title for this blog post. So I decided to catch up on some Supernatural episodes. Fortunately, Sam, Dean, and Baby came through for me with a title. Thanks guys.


Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio