Leash Walking Without the Drama
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.
I 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. #MiddleAged
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. I call this body language your "Piloting Uniform". Keep your feet 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. Pretend your dog is snow, and you're a snowplow. I'm not mad at the snow, and it snow isn't bad it just needs to move. I can't say to the snow, "Go over there". All I can say is, "Not here, not here, not here....there is good".
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.
Then simply answer your dog's questions as they come up, using your body language.
Okay, now you’re ready for your walk.
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 drag 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. Think of it like gently pumping the breaks on your car if you're slipping on ice.
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 “un-slam” the door and move on. No pulling, no yanking, and now restraining. Merely answering questions.
Remember, the walk isn't about distance or duration: it's about Piloting your dog and getting the money out of their Piloting Pigggy Bank. That's why the walk is the single most important thing you can be doing with your dog.
So if necessary, instead of walking 10 minutes around the block, walk ten minutes up and down your driveway. Spend 15 minutes walking inside your house. You're still earning money from his Piloting Piggy Bank, but the questions are so much more manageable. True, you won't earn as much money with the smaller questions inside as you would outside, but you're saving money up so when you do go down your driveway and around the block, it's a lot easier.
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 you if he should lead/drag. 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.
Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio