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The Use of Leashes

I happen to think we’re really using leashes the wrong way.

Let’s start here. Frustration. Dogs live in a benevolent dictatorship, we have to accept this harsh reality. We don’t give them any choice to do anything natural to them (we even control when and where they go to the bathroom!) unless you’re a reallllly good owner that goes out of their way to make some of their natural needs happen artificially (enrichment, I’ll say it again!). They are forced into a home they don’t chose on their own without any idea what our rules are and we close the door so they can’t possibly leave, even if they wanted to. We fence in the yard so they’re forced to stay on our properties and expect them to exercise themselves. I’m not saying we’re horrible people and shouldn’t keep dog as companions, but we have to understand what we’re doing here. Sometimes we even force them to live with other animals they don’t even like! But the worst thing, in my opinion, that we do to them is keep them on a 6 foot leash. Beyond that, we force them to walk the same boring military march around our neighborhood twice a day and think it’s fulfilling our dogs. This is why I’m a HUGE proponent of long lines. You’ll almost never see my foster dogs on a 6 foot leash, I just don’t like the feeling of forcing a dog to be next to me when all I really need is a little attention and for them to respond when pictures are changing.

Even further than this, we use the leash to frustrate the hell out of the dog. Every time they want to go near something we don’t want them to, we yank on the leash or we keep a steady pull on them the entire walk. I’m not sure people understand the role this has in aggression and reactivity. If we think about frustration in terms of other types of training, such as protection dogs and even the horrendous sport of dog fighting, frustration is used to motivate the dog to go further into aggression. Dogs trained in IPO (bite work) are hit with klack klack sticks and revved up before the bite. On purpose. Dog fighters have two dogs in a fight stance (between the legs) facing eachother before they let the two dogs loose. Think about this for a second. People use this same frustration to motivate dogs to aggress. I see this a lot with clients who by accident are amping their dogs up- be careful!

My main focus with reactive or nervous dogs is to keep the leash as loose as possible at all times. The main focus of this is pressure and release. This means that I am constantly moving my feet, moving backwards and forwards, walking in wide arcs, doing whatever I have to do to keep the leash loose. Whenever there is pressure on the leash, I’m changing the picture. When the dog feels pressure on the leash, it means the picture is changing and they better pay attention (likely I’m going the other way). A soft leash should mean the dog is correct, pressure on the leash means an adjustment is necessary, and release of the pressure of the leash is its own reward. The leash should be a form of communication, not a noose. Teaching our dogs to walk politely together (not in a specific heel position, just a loose leash) with a soft spot by you (loose leash combined with food) creates that soft closeness.

I think we also have to think about the function of leash pulling. It works. It gets the dog there faster. So if you don’t want a leash puller, don’t let that work. Only move forward when the dog is not pulling- if this means turning the other direction, so be it. This is training.

If you watch an off leash dog, nothing they do resembles what we make them do on walks. When off leash, dogs are sniffing, then running 20 feet, running back, making arcs in their investigations, particularly with other dogs. You will ALMOST never see two dogs just meet in a straight line if they were off leash- a natural dog introduction looks absolutely nothing like they way two dogs meet on a walk. In fact, if I saw a dog just making a direct beeline for another dog from straight on, I would be pretty concerned how that interaction would go. Dogs are constantly investigating, and picking up new tracks when they are off leash. In the road, if dogs had a choice, they would investigate the middle of the road, because that’s where road kill and the tracks of tires are! Imagine how interesting the road must smell! They would investigate every car they come across because again, they’re FULL of interesting smells! I think we need to consider that our leash walks should be a little more similar. Because of this, I absolutely love a long line to let dogs explore on walks. Even if they go into a neighbors front yard, who cares? (First off- clean up after your dog people! And also don’t do this if there is a dog on an electric fence in this yard). The interesting thing when you do more long line or off leash experiences, is you see a whole lot less reactivity. Dogs are able to make their own space (even if its just 6 feet to the right and a turn of the back) and no longer have to be head on with their potential triggers. They can show the other dog they aren’t a threat by making their own distance, as they would do naturally. I know this will blow minds, but I actually really like flexi leashes for this same reason. I never let dogs interact with each other on a flexi (or on leash in general unless the leash is just dragging) because things will get realllll tangled realllll quick but if you’re going for a walk in the woods, why not use a flexi? If you’re going in the backyard with your dog, why not? You can also condition the noise of the flexi thumb tab for the dog to know the sound means come back to you! The best thing about long lines is they are really a close second to an off leash experience. (My favorite site for long lines is the biothane ones made my This means you can work on recall in an environment where you have a backup if the dog decides to blow you off.

The other way I think we’re misusing leashes is by only using them outside. It’s known that dogs think in pictures. That means we can CREATE the picture of a loose leash walk in the house under low distraction before we bring it outside. The picture of the leash walk is what’s important here, not the location. I am a hugeeeee fan of tethering to both humans (umbilical training) or to a desk/table. Using a leash inside and/or tethering to you is a fantastic way to teach a dog to walk on leash without the distractions of the outside environment and to get your dog used to focusing on you. You can start to reward the dog when they are in the sweet spot of what a heel would be too! Boom, you’ve taught loose leash walking without even going outside! (Great rainy day activity). Umbilical training is a great way to teach social, leash, and spatial pressure.

I also use the leash to teach conditioned relaxation. I stand on the leash in a situation and wait for the dog to down. I don’t mean I’m forcing the dog down. There is very little tension on the leash, just enough where its more comfortable for the dog to down than to be pacing. This is a signal to the dog that the window of opportunity is closed and nothing is on the table, the dog can just lay down and take a breath. I go over this in my training plans if you want more details. I use drag leashes (just a cheap slip lead) on ALL of my new fosters in the first few weeks. This way I can properly paint the picture of the house to the new dog and I have a line of responsibility. Jay Jack says it best when he says “until you have a line of social responsibility, you have a line of leather”. He says it perfectly. Every dog will eventually try to counter surf or do something you don’t want them to do. Particularly the dogs that I get ;). So I have a backup to just show the dog to do something else instead. I don’t have to go in and yell at a dog that I don’t know and who doesn’t trust me, I can just step on the leash and the dog gets its own correction from the leash. Something as simple as a dog running out the door can be stopped with a drag line preventatively. Remember, especially with new dogs, they don’t know you or your home at all- be prepared for them to flee! I always, always, always have a drag line on any dog with any history of dog or human aggression when they are around their trigger. Primarily, I use this for defensive handling if I need it and because I have learned to not get into a fight with dogs, especially ones with histories of aggression- I’d much rather the dog blame the leash for any pressure than me!

I’ve had a lot of owners come to me and say that in the first week of adoption, their dog bit or growled at them when they grabbed the dogs collar to get the dog off the couch. Keep in mind, a collar grab is an incredibly combative thing. Stay away from that. Instead, if you have a drag leash on the dog, you can ask the dog to “off” and squat down on the floor and try to entice to the dog to come to you. If the dog isn’t getting off on their own, you can say “off” while you use the leash to guide the dog off the couch. Then, when the dog is off, you can give the dog some reinforcer- either love on them or give them a food reward. Here you’re avoiding conflict AND teaching the dog what off means. Remember, off is just another thing the dog needs to learn what it means. They don’t come preprogrammed knowing English and especially a dog with an unknown history – they may already have had an aversive experience with being taken off the couch or collar grabbed.

Currently, I have a foster dog who is fear aggressive with dogs. He also has confinement phobia, so crate and rotate or a baby gate is simply not an option. I also understand, probably more than anyone, that management WILL fail so it’s important to keep working on their relationship rather than just keeping them separate. I have fostered over 300 dogs and I continue to learn from each and every one of them. Just as I’m writing this blog, he is tethered next to me and my dog, Bonnie, is tethered on the other side of the kitchen. Both are on 15 foot tethers so they have room to move around and do whatever they want, but they are not within reach to get at each other. I have been just reinforcing (by pets and food and bones) when they are both laying down calmly or when I am playing the “look at that” game with Rocky.

I will also tether dogs to trees outside when I am working with dog reactivity for safety. This is much easier than a handler holding the dog because they are not adding in their own emotions and leash tension.

So let’s think about the way we’re using our leashes. Are we actually teaching our dog anything or are they just learning an oppositional reflex to pull harder when they feel pressure? Are you having problems in the house? I promise you a drag leash is your best management solution. Are your dogs fighting in the house? Drag leashes! Is your dog uncomfortable with new people? Drag leash! Until you have a line of social responsibility, use a leash!


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