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Leash Skills Series #2: Defining Leash Training

Behavior science has shown us how dogs learn.  When we use positive reinforcement to teach leash skills, we get a dog who curiously looks for what to do to gain rewards, paying attention to the human at the end of the leash. When we use equipment that limits their ability to move, tightens up or zaps them when they pull on the leash, we get a dog who makes decisions based on avoiding pain or fear, and sometimes a dog who simply gives in to the drag on the leash in a situation termed “learned helplessness.”  Why should he think or try, when he doesn’t even know what it might feel like to have a loose leash?  If the leash is always tight and pulling, why would the dog ever pay attention to his handler?  He can just lean on the leash and move in the direction with the least resistance; he can even have some control over the direction.  If the handler pulls harder than the dog, the dog will give in to the pressure – but the handler might need an ice pack for his arm when they get home!

“Begin with the end in mind.” – Stephen Covey

You need a vision of what you want. Define it. Training begins inside your brain. One of the procedures Olympic athletes and other high-level performers use is visualization. They actually “practice” their routines and techniques in their minds before starting to do anything physical. Try it, and then practice walking as though you’re with your dog, holding the end of a loose leash, when it’s just you. Create your own habits first, before bringing the dog into the picture. Let the vision of what you want guide you. Create the training plan you need to teach the dog the individual behaviors that lead to that result.

Dogs don’t “come with” leash skills.  It’s not innate, and in fact, it’s quite foreign to them.  Consider what it might be like to have a line attached to you and someone pulling you around with it when you have your own ideas of where you’d like to go.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be invited to come along, instead? Training is required, for humans and dogs.    

“You can’t expect an animal to reliably perform a behavior you haven’t gone through a teaching process to train the animal to do.”                                                                                                     –  Alexandra Kurland

Training a dog to walk with you as a partner involves learning to communicate effectively with your dog, teaching him to do his part to keep the leash between you loose, and doing your part to scope out a pathway for the two of you that works for both. Start training indoors, somewhere you and the dog can focus solely on the skills you’re working on, with these goals in mind. Our next installment in the leash skills series will help you get started on turning your walks into joyful experiences for you and your dog.

Watch for the next installment in our series on Leash Skills!

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