What About the Leash?
by Robin MacFarlane
Remote Collar Training: It is More than Just Pushing a Button, Part 2
Previously I wrote a bit about my concern that it takes more than just pushing the button on a remote collar to train a dog. (See article: "It is More than Just Pushing a Button: Part One") I addressed some of my frustration about being referred to as an "E-collar trainer" rather than a dog trainer and elaborated on the idea that in order to build a excellent training relationship with a dog we need to utilize a variety of tools and techniques.
It is time to starting digging more deeply into that topic. Since a leash is the most common of training tools, so common in fact it is often overlooked as being a tool, we'll start with that.
A leash is a necessity for the majority of us, at least at some point in our dog's lives. It is a requirement in most urban situations and using a leash is the easiest way to restrain your dog. But let's take a look at ways a leash can be used to actually communicate with your dog.
The main thing to keep in mind is the amount of tension you place on the leash. For most situations, leash tension is something you want to minimize or avoid altogether. Maintaining tension on the leash will not teach your dog to walk closer to you. It actually has the opposite effect and the dog pulls harder. This is simple physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. More often than not, tension on the leash causes the dog to go on alert and adds stress to the situation.
Think of it this way, you and I are walking down the street. Suddenly, I take hold of your sleeve or the back of your shirt and apply pressure by pulling backward. Even if I say nothing at all, the tactile sensation of being pulled back immediately causes you to alert that something might be wrong.
The same can hold true for your dog. It is a natural response for many people to pull back on the leash when they are about to walk past another dog or person on the sidewalk. The intention is to restrain the dog so he doesn't jump or get in someone's way, but from the dog's perspective he is suddenly alerted that perhaps something is amiss. This is one of the techniques actually used in training working canines whose job it may be to apprehend and bite someone if needed.
The tension cues the dog to a change in urgency and adds frustration, so the dog associates that alerted state with the simultaneous occurrence of another dog or person being nearby. In the dog's mind, "if my person is concerned and pulls back about this, perhaps I should be concerned too." This is how on leash reactivity is born. Those dogs that bark, growl, and lunge at other passers by have likely been cued (albeit inadvertently) many, many times in the past.
This issue with tension cueing a dog to alertness and potentially creating aggressive behavior is exactly why I don't like the retractable leashes. I realize people like the convenience, but I encourage using a long line instead to avoid the issue of always having a taut leash.
The easiest way to prevent this inadvertent learning is to teach your dog to heel when he walks with you. And remind yourself to always keep slack in the leash. A loose leash cannot give away your emotions even if you are feeling a bit apprehensive about the surroundings. If you absolutely feel your can't conquer your impulse to pull tight on the leash then you should train an alternative behavior so your dog learns to "do something else" rather than worry, lunge, bark or growl at others. For instance, you could teach your dog to sit and look at you whenever you pull up tight on the leash. Now the tension has a whole new meaning and you can use it as a way to keep your dog focused on you in distracting situations. Please be aware that if you already have a dog who has these problems on leash, you're probably going to need professional help to teach this new behavior and gain reliability with it.
What else can a leash communicate? Because it basically it is a telegraph wire between you and your dog, it can also serve as an interrupter. This is of course they backbone of traditional "pop and release" training methods that use leash corrections to regain a dog's focus. I utilize these skills as well in my training from time to time. A quick, light snap to the leash can refocus your dog when you need a way to get their attention. The key of course is learning the technique and applying it properly. Most people are W-A-Y too slow when we talk about any sort of leash skills. Regardless if you have your leash attached to a flat buckle collar, slip collar or prong collar, the timing has to be fast and light. Visualize how quickly the spring tension works in the bolt snap of your leash (the metal piece you use to attach the leash to the dog). How fast does that spring go back into place when you release the clip? It's fast, as fast as you can snap your fingers. That is the timing I'm talking about. That is what you need to learn to replicate if you are going to snap the leash to interrupt your dog's attention. Since most people cannot do this without some practice first, I would suggest you do your practicing with the leash attached to something other than your dog!
You can also use the leash with simple pressure and release techniques to encourage a dog to move into various positions. For instance, if I pull straight up slightly on my dog's leash the resulting pressure applied to her flat buckle collar causes her to sit. When I release the pressure immediately upon her butt hitting the ground it confirms to her that is the way to eliminate the pressure. Running the leash under her waist and pulling up slightly until she lifts her hind end into a standing position taught her to Stand. And when she was a pup one of the ways I encouraged her to come to me was to put slight tension on her leash and pull toward me, releasing the pressure as soon as she stepped in my direction. The pressure encouraged movement toward an intended direction I needed her body to move and the release of pressure confirmed to her that she was on the right track.
For our purposes in remote collar training the leash is used as an aid in translating the meaning of the e-collar taps in our beginning phase of learning. We're generally using the leash to assist the dog in moving in the right direction so that we can stop the e-collar taps and help the dog make the correct associations with our commands.
The leash is absolutely a critical piece of equipment in creating a reliable, well-trained dog. Learning just how much information it can provide will assist you in building a better skill set to communicate with your dog. It is also something that is worth the investment. There is nothing like a soft, supple, 5 or 6 foot leather leash. Us old timers guard our leashes as if they were 14 carat! And if you can still find the craftsmanship of a braided, rather than stitched, product with a brass snap bolt, my birthday is in March. ;-)
Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.