If dogs could talk, I’m fairly certain they would ask that we stop pulling on their leashes. But wait, aren’t we the ones being uncomfortably dragged around by our dogs? The answer is …it goes both ways. They pull us in the direction they want to go, we pull back in an attempt to thwart the pulling, then they pull harder against us. Dogs naturally pull against whatever pulls against them (an opposition reflex) and so the cycle continues. Fair to say that unless WE stop pulling, we can’t expect our dogs to. So let’s fix some of what’s happening on our end of the leash first.
If your dog is a puller, perhaps you’ll recognize some of these common leash handling habits in yourself:
You have a death grip on the leash handle and the leash is wrapped tightly around your hand. You shouldn’t have to white-knuckle it or suffer from shoulder dislocation on a walk. So how you hold a leash matters. Start by holding the leash handle of a 6-foot leash in the hand closest to your dog. Your thumb should act as a stopper so the handle does not go up your wrist. Then shorten the leash by pinching off one large loop between your thumb and forefinger. Leave just enough slack in the leash to form a “J” between you and your dog. Lay the leash (just past the pinch point) over top of your forefinger, between it and your middle finger. This will allow you to comfortably maintain the desired leash length, yet firmly, grip your hand around the leash when needed.
Your leash arm is extended upward like the Statue of Liberty. I encouraged my students to hold the leash in the hand closest to the dog while keeping the other hand free to give hand signals and treat rewards. Find a comfortable position for your leash arm close to your body – either straight down by your side or bent at the elbow and crossed over your belly. The key is to maintain that position throughout the walk to alleviate pulling against the dog or giving him more leash, even if he pulls. This is not muscle strength as much as it is muscle memory built by repetition. I can hold a lot of dog this way so long as I don’t break at the waist or allow my arm to be pulled away from my body. Once you give up your center of gravity you lose a huge physical advantage. This skill takes some getting used to, so before heading out with your dog, have a friend pull against a leash you’re holding so you can get a feel for the mechanics.
Your leash is fully extended as you dutifully follow behind your dog like a water skier behind a boat. The simple act of moving forward is, in itself, reinforcing to dogs. And, behavior that is reinforced, increases. This is one of my (many) concerns with retractable leashes – they are designed to reinforce a pulling dog by giving him more leash. If this scenario sounds familiar to you, there are two forces driving the vicious cycle – a fully engaged opposition reflex and a consistent stream of inadvertent reinforcement for your dog. If your dog is on a hard pull, stop moving, keep your leash arm close to your body, your legs shoulder width apart, bend your knees, and don’t break at the waist. When slack returns in the leash, continue walking.
You inadvertently give the dog more and more leash as you move forward.
The amount of leash you start with is the amount of leash you want to maintain throughout the walk. Otherwise, you end up with too much slack and will fall into the old habit of pulling against your dog to adjust. If you hold the leash and practice the arm mechanics described above, you’ll alleviate this problem.
Incorporating these relatively easy changes will improve your leash handling and provide you and your dog with the physical relief you both deserve on walks. To put new habits in place, keep the focus on your end of the leash and be patient with yourself – it’s surprisingly easy to fall back into old familiar ways. Always practice with your dog in familiar, lower distraction environments (like your driveway or fenced yard) before heading out to more novel, challenging locations. Send me a comment so I know how it’s going!
Stay tuned! Next month we will focus on how to turn distractions you encounter on walks into potent rewards.