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Posts Tagged ‘dog walking’

Boxer Central – Loose Leash Walking

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Most people know that an effective reward in training is food – and while it certainly is for training most dogs most behaviours and cues, we can also use environmental reinforcers. A reinforcer is anything the dog (not the person) deems valuable enough for her to repeat the behaviour again, and if she does not increase the frequency or intensity of the behaviour, we know she didn’t deem the reinforcer we chose to be valuable. An environmental reinforcer is something in the environment that the dog wants, and it could be permission to chase a squirrel, going to say hi to their best friend, or even just exploring the world around them. When teaching leash walking, the reinforcer is simple; it’s moving forward!

Personally, I’m a not an obedience trainer in the traditional sense of the word, and I sometimes watch obedience trainers and competitors teach a ‘heel’ and in seeing the dog walk right up against the handlers leg without straying at all, I often think “gosh, that must be annoying”! For the average dog owner, we don’t want our dogs to walk right up against our legs without looking at anything but us for the entire walk; what we want is for our dogs to walk on a loose leash and not drag us down the block! This is pretty easy to teach, if you’re consistent, and provided your dog doesn’t have extraneous issues like leash aggression (in which case, you should seek out advice from a positive, professional trainer). Loose leash walking is most easily taught to a puppy, who has no prior habits formed, but in reality, we often aren’t concerned with teaching it until our dog is large enough to become problematic when he pulls on leash, and end up resorting to various types of equipment (choke collars, pinch/prong collars, harnesses etc.) and training ideas. What we fail to recognize is that our dogs are constantly learning, and we ignore what they’ve learned about leash walking already; typically, that they are supposed to be walking on a tight leash. We teach this inadvertently by trying to avoid pulling and keeping the leash wrapped around our hands or body and not allowing any kind of slack. The theory is proven when you do provide your dog some slack, and she immediately moves forward until the leash is tight again. Why does the dog think this is what we want from them? Because we’ve reinforced it by giving the dog what they want while the leash is tight – moving forward!

There are plenty of theories on how to teach loose leash walking, and today I’ll share my method. With larger breeds, like Boxers, I’ll begin by using a front leading harness to provide the handler some control and safety from being dragged, and prefer either the Sensation Harness by Soft Touch Concepts, or the No Pull Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds Design. Front leading harnesses have the leash clipped at the sternum, and are effective because if the dog does pull, as soon as tension is applied to the leash she will, by the laws of physics, be turned around to face you, and you can then communicate with her what you actually want. This also avoids pressure on the trachea, particularly resulting from collars that sit high on the throat, and are much less likely to cause damage to the dog physically as a result of pulling.

If we know that a dog’s motivation on a walk is to move forward, and that each step forward is a reinforcer, then we also know that if we do NOT move forward and remain stationary, this would be a form of punishment for the dog. Therefore, the best method for training a dog to walk on a loose leash is to provide the dog with enough leash slack to move around you, though not enough that they have the leverage to really yank on the leash. I like to allow enough leash that my dog could reasonably put his nose on the ground to sniff next to me, but no longer than that. The amount of leash I allow is always the same, so that my dog can predict how far he can move around me while walking. We begin this process as soon as the leash is clipped, and only move forward when the leash is slack. If the dog tightens the leash, we immediately stop moving. We don’t talk, instruct the dog, move him backwards with the leash, or ask for a sit – we simply let the dog think about why we’ve stopped, and what he’ll need to do to get us to move forward. In other words, the dog needs to solve his own problem by performing a behaviour that gets him what he wants. The key to this method being effective is timing – we stop the exact moment the leash is tightened, and move forward the exact moment the leash becomes slack (usually, when the dog turns towards you, with a look of ‘what on earth are we stopped for?’). The more precise our timing of stopping and going is, the faster the dog can figure out exactly why we’ve stopped, and exactly how he can get you to move forward again. It is a clear, simple, and highly effective way to communicate to your dog that you want him to walk on a loose leash. By incorporating leash jerks/tugs, asking for another behaviour (like sit), using words the dog probably doesn’t understand, or employing corrective measures with harsh collars, we are more often than not just confusing the dog, and he never really learns what it is that you’re asking for. When owners are consistent with the stop/go method (also known as the “red light green light” method), even when just walking down the driveway, going to the car, or using a leash in a store or vet’s office, dogs can learn within a week or two what is expected of them when attached to a leash. Yes, your first two or three walks may seem tedious, and you’ll feel as though you’re stopping and starting every few steps, but keep it up, and a couple of steps will turn into 6 or 7, then a couple of blocks, and then will become a constant and reliable behaviour. Note: when confronted with something on a walk that your dog really wants to get to, like another friendly dog, consider the reinforcer (greeting a friend) and that if you then allow your dog to pull towards the oncoming dog, he’ll learn that it’s ok to pull in those situations. If you practice red light green light with this type of powerful reinforcer, you’ll not only teach your dog a more solid loose leash walking behaviour, but he’ll also learn that patience is highly rewarded.

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Freak on a Leash – Why Dogs become Leash Aggressive

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Leash aggression is probably the most common complaint that I hear from people about their dogs when it comes to aggression issues. In addition to that, if I had a penny for every time I heard “it’s funny, he’s totally fine when he’s off leash, but as soon as we go for a walk on leash, he goes crazy!”, well, my favourite rescue would be rich!

I’m currently working with a beautiful, 2 year old Boxer boy named Jersey. He adopted his Mom Cathy in June of this year, and she contacted me within of few days of bringing him home. When I arrived, not only did I see Jersey have a freak out (and that’s a technical term folks) when another dog walked up the opposite sidewalk, Cathy also showed me how one side of her body was totally black and blue from Jersey turning on her. This is a behaviour called redirected aggression, wherein the dog will react to a stimulus (usually another dog), and will turn on the person holding the leash, the dog he is walking with, or basically whoever is closest to him. Not only was Jersey a threat to other dogs (introductions on leash had not gone well), he was also dangerous to Cathy. This required some serious intervention.

The funny thing about Jersey, and actually most dogs with leash aggression, is that he can play wonderfully with dogs so long as he isn’t attached to the leash. He has dog friends over in his backyard 3 or 4 times per week, sometimes up to 3 dogs at a time, and has never had an issue with any of them. He greets new dogs nicely, he adjusts his play style depending on the breed, and can even share treats and toys with multiple dogs without any reaction. This has formed an important part of his rehabilitation, and he continues to have several puppy play dates per week.

So the question is, what does Jersey have an issue with? Other dogs, or the leash? This example, and many others, prove that the majority of leash reactivity issues are directly related to the leash – not to dogs specifically (though dogs that are reactive to humans, on or off leash, may have different issues are should immediately be seen by a professional). In addition, leash reactivity is a learned behaviour that is often taught in response to a young dog who begins to be excitable when another dog approaches on walks, and in an effort to control the dog, the owner is actually causing the dog to develop reactivity issues. This is most commonly the result of aversive equipment like prong/pinch collars, choke collars or inappropriately used martingale collars, but can also result from something as simple as a strong verbal correction (“No!! Leave it!! Bad!!”).

As you’ve learned in my other blogs, dogs (in simplified terms) learn by association. Dogs produce a Sit behaviour so reliably because it is so often followed by a desirable result (reinforcement), like getting fed, getting a treat, or getting to go out for a walk. This premise applies with punishment as well, except it is much more challenging for the dog to figure out exactly what they are being punished for, and they can easily make the wrong association. If the common denominator in a situation where the dog is punished is always the oncoming dog, they will believe that they are being punished because a dog is approaching them. Even though the owner believes that these corrections are clearly being delivered because the dog is getting excited and jumping around, unless that dog did exactly the same reaction in exactly the same place and was punished at exactly the same point each time, it’s difficult for them to ascertain what specifically the feedback is for. In the example of Sit, it’s pretty clear to the dog that when they put their bum on the floor, good things happen – it’s a simple action for a dog to recognize and an owner to reinforce with good timing. If you think about the last time your dog acted out (negatively or positively) on leash with respect to an oncoming dog, consider how many physical behaviours he demonstrated inside that small amount of time. Also consider how many different ways you’ve responded to your dog when he does that, and then from the dog’s perspective, try to figure out exactly which thing is the same every time. Well, every time, there was a dog coming towards you.

The dog will quickly develop a method of communication that will attempt to keep the oncoming dog away from him, because in his mind, the closer the other dog gets the more he gets in trouble. Yet, in most settings, the dog is not able to keep that dog from approaching him, because the oncoming owner is innocently continuing on their walk. Following that, the opposing dog will eventually go away – again, because that owner is simply continuing his walk – so in the dog’s mind, his communications to that dog have finally been effective. In the dog’s mind, it goes like this “I’m on a walk, this is great! Look, there’s a leaf! Gotta pee, gotta pee, peed on a fire hydrant! Wait a minute – is that a dog I see? OMG it’s a dog! My Mom HATES other dogs!!! She’s gonna yell at me! And I’m stuck on this leash so I can’t get away from her, and I can’t do what SHE wants and get away from this dog!! Grrrr….dog go away!! Bark – get away my Mom will yell at me if you get closer!! Stop approaching – I’m getting yelled at because you’re coming closer!! Grrr!! This is awful now you’re right in front of me!!! Get away!! …..ahhh ok you’re going away now. Oh thank goodness that’s over. Phew – well at least my barking and lunging was effective and made that dog go away and Mom stopped yelling at me. Next time I’ll have to yell louder so he goes away faster….”

Funny as it may sound, it’s actually quite a frightening experience for the dog. The behaviour of communicating to the other dog to go away (what we call leash reactivity, or leash aggression) is so important to them, they will even perform the behaviour regardless of how harsh the corrections become, and this is why so many people report that the prong collar works but only for a couple of months or so. Dogs will work through a great deal of aversion if it results in the oncoming dog going away. Forcing the dog into greeting the oncoming dog, or forcing them to repeatedly pass other dogs and increasing correction, will reinforce the dog’s belief that aggressive responses result in the elimination of their problem – the other dog leaves. However, because dogs operate on a fight or flight response, this theory also explains why so many dogs are fine off leash. They have never made the association of collar jerking, an owner getting their face and shouting, or even a painful stimulation from a collar, with greeting a dog in an off leash area. They are very much aware of the fact that they are not being physically controlled in these situations, that they are free to make a choice about how they interact with the dog, and they have never learned that off leash greetings result in a very angry owner. This is a key distinction, and a major part of the rehabilitation process in leash aggression.

Some trainers will attempt to control the leash aggressive dog by increasing the corrections and getting the dog to ignore the oncoming dog, or sit when a dog appears. When this is effective, what is in fact happening is the dog shuts down completely and hence doesn’t respond, but is still feeling the same fear and aversion to dogs that he did before this new training began. This can be quite dangerous, and in fact results in a dog becoming a time bomb – eventually, he will not feel overwhelmed by the handler, or the oncoming dog will feel so threatening that he has to lash out. Often, the handler is not expecting this because they feel the dog’s issues have been resolved, and the dog either overpowers the owner and gets away, or the owner attempts a greeting and the dog bites the oncoming dog.

The most effective way of resolving this issue is changing how the dog feels about being on the leash in the first place. If he learns that being on leash no longer results in being frustrated, confused, overwhelmed and often in pain, the desire to stave off other dogs approaching is no longer necessary. When the dog begins to believe that other dogs mean GOOD things will happen, he will actually welcome other dogs approaching! In essence, you have not only eliminated the reactive behaviours that are really what upset the owner, you have eliminated the dog’s need to react at all. You have accomplished a well mannered, happy-to-be-on-leash dog who does not behave because he is physically controlled, but behaves because he feels no need not to! Unless significant changes occur in the dog’s life and the corrections return, this behaviour modification will be permanent, will be present for any person (including children and elderly) walking the dog, and most importantly, mean that you have caused the bond and level of trust with your dog to increase, rather than deteriorate as happens with heavy correction training.

Jersey is coming along well in his training, and is now beginning to learn that when he sees a strange dog on the street, what he is supposed to do is turn and look at Cathy for instruction, and be reinforced for a very appropriate behaviour. Instead of barking, lunging, and biting at her, he is instead walking calmly by her side and looking at her. Doesn’t that sound like a much nicer way to walk your dog?

Reversing leash aggression is a lengthy process that needs to begin with very basic desensitization to the leash. Please contact a positive training professional for help with this work!

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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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