Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Loose Leash Walking: The Agony & The Joy

by Ana Grimh, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

SQUIRREL!! DOG!! RABBIT!! GARBAGE!! Like most other dogs, this is what my Husky, Jisa, is pondering during our walks. And MAN, can she PULL! When we first brought her home (and even now, on a smaller scale), you would’ve thought she was trying out for a sled team! In our classes and private work, we frequently hear pulling to be an issue, and we do our best to teach you the best methods of managing and working on this. We provide you as many tools as we can, and then you head out into this world of distractions to practice! YOWZA! Here is a brief overview of how one goes about developing walking nicely on leash / loose leash walking.

1.      To begin, you should start working on loose leash walking in an environment with few distractions, such as inside your home (perhaps even a quiet room, no kids or other pets present). To establish superb eye contact / attention and the loose leash, we typically recommend a backwards walking method (most methods are simply variations of each other), and eventually, we have you graduate to more forwards walking.

a.       “Backwards” means that you are walking backwards, and your dog is following you, eyes on you and the leash slack. In case you are not sure what we mean, here is a video showing the method in action: Note that, at first, we reinforce behavior we want to see as much as possible. As your dog seems to be catching on (looking at you more frequently, leash loose most of time, rarely gets distracted), you can start to fade out the food – if you were feeding for every step, perhaps go to every other step…or, preferably, a more randomized way, such as walk-walk-kibble-walk-kibble-walk-walk-walk-kibble and so on.

b.      While in a less distracting environment, you should be able to get away with a mixture of your dog’s regular kibble (maybe use part of his meal?) and yummier treats! Make sure treats are appropriately sized for your dog – many of the treats on the market can be broken down into 3-5 smaller sized portions. Much better for your dog’s digestive system AND waistline! If you are doing a lot of training, you should connect with your veterinarian – s/he might recommend reducing your dog’s daily kibble intake.

2.      Once you and your dog are utilizing more forward walking than backwards inside, it is time to venture into the backyard! Start at the beginning, and gradually work up to walking forwards majority of the time.

a.       Remember: Just because you start walking forwards, it does not mean the reinforcement stops! You want to reinforce desired behavior as much as possible! This enables your dog to learn what you are looking for, or in other words, what behaviors PAY!

b.      Finding that your dog is more distracted, and thus, there is more tension on the leash? Well, we have a video for that! See this example: Yes, in this video, tension on the leash does happen as the dog pulls towards the desired item. As soon as the handler feels tension, though, she immediately turns, calls the dog / gets the dog’s attention, and moves in the opposite direction. We are teaching the dog that pulling will move him farther from what he wants. They reset, and then try again. Eventually, the dog can walk all the way to the distraction on a loose leash.

3.      After seeing progress in the backyard, it is time for the ever exciting WALK! Again, start from the beginning, and slowly move through the steps. This is going to take time, and it is so worth the effort! Note, if your dog gets very distracted by this environment, you may need higher value reinforcers along – such as kibble mixed with tiny pieces of hot dogs / chicken. Follow the guidelines for using and fading out reinforcers above.
We understand that walking backwards on your regular walking routine could look silly, and we do not expect you to do this every day (though, it would provide consistency and help you reach your goal faster!). However, please be mindful of what you are reinforcing on walks. If your dog is pulling, moving forward could be reinforcing the behavior (UGH!). Instead of continuing to walk forward, you can either (1) stop moving and wait for your dog to orient to you (and thus, establish a loose lead), or (2) turn, call dog / get dog’s attention, and as soon as you feel the leash is loose and dog is attentive, start walking forwards again. This takes seconds, and will be helpful on your journey to a nice walking experience!
Here is a video of one of our clients practicing loose leash walking in our classroom: Keep in mind, this client has been through numerous classes, so they are at the point of walking forwards and starting to fade out food reinforcement.
Ultimately, be patient with this process. The environment surrounding our dogs, especially outside, is VERY distracting and stimulating, and this takes time to overcome. Impossible? No. Difficult? Absolutely! Keep at it, and eventually, you and your dog will be enjoying your time more outside. If you’d like more assistance with doing these exercises, enroll in one of our Puppy or Beginner Schools (or Doggy High School / College, if you are more advanced) to get started!
Happy training!