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Tightening The Leash

I’m a loose leash fanatic! There I’ve said it, I cringe when I see a dog walked on a tight lead. As a behaviourist and trainer I understand why a person walking a dog has ended up doing this and I know full well the message that is sent down that lead. Who hasn’t been told by a trainer to “loosen that lead”, “be relaxed”, “you are making your dog anxious with a tight lead”, “as soon as the lead tightens you dog is looking for trouble”…… and so on and so on – there are a myriad of other reasons that we can add to why it is best to loosen the lead when walking our dogs. All this is apart from the fact that it actually hurts shoulders and arms when you have a dog that “pulls like a steam train”!

It was actually professionally grooming dogs that led me to fully realise the extent of what we are teaching our dogs when we tighten that leash. Some of the dogs literally try to hang themselves by lifting both front legs off of the table and using any neck restraint to try and swing their heads/necks/front part of bodies on while straining forward with their back legs. These aren’t dogs that are stressed, these aren’t dogs that hate being groomed; these are just dogs that have learned that a tight lead means you can get to the next place. Dogs that believe the groom should be finished and they should be on their way to the next adventure.

My own dogs are trained right from day one that any such tension on the lead prevents the journey from continuing even for a millisecond and that a loose lead keeps them moving forward. But it took me many years and a few dogs to really perfect the ability to do this; to be able to train a pup from day one on a collar with leash and get near perfection of no pulling. I’m not talking about using aversive methods here (I don’t like them, see no need for them and at the end of the day I want a great trusting relationship with my dog, not one where the dog is too scared to move for fear of pain if in the wrong place). So there’s no yanking on the lead or grabbing the collar, I don’t need to walk a thousand different directions to get my dog’s attention; I don’t have to call my dogs back to me (or pull them in as nice a way as I possibly could). But the learning of nice loose leash dog walking #looseleash is a subject for another day.

What I want to talk about here is perhaps as a trainer of people training their dogs we’ve been looking at this the wrong way?

Why aren’t we teaching people to have a tight lead #tightlead but be relaxed?

We dog trainers know how smart the dogs are and we know how smart people can be too; but we also need to recognise that habit happens and people will react as people do given certain situations. To try and retrain someone’s reaction is harder than re-training the dog! So perhaps we should be taking those automatic human responses and putting better actions into them?

I’m reading a book about habits and one of the directives is that a cue is given, a response is made and then a result happens. But what that result is can actually be a lot more complex than what we believe. For example if a person believes their dog hates a particular breed of dog and while walking down the street they turn the corner and that particular breed of dog appears (the cue), the dog walker will automatically tighten their leash (action) and the result hopefully will be that their dog will not be able to “have a go” at the other dog and be calm enough to walk on by (result); but as we know what usually happens is that the result is not as calm as we had hoped for but usually raises everyone’s adrenaline which just about always ends in a dog yelling match.

What if we changed the result that the cue and the action gives? What if we see that other dog, tighten the leash and our dog sees that as an awesome cue, one that means be calm?

All my dog walking life I have been taught and still teach that having a relaxed demeanour is what is required (and I still believe this); but this is a very very hard thing for most dog owners to do, so perhaps we need to change what it means.

Oh and "Tightening The Leash" is just what it says; please don't read anything else into it which means yanking, hurting, scaring - a leash can go tight if a dog decides to investigate something on the ground when the walker was perhaps not ready for the dog to do that.

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