Why is loose leash walking so ridiculously annoying?
I don’t know about you but I hate being dragged along by a dog. Hate it.
And loose leash walking should be really simple, right? Just walk on a loose leash! Easy!
But nope, it’s a tricky behaviour. Unlike “sit” and “come”, it seems there are endless pitfalls to loose leash walking, and even otherwise well trained dogs frequently pull like freight trains.
Training a dog to walk on a loose leash is, like most things with dogs, a matter of rewarding what we do want and making what we don’t want ineffective. Except with loose leash walking we’re contending with two mitigating issues: accidentally rewarding the thing we don’t want, and competing with the excitement of the environment.
If our dog is too excited or too worried to engage with you, play with you or take food then your dog can’t learn how to walk on a loose leash at that moment, in that environment. I know it sucks, but that's just unfortunately just the way brains work.
Also unfortunate is the fact that equipment can’t train our dog for us. Any variety of training collar, harness, halter, whatever doo-hicky is currently on the market, they will not train your dog.
Some tools, like hands free leashes and well designed harnesses, can help facilitate more consistent feedback for the dog and make training easier, but they do not actually change behaviour by themselves.
Training your dog to walk on a loose leash is a practice. And it doesn’t have to be horribly boring or combative. It works best when we take a holistic approach, teaching calm behaviour around distractions, stimulus control around doors and gates, and making sure the dog is getting enough balanced exercise. A dog who can’t control her emotions around exciting things like dogs or bikes cannot walk on a loose leash, just like a dog who desperately needs to run and stretch his legs.
I don’t say this to discourage you.
Once we understand loose leash walking as the complex behaviour it is, we can prevent all that annoyingly messy training. Frustration (both from the person and from the dog) is the enemy of good training. Understanding and clarity are the enemy of frustration.
So if you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall, take a breath.
Ask yourself what is working, and what is not.
Take heart in the fact that this behaviour is HARD. Everyone has to work at it.
As always, proactively reward what you like.
Prevent what you don’t like from being rewarded.
And don’t try to push through frustration!
If you’re struggling with loose leash walking, don’t hesitate to reach out!
Help is here if you need it.
Let me tell you a story
When I was a kid, we did Dog Stuff a LOT.
I did junior handling, our dogs were working therapy dogs, we raised puppies, travelled to visit breeders and handlers and I basically just absorbed as much as I could.
And I was so sure I didn’t want to work with dogs.
As much as I loved them, I had seen too much of the underbelly of the pet industry, and I wanted no part of it.
I realize now what I saw was burnout.
Dogs being treated as objects, trotted from grooming table to ring, from ring to kennel, from kennel to van. Their autonomy disregarded.
I saw incredible violence, and the shocking desensitization of many pet professionals to the harm being done to dogs all around them.
I saw poverty as well. Techs, groomers, rescue workers working for criminally low wages, despite their expertise and skill.
I struggled to imagine being able to live my life steeped in dogs without succumbing to burnout, making poverty wages or becoming numb to the welfare of my pets. As a child abuse survivor, I wasn’t going to put myself in a position to be a perpetrator.
So I left. I stopped training. I moved away (and impulse bought a cat) (not recommended)
I thought I’d had a pet dog, maybe train some tricks.
As I’m sure you can tell, that didn’t exactly work out.
I missed dogs, and almost just as much I missed dog people. I missed nerding out about behaviour and breeding and health.
So I bought a dog as a university graduation present to myself (also not recommended)
But how did we get from buying an ill-advised puppy to doing the exact opposite of what I’d always said and being a professional trainer? What changed?
Well, like many things, the spark of change was desperation.
I had this godawful boss. I hated this job *so much* and so I started just applying to literally anywhere I possibly could. What were skills I had? Well, I knew dogs. So I applied for dog jobs.
And thats when I found Megan at Dog Utopia.
Finally, here were the dog people I had always wanted to know! Kind, generous, interested in science and who had unwaveringly high standards of care.
Through her I met vets, dog trainers, groomers, pet store workers, dog walkers and more, who loved each dog, who protected them and treated them with respect and care.
I started dipping my feet back into the dog sport world, and visiting my breeder friends more often.
And because I was now able to curate the people I spent time with, things just sort of snowballed. Before I knew what had happened, I was training full time. Funny how things just slide into place like that sometimes.
But I’ll never forget those formative lessons. I learned so many valuable things and had so many incredible experiences throughout those years, but for a long time they were overshadowed by the bad. It wasn’t until I was able to find my community of caring dog people, who battle burnout with connection and who prioritise the quality of care above all else, that I was able to really absorb those good lessons. And then I was able to share them with all of you.
We have a real problem with burnout and low wages in the pet industry. It’s causing undue harm both to the dogs and to the people.
So curate your dog community.
Find those people who love the dogs, and who show their love with compassion and care and science based solutions.
What to do about a stubborn dog?
If you peeked into the average trainer’s inbox, or took a look at dog training forums and message boards, you’ll see the word “stubborn” a LOT.
💬“This breed is so stubborn”
💬“He’s just a stubborn guy!”
💬“My dog is being stubborn and not coming when called!”
Part of being a good trainer is reading between the lines and asking good questions to ascertain just what the owner believes about their dog.
Stubborn, like “soft”, “obedient” and “trainable” are all subjective labels, and they can mean very different things to different people. So let's clarify terms.
A quick google search gives us these definitions:
🗯“having or showing dogged determination not to change one's attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.”
🗯“difficult to handle, manage, or treat.”
🗯“tenaciously unwilling or marked by tenacious unwillingness to yield”
The first thing that jumps out at me is this: “especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so”
⁉️What is more likely; that your dog fully understands why you want him to come when he’s called, and is choosing not to come because “screw you you’re not my real mom”, or that he doesn’t have the skills and history of reinforcement to choose to leave the wonderful world of squirrel smells?
You didn’t sit down and have a reasoned discussion with your dog about why coming when you’re called is important for his safety. I mean I think my dog is pretty darn smart, but he’s not THAT smart.
The other part that jumps out is “tenacious unwillingness to yield”.
Yield to what? Their owner’s will?
What kind of relationship is that?
I don’t want my dogs to yield to me! I want them to enjoy working with me and I want to help them build strong patterns of behaviour that are safe and rewarding for them.
All behaviour is driven by reinforcement. This means that behaviours are repeated because they were reinforced. In the dog training world, this most frequently means food, but it can be a lot more nuanced than that.
Have you ever been ghosted? Pretty soon you stop texting that person, because the reinforcement of a reply has stopped. The behaviour has extinguished.
Some dogs have been bred for hundreds of years to work closely and cooperatively with their people. This is why goldens are so… well, goldeny. They find that working relationship rewarding. They find treats rewarding. They find head scritches rewarding. They like games that we like, like fetch.
Other breeds were not. Maybe they were bred to guard, or hunt independently. Maybe exploring the outside world and accessing smells and hunting opportunities are more valuable to them than a cookie.
Maybe the puppy wasn’t lucky enough to be born into the home of a responsible breeder who utilizes a science based puppy raising program like Puppy Culture, and hasn’t yet built strong positive associations with interacting with people.
Maybe the dog is scared and really needs to keep an eye on the environment right now!
Again, all behaviour is driven by reinforcement. So if I call my dog, and he just stands there sniffing the tree, what is driving THAT behaviour? Maybe someone dropped a french fry there, or maybe a pretty girl peed there recently.
Maybe I haven’t let him sniff enough lately and he really needs to get some sniffy time in.
Almost always, so-called stubborn dogs are dogs who are simply more less motivated to access treats and praise than the average pet golden. Frequently they are overwhelmed by their environment or have other mitigating factors like fear of being handled.
The good news is that while “stubborn” is a character flaw, the rest is just behaviour and learning history.
We can’t fix character flaws, but we can change behaviour.
If you have a hard to motivate dog, you don’t have to go it alone!
Contact us for a free consult, and take the first step to a cooperative, enjoyable relationship with your dog!!
Let me tell you a story.
I grew up in a bit of a dog bubble. My introduction to dogs was through my grandmother, an international judge and accomplished breeder. Her dogs were versatile sport dogs, able to hunt all day on friday and win in the show ring on saturday. They traveled all over, sleeping in hotels and performing under really difficult conditions. These incredibly fit, confident, happy dogs were the norm for me. In short, I was incredibly sheltered and privileged when it came to dogs.
Then I got a job at a doggie daycare and got plunged face first into the pet world.
One thing was an immediate shock, and I’ve never gotten over it.
There is an anxiety epidemic in pet dogs!
Those first few months at the daycare it felt like every second dog was on the brink of nervous collapse. I had never seen anything like it.
A havanese hyperventilating on a corner.
A pug hiding under a blanket.
A weimaraner pacing the gate, whining and whining.
I couldn’t figure it out. What was happening?
It turns out, it’s complicated. (Isn’t it always?)
Honestly I really demonized pet owners there for a while. I had no idea how it was possible for this to happen, and that lack of understanding left me with no explanation other than "people bad".
But I learned more about the realities of where people got their dogs, and the results of poor early puppy raising and genetics.
I learned about what I like to call The Other Epidemic; boredom.
And I learned that a distressing amount of people either are unable or unwilling to recognize their dog’s emotional distress.
This is all very concerning stuff.
We can all empathize with these dogs, especially those of use with anxiety or trauma.
But what can we do?
I know my immediate impulse of yelling “OH MY GOD” really doesn’t help.
Over the years at the daycare we tried a number of different approaches.
I’ll be honest, it was hard. We failed a lot.
It was emotionally draining, and through trial and error, with a lot of tears and sleepless nights (your pet care professionals do have anxiety dreams about your dogs, just an fyi), we came to a surprisingly simple conclusion.
Here’s what works; build relationships with people and spread the dog nerdiness.
The cool thing about this is it isn’t just something that dog trainers can do. Anyone who cares about dogs can do some really serious animal welfare work. If you’re here you’re already probably doing it without realizing.
That was the lesson I needed to learn. Most people are doing their best, but we, as a culture, have a long way to go before every dog has the life they deserve.
So build relationships with people and call them in. Teach by example.
We’re all dog nerds here.
Being a good trainer requires that we deal with our emotions and not let them get in the way of our decision making and planning. It requires we keep a cool head when faced with setbacks or challenges. Our emotions and expectations can be the biggest hurdles for pet owners and trainers.
But they can also be our greatest strength. The best teachers, the best therapists, are those who can build strong relationships with the people they work with.
We also need to question why we denigrate emotions as a whole.
Two of the earliest novels that espoused ethical treatment of animals, Beautiful Joe by Margaret Marshall Saunders and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, are deeply emotional works. They both effected real change, and continue to be politicising texts.
The idea of humans being rational is rooted in contrast with the irrationality of animals (and non-white people, but that’s a whole rabbit hole we don’t have time to go down). You and I know this to be untrue. Animals behave in irrational AND rational ways, just as we do. What we view as rational or irrational is coloured by our own cultural views and socio-political leanings (looking at you, Brett Kavanaugh)
And arguably, rationality and emotion are not mutually exclusive.
Seminal feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote “our feelings are our most genuine path to knowledge”. We are inherently emotional beings, as are our dogs. For many of us, myself included, we found our way to science based training because the methods we had been using, or were being asked to use, felt wrong. I vividly remember watching my dogs suffer through traumatizing nail trims, it was an experience that deeply affected how I chose to handle dogs in the years that followed.
Our ability to empathize with another species is what incited us to find new sources of information in the first place. It gave us the power to shake off the safety of tradition and find new ways of teaching and living with dogs.
Where we run into trouble is when emotion stops informing our judgement and starts to cloud it instead. Our motivations behind training are emotional. For all of us, regardless of what methods we use.
But the implementation of science based training techniques, the research behind them, the skill they require, these things are not emotional or irrational.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
There is this myth that I really really loathe. So much so, and in so many ways, that this is going to be a two parter!
It’s the idea that positive, science based training is “emotional”, that people (especially women) who use science based methods are “bleeding hearts” who need to “get back to the real world”.
Us “cookie pushers” anthropomorphize and infantilize dogs, and tug on the heartstrings of owners in order to get them to sign up for training.
Not only is this insulting and thinly veiled misogyny (or internalized misogyny), it’s just not true.
(it’s important to note that this really is misogyny, internalized or otherwise. Things Women Do, i.e science based training, a field dominated by women, are almost without fail labeled as insignificant, frivolous and over emotional. See therapy and pop music)
It’s not true because modern positive training is based on science. We have decades of research showing us that these training methods change behaviour faster and more effectively than punishment based techniques. We know that they work across species (including humans) and that they are utilized by zoos on a variety of animals that are far less domesticated and far more dangerous than dogs. We know that they present less risk than traditional methods, both for the dog’s emotional and mental health and for public safety. These things are no longer up for debate.
It’s also not true because implementing science based training takes a lot of planning and dedication. It demands that people remain in a thinking, rational state of mind at all times when with the dog. It requires technical skills and a lot of problem solving.
On the flip side, I can’t even begin to count the number of “traditional” trainers who are reactive, not self controlled. The blame for a technique failing falls on the dog instead of the trainer. They label dogs as “stubborn” or “spoiled” when their methods don’t work, often doubling down and using force to iron out their own mistakes as a trainer.
Hardly dispassionate or rational.
There’s another component of this, the idea that it is both possible and desirable to be emotionless. The myth of pure rationality runs deep in our political and social discourse, and dog training does not escape that.
We’re going to dive into that in part 2.