by Bailey Coldwell
Leash walking can easily be one of the most time consuming parts of dog training. Going for a walk with your dog can certainly become a relaxing, enjoyable, and bonding experience. But we have to take a lot of steps to get to that point. Pun intended.
Your puppy is finally fully vaccinated. You grab your leash and take your puppy to the street. Your normally well mannered and focused puppy indoors, suddenly is biting the leash, pulling, crossing in front of us, barking, jumping up at us, not taking rewards, and trying to sniff everything and everyone.
How does this make us as handlers feel? Usually, we feel frustrated, annoyed, and embarrassed. We anxiously explain to everyone on the street, “I am so sorry, he is a friendly puppy. I promise he isn’t mean!” Suddenly, our reactions are just as intense (if not more intense) than our pup’s reaction. Our energy travels down the leash and both of us are then a chaotic mess, wishing we were invisible.
Let’s chat about what our dogs are experiencing at this moment. Plot twist, your dog doesn't want to feel this way. This is not enjoyable for your dog. Your dog is overwhelmed, confused, unsure of how to act, and is overstimulated. Therefore, don’t feel guilty about skipping the walk until we can socialize our dogs in less intense ways. They are not trying to be bad. They are not trying to ignore you. Amy gives an awesome analogy to what your dog is experiencing, to help put this into perspective. It goes something like this:
Picture this. You go to a friend’s house and they are playing video games. They are on level 18 and invite you to join. You pick up a controller and suddenly you are flooded with villains coming in every direction, time ticking down, walls caving in, the pace moving fast, and worst of all, you have no idea what button does what. Your friend is upset. “Pick up the pace! We are losing!”
Now picture this. You go to a friend’s house and they are just starting a new video game. They are on level 1 and invite you to join. You pick up the controller, after your friend explains what each button does. The screen is giving clear instructions on what to do. The pace is slow. The screen is congratulating you for the simplest of tasks. You are getting tokens frequently. Your friend is now your teammate and you work through the levels together.
Which scenario would you rather be placed in?
Which scenario would bring success to both of you?
Which scenario would be fun?
Okay, now let’s reopen the discussion about our dogs on the leash. Let’s start at level one. Let’s bond on the leash. Let’s have fun on the leash. But how? Here are some tips:
Get the idea out of your mind that you NEED to immediately go on destination walks. The first experiences outside on a leash should be about socializing to triggers, not trying to get to a certain location or meet up with a friend.
Only go to places where we can create distance, for now. Go to human parks, parking lots, go right outside your property. Don’t go on walks with narrow walkways, cafes where you are “trapped” if your dog is reacting, or places where you can’t have your full attention on the dog.
Put a smile on your face. Laugh. Jump around. Be goofy. Play with your dog, train your dog, change pace and directions. Reward your dog constantly for any good behaviors. The goal is to make your dog want to walk with you.
If you have had a bad day, just don’t practice leash work. Energy travels down the leash to your dog. You need to be in your best mood if you want your dog to be in their best mood.
Use a slightly longer line than normal at first. Still don’t allow tension on the leash, but give your puppy room to explore and adjust to the environment. You will notice that your puppy will start to hang towards you more once they are comfortable in the environment and realize great things happen when they check in.
Don’t allow on leash greetings with other dogs. This increases reactivity, causes your dog to expect to say hi to others, and it is not safe. It is best to plan for controlled interactions with dogs that you know, in safe locations.
Only allow your puppy to get close to something they want (like a person) if they are showing behaviors you want from an adult dog. Otherwise, turn and go in the other direction.
We can create distance without yanking the leash. Tell yourself to lock your elbow so it can’t bend. Get closer to your dog and shorten the gap in the leash. Then, make a fun sound, get your dog’s attention, be happy and turn in the other direction. Jog if possible. Make it fun to follow you.
Recognize the subtle signs that the dog is uncomfortable and needs space. If they are fixating on a trigger for 3 or more seconds, their bodies are stiff, their tails are straight out, their ears are perked, their hackles go up, etc., they will likely start barking. Create space as soon as they exhibit body language like this.
Stop caring about what other people think. This is a time when your dog needs your help. They need your support. They need to decompress and to do this, they need you to focus on them.
Surrender to the amount of time leash walking takes. Lower your expectations. Have fun. You can be doing everything correctly, and just need to give it more time.
While having these socialization based leash work sessions, also work on loose leash walking by our side in less stimulating situations. This can be in your yard, inside your home, and in your driveway.
On a personal note as a trainer, leash walking used to be my least favorite experience with my dogs. I have had reactive dogs and I have gotten mad. I decided to have fun with my dogs on leash, to be their biggest fan, and most importantly, to be their friend. My dog is 5 years old now. I can now comfortably walk her on a hands free leash, push my toddler’s stroller, and chat with my husband, stress free. I can enjoy our walks together. So for those of you who are working hard on leash walking, keep at it and find a way to have fun.