Archive for March, 2012

Teaching your dog to walk to heel

Monday, March 5th, 2012

I’m pretty sure that the phrase “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile” was coined after dogs. Dogs are opportunists, and if they think there is a chance they can get away with something that is in their best interests, they’ll take it. Leash walking is one of the most common examples of this , and usually results in the owner purchasing any array of equipment possible to stop this. You might need special equipment with a large or strong dog, but you’re only going to need for a week. Why? Because equipment was invented to assist with training, not to replace it.

Teaching your dog to walk to heel is pretty simple – you don’t need to run around trees, you don’t need jerk your dog around, and you certainly don’t need to inflict pain. You do need a lot of patience during that week of training, and you need to be persuasive in ensuring that all members of the family who walk the dog follow this program too. It’s called red light green light, and it works – so well it’s scientifically proven. It works like this – and if you read my last blog about learning theory, this will make perfect sense – moving forward is the dog’s reward, stopping is the dog’s punishment. So, if your dog’s leash is slack and he can see your foot when it is furthest forward, you can keep moving. The moment he moves beyond that range, you stop, allow your dog to calm, then take another step. With dogs who’ve dragged their owners for years, this will take a little longer. With puppies and rescues (with a brand new handler), success will occur very quickly. The dog will soon learn that at absolutely no time is he permitted to tighten the leash – and if he does, the reward of moving forward is taken away, and he is punished by having to stop moving forward. The trick is to work this the entire time your dog is on leash – he cannot pull you down your driveway, pull you towards his favourite neighbour, pull you towards another dog, or pull you because you don’t have time to do the training that morning. If you are consistent, calm, and more persistent than your dog, this method is guaranteed to work, and quickly. The dog will learn to do this only with the person who teaches him, so everyone who walks him needs to do the same training with the same persistence. The stop should be immediate, with no words, leash corrections or any other strange combination of yelling/jerking/running around in circles is required.

Now, there are dogs out there that can be hard to stop! The goal is to stop without taking another step forward, and without being dragged, which is where equipment can come in handy. Again, dogs learn quite simply, i.e. in this situation, good things happen (walking beside my owner), and in this situation, bad things happen (walking ahead results in stopping the walk!! Aww!!!). This applies to meeting dogs as well, and this is how we often teach our dogs to be leash aggressive. Equipment that uses pain as a source to train, such as prong collars and shock collars, result in your dog learning that every time he encounters another dog and gets excited to say hello, he experiences a terrible biting pain to the throat. It is not a squeeze, or a touch, or a buzz – it is pain! Based on learning theory, an action has to have a reaction – so the dog either experiences something pleasurable or something aversive in order to learn what to do/not to do in that situation – so, if these examples of collars didn’t cause pain, they would be totally ineffective, because they certainly aren’t causing pleasure. Therefore, dog sees other friendly dog, tries to greet, experiences awful pain, learns that other dogs equal pain. It’s that simple folks – your dog has now learned that other dogs are something to avoid and acts out in order to keep that other dog away from him. Moral of the story – these collars are not to be used!

What can you use? If your dog is small or not a strong puller, you’ll be fine with a flat collar or martingale (for dogs with large necks and smaller heads, like Greyhounds, to prevent the dog from slipping the collar). Larger, stronger dogs can be fitted with one of these:

EZ Walk harnesses, clip at the sternum (the pointy bone at the center of the dog’s chest, beneath the chin), and when the dog pulls forward, he has no choice but to turn towards the other end of the leash (that’s you by the way!). I use these harnesses frequently in training – they are humane, smart and extremely effective. If you purchase one, make sure that it fits tightly (so that the front clip doesn’t slide around onto the dog’s shoulder, rendering it ineffective), and consider whether or not your dog is simply a dog who pulls forward, or if he is a dog who pulls forward with his nose to the ground. If he’s a sniffer, you’ll want a head harness.

Head Harnesses by brand name are known as Haltis or Gentle Leaders. My personal preference is the Halti because it tends to fit better, isn’t left snug to the muzzle when the leash is relaxed, and has a safety clip which attaches the harness to your dog’s collar in case he slips out of it. A head harness has the same effect as the EZ Walk harness –pressure on the leash will cause your dog to have no choice but to turn towards you. They are especially effective on dogs who require more head control, such as a hound breed or terrier breed who tend to be constantly sniffing the ground. My only real caution in using a head harness is to minimize corrections – leash corrections are rarely effective in any situation, but on a head halter they can be dangerous and cause damage to your dog’s neck or spinal cord. I’d also caution you about other modifications to the head harness – the safest ones clip below the muzzle, and some other variations clip behind the head, at the throat etc., and can be harmful and dangerous to use, let alone totally uncommunicative (meaning because it doesn’t communicate a message via the muzzle, they are simply very annoying for the dog and cause irriation or the dog to shut down – meaning he just stands there emotionless, which is a very sad sight to see).

And remember, these equipment options should only be needed during the training period – they are not intended to be used for the lifetime of your dog, and rather should be used to assist you in training your dog to walk to heel. When choosing equipment, always consider whether your dog will learn by calmly reinforced methods, or by inflicting pain. After all, it really does come down to just two choices!

One last comment about teaching a dog to walk to heel – they will not learn this if they are walking on a retractable leash. In fact, the dog will often become more confused – ‘why can I sometimes walk way ahead, and sometimes I can’t’? Retractables have their place for quick bathroom breaks in the yard, working with fearful dogs, or walking in an area where you need to keep your dog on leash but you’ve taught them to ‘go long’, such as on a trail. Never walk a dog on a retractable leash with a head collar – this can cause very serious damage. Retractables are NOT for walking in public places such as a sidewalk, they are NOT for allowing your dog to greet a strange dog from 20 feet away from you, and they are certainly NOT for crossing the street while your tiny little dog is on the other side of the street before you’ve even crossed. In that situation, you better cross your fingers that the driver turning at that intersection sees the thin line of leash in front of his car, because while you’re on the other side of the intersection and the driver can see YOU, he can’t see your 16” dog in front of his car. Retractable leashes are great in the right application, but please, use them with caution, and only with an already well trained dog!


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