by Naomi Heck
In my previous post I talked about collars and harnesses that are designed to reduce leash pulling. Some dogs stop pulling with them right away, but many dogs will continue to pull, just not as intensely, unless taught otherwise. If you were to ask your German Shorthaired Pointer why he pulls, he would probably say “Because it works. My owner is a little slow, so I have to pull her toward where I want to go. If I pull hard enough, she follows me. Sometimes she only takes a step or extends her arm, but at least I can gain a few inches and get a nose full of new smells. You really have to be persistent in training humans!”
In my opinion, walking on a loose leash is the hardest thing to teach a dog. How do you define polite leash walking? Does your dog understand your definition and rules? Have you made them simple and clear? Or is your dog thinking he can pull sometimes (if you are not paying attention or in a hurry), he can cut in front of you (possibly tripping you in the process), and he can lunge at other dogs?
There are 2 off-leash games that are helpful in preparing your GSP for leash walking. The first game is to get your dog to LOVE following you. This is easy and natural for puppies, but the invisible umbilical cord that makes a little puppy so endearing gets severed when adolescence begins at about 5 months old. That is why playing this game during puppyhood is important. But even if your dog is already an adult, the game is worth teaching and will become fun if you make it so.
Start indoors. Encourage your dog to follow you using a happy voice and body language. Move away from him and be inviting: bend low, clap your hands, slap your thigh make kissy noises, and act excited. Give tasty treats when he arrives, then change directions again, moving away from him. Constantly encourage and praise as he follows close behind you. Gradually increase the number of paces he must follow before giving him a treat.
When he is doing well indoors, practice outside in a quiet fenced area. If you can’t get to a fenced enclosure, let your dog drag a lightweight long line with knots every few feet in case you have to step on it to keep him from taking off. You are competing with the environment, so make it worth his while to follow you. If he is too busy investigating something to hear you, run quickly away from him and BE EXCITING! Use lots of praise when he moves toward you and be generous with great tasting food when he reaches you. Change directions often. If you need extra help, use a squeaky toy to entice him.
The next game to play is off-leash heeling (in a fenced area). When your dog realizes it is great fun to follow you, start teaching him to stay on your left side (or right if you prefer) close to your leg. Give treats only when your dog’s head is next to your leg. In the beginning, it’s okay to lure your dog into position with a treat in your left hand as you walk. Then stand still, put a treat to his nose and lift that hand upward, saying “sit”. When he sits next to you, give the treat. Say “heel” and take just a couple of steps. Praise while he is walking at your left side, luring with a treat if necessary to keep him there. Stop again and get him to sit, then treat. Say “heel” and walk again, etc. When he understands this game, be selective about when you give the treat. Treat for excellent alignment at your side. Reward faster sits or longer stretches of heeling, asking for a little bit before giving a treat as he improves. Remember to use lots of verbal praise to give him clear feedback when he is doing it right!
Now that your dog loves sticking with you, introduce the equipment (see my last post for recommendations). When you first start leash training, it is important that you have no agenda to go anywhere. If you must go from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, it will interfere with training. For the first week or so, potty and exercise your dog in the yard and leash train in front of your house. Temporarily suspend walks around the block until your dog understands what is expected.
The first and most important leash lesson is YIELDING TO PRESSURE, no matter what kind of collar or harness you are using. That means every time the leash tightens, your dog must take a step toward you. You do not need treats for this because getting to explore the environment is the ultimate reward. You may want to start this exercise at the front door and work your way outside as I will describe.
Stand still with your dog on leash (I like a 4 foot length). When your dog hits the end of the leash, wait without saying a word or yanking the leash. In the beginning, you might need to wait a few minutes if your dog is an expert at ignoring you and pulling. But you don’t have an agenda, right? So consider this wait to be part of training and let your dog figure things out. When your dog takes that first step toward you and the leash starts to loosen, immediately drop all tension on the leash, praise profusely, then take ONE GIANT STEP forward and stand still again. Repeat this wait-and-step sequence over and over. Your dog’s reward for yielding to leash tension (taking a step toward you) is immediate comfort AND moving forward a little bit. The lesson has to be perfectly clear: tight leash equals mild discomfort and no movement; loose leash equals comfort and walking. If you are familiar with clicker training, marking the exact moment your dog steps toward you with a click before taking a giant step will make this lesson even clearer. (Maybe I’ll do a post on clicker training in the future. J)
Gradually increase the number of steps you take after your dog consistently yields to leash pressure. Later, you can make this exercise more challenging by waiting for eye contact or a sit (or both) before taking a step. Make sure you stop walking the instant he forges ahead and tightens the leash. This means that you must pay attention to what your dog is doing and not be texting your friends while you walk. It is only fair if you expect him to pay attention to you. If you take the time to lay a solid foundation, your walks will soon be a lot more enjoyable.
You can incorporate on-leash heeling periodically on your walk. Before crossing the street, have your dog sit at the curb, heel across the street, sit again, then resume walking leisurely. I don’t expect my GSP to heel on an entire walk. I can’t concentrate for that long, so I don’t expect him to either. I wouldn’t want to go for a walk with my husband if I had to keep shoulder to shoulder with him. It would be like high school marching band, which was fun for show back then, but hardly relaxing. So let your dog explore and enjoy the walk as long as there is no tension on the leash, and occasionally ask for some obedience along the way to gently remind him that you are to be respected.