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What's in a leash walk?
One of the positions that I've held in professional pet care is as a dog walker. It's one of my favorite all time jobs and every once and awhile I still get to dust off my sneakers and see some pups about a fire hydrant. While my own pack and our boarders go on walks with regularity, I don't work as a dog walker any more, and it really is a wonderful day when I get the chance. I'm almost always accompanied by at least 2 of my own dogs, and sometimes all 3 if the schedule is light enough. That's right, I voluntarily and enthusiastically walk at least 2 extra dogs at any given time.
Now part of this, is practical. You can't have 2 herding dogs and not figure out ways to tire them out, and there is never an exception day. Both of the pups are young, and even with daily farm chores they need substantial exercise. We can walk for 6-8 miles together and still come home and have a rowdy hour field run. The other reason that I bring my little tag-along buddies is that it the communication during a structure leash walk is an excellent foundation and relationship building exercise. The point of leashing your dog is often framed as restraining it from danger or trouble, or abiding the law. But I think that leash work is attaching yourself to a hotline that runs right to your dog. You dog senses a lot by reading your body language and position, and using a leash to emphasize the right kinds of emotions and leadership can do wonders for your training journey.
The first thing in shifting your relationship to leash walks is to take a look at your leash set-up. Are you using a harness? A flexileash? A flat collar? In my opinion there is little better than a slip lead for leash walks. There are exceptions, and like all tools- used incorrectly it is ineffective and even harmful. But when you are properly trained to use one (which is not via reading a blog), it is invaluable. Whether I am walking one dog, or 10, everyone is ideally on a slip lead. If nothing else, scrap your harness. Certain front-clip harnesses can be useful to limit pulling- but the set up itself is about overpowering your dog, rather than teaching it. A dog on a front-clip harness will most likely always need to be walked on a front clip harness, it's not teaching leash manners or an automatic heel. If you are using a back clip harness, or a flexileash (the kind that are retractable) toss them in the trash. I mean it, they are useless. These tools teach dogs to pull (we give them more room when the put pressure), are unreliable, and unsafe. I'm trying to avoid a tirade here, and many other trainers have discussed just how useless these tools are. The only time for a back clip harness is if you are teaching your dog to pull- like a sled, or they have a collapsed trachea- both are uncommon so the majority of dogs do not benefit from this. Collars should be placed very high on the neck, snug but not overly tight. The same position is used for slip leads. This position allows for very little pressure to be used to asked the dog to move, versus a low hanging collar where you end up in a tug-of-war with your dog because they can generate so much strength from that position.
The next thing in considering your leash is looking at your tension. Do you have a death grip? Is the leash so tight that you could hang clothes on it? The more tension running on that leash, the more pressure you can watch build in your dog's body language. Usually you can see the tension in a too tight leash running down a dogs back, and it may be accompanied by a lunge, stiff ears and a tail so high, it almost curves inward towards the dogs back. Take a deep breath, and get that tension off. This is where a good trainer comes in, most often. Keeping a loose leash is a delicate dance of knowing when to apply gentle and clear tension in short bursts (like shoulder tap to a friend but using a leash), regaining a dog's focus on you using eye contact, and using your own confident body language to communicate that we are traveling together.
A leash walk should be your foundation to a larger relationship conversation between you and your pet. Anxious, over excited, and well practiced pups ALL benefit from leadership that focuses on the journey and communication between handler and dog. Eye contact, basic commands,and keeping pace are all wonderful things to practice in the context of a leash walk. The feeling of peace when a pack steps in line with you is incomparable, even if it's just a pack of one person and one dog! I also avoid using a "heel" command. The expectation is that the dog is loosely at my side, and we reinforce that position, while discouraging and redirecting tension up ahead. If I'm in a leash scenario where I need any of my pups to move in front of me (a nursing home visit is a great example!), I have a command for that. In this way, I'm framing the conversation that the expectation is you stay close, loose, and at my side, and it's on command to be ahead, behind, or off further away from me. This is very different then having to ask for a loose leash! The clarity in this framework allows for many more dogs to be successful at leash walking in a way that really makes you want to walk, rather than an unpleasant chore. Recently we were visiting the nursing home when an actual full band of bagpipes came blaring into the facility, and both of the dogs we had with us remained totally calm, and quiet, which is a testament to their trust in our shared leash relationship.
Leash training doesn't happen overnight. While dogs have incredible emotional genius- they can read our mood often better than we can- the physical world is a bit more challenging. We have to think about what the dog is experiencing, when they pull or lunge on a leash. They do not necessarily grasp that the string we are holding is applying unpleasant force to our hands when they rail against it. It's more like- "YAY! squirrel!! I'm going!!"- The trick is to work within that framework. We have to send clear signals that we are going to provide a really fun, safe, exciting experience- but we as the leash-holder are going to be the ones who decide where we move, and how. So we have to work together to get the dog to rewire a bit, and think something more like "YAY! Pigeon! We're going past it! This human says we just get to walk by! I'll get to sniff all the things at a stop!". Now, I'm not a dog mind reader- but this is the closest I can explain to what I've seen over years of observation and training. But I think it's really helpful to remember that your dog doesn't actually intentionally want to drag you through the mud- they are just reacting on impulse. And our job is to help them form more impulse control, check in with us, and then we can go together to do all the fun things. When you think about it this way- of course good leash works provides SO many benefits! Teaching impulse control means that your pet can also be less likely to get into your stuff, steal your socks, meet dogs with patience, etc etc. Spend the 6 months working really, really hard to get the leash manners you want- and watch years of benefits unfold. And ask for help. There is no shame in not knowing how to teach a dog to leash walk by yourself!
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