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If You Teach your Dog Nothing Else, Teach this Skill!

We are frequently asked what training exercises are the most important for a dog to be able to do reliably. What should every dog be able to do well? It’s a good question, and one that would generate much discussion among trainers. With so many different skills worthy of your time and attention, what do you prioritise?

Even if you teach your dog nothing else, teach them to walk on a loose lead!!

In over 15 years of training dogs, I have noticed a worrying trend when it comes to how dogs behave when on lead. Good leash manners are becoming less common, with many owners focussing on physically tiring their dogs off lead instead. Little consideration is given to the behaviour of pulling on lead, when the intention is to let them off lead at the park anyway. Some owners inadvertently become habituated to their dogs pulling and don’t notice it anymore while others struggle to change ingrained, pulling behaviour.

When trying to decide whether this issue deserves your full attention, remember the 4 F’s-

FRUSTRATION- Pulling on lead is the number one reason for dogs to become increasingly frustrated in public. (running fence lines when at home is an equally important frustration builder in dogs but we’ll save that for another article) When your dog pulls on the lead, they do so to try to get to something more quickly- each time they get to that something, their pulling is reinforced, and the behaviour becomes stronger- literally (the dog physically becomes better at pulling on lead) and scientifically (reinforced behaviours are more likely to be repeated, with more intensity in the future).  

As the dog’s pulling worsens, owners pull back, or restrain the dog (for safety or practicality) and the dog becomes more and more frustrated. Frustration increases the intensity of excitable, reactive or aggressive behaviour and- much like an elastic band at full stretch- when the restraint is finally released- look out!! This situation occurs daily for many dogs, with altercations in dog parks commonly caused by extremely frustrated dogs having their leads removed. This energetic, intense frustration moves rapidly and freely through the park, negatively influencing every interaction the dog has with other dogs and people.

FEAR– For those dogs with more reserved, shy or anxious personalities, tight leads increase fearful responses to dogs, people and other every day stimuli. In difficult situations tight leads make flight impossible and as a result, freeze or fight become the only remaining options. Dogs displaying aggressive behaviour are extremely fearful in most cases, and this fear is intensified by constant, unrelenting lead pressure.

FOLLOWING- When I teach puppy classes the first exercise we do is known as “Follow me” and teaches puppies to follow their owners wherever they go, rather than owners following their puppies. This tendency to follow our dogs assumes that the dog understands what they are walking into when of course, they do not.  Dogs that walk on loose leads tend to be quick to follow their handler and this following makes it exponentially easier for owners to provide guidance and direction to a dog in a stressful situation. Following is not about dominance or being the “pack leader”. Following simply allows dogs to follow a human that has the foresight to see around corners where they cannot.

FOUNDATIONS- If you’re focussed on more significant issues with your dog, I still implore you to work on their loose lead walking. Whether you’re wanting to improve your dog’s recall, or their behaviour around other dogs (two extremely common requests), you must teach loose lead walking. Loose lead walking is an exercise that provides solid foundations at both ends of the leash. Want your dog to show self control and make good choices when distracted or motivated by outside influences? Teach loose lead walking!

These concepts aren’t just for your dog. Ask yourself- How does your timing and consistency stack up when you are distracted or motivated by outside influences? Foundations aren’t just for dogs; they are critically important for dog owners and this is where our focus should lie.

If we want better behaviour from our dogs, we must demand better skills from ourselves!!

Understanding the importance of loose lead walking is the first step. Check in with the Underdog Facebook page over the coming weeks for practical tips on the “how to’s” of teaching loose lead walking.