Thursday, December 29, 2011

It Takes Two to Tension: The Foundation of Good Leash Manners

A puppy-buyer emails to tell me that her puppy class instructor has recommended a "no pull" harness to correct her pup's leash-pulling.

Top of my skull shoots off.

I'll be shooting video of dogs hobbled by these canine straightjackets. Suffice it to say, I do not approve of this kinder, gentler method of destroying a young puppy's shoulder joints. Not to mention the all-positive nature of employing chronic pain as a management tool.*

Here's how you both prevent and correct leash pulling.

You go get the book The Koehler Method of Dog Training, and you follow the instructions in the first chapter. It's easily available on Bookfinder or at any public library where the book-banners have not gotten to it.**

To be clear, I am not a "Koehler trainer." Bit too cultish for me, to be blunt. But "The Foundation" is the pre-homework for my basic obedience classes, and I use it with most private client dogs and most of my foster dogs. And all lungers, leash-pullers, dingbats and thugs.

Here's the homework that my group class students get on the first night, the week before they bring their dogs to class. (They also have the exercise demonstrated, and then they practice hand and footwork with the help of one of my dogs.)

The Foundation

Before we train your dog to walk on a loose leash, come when called, heel, sit, down, stay, and more advanced obedience commands, you will provide him with one week of pre-training on your long line. This training will form the foundation of the rest of his obedience training by teaching him to be attentive and responsible to you, and by teaching you to be quiet and authoritative with your dog. It will also help you develop the physical skills that make leash-handling smooth, so that you don't confuse yourself and your dog later on. If you can do this exercise twice a day for 15 minutes, that's great; if only once a day, go for at least 20 minutes.

Day 1:

Make sure that your dog has not eaten within two hours, and has had a chance to relieve himself.

Take your dog to an open area that is free of obstacles, ice, mud, bad footing, etc. and is fairly level and smooth. Be appropriately dressed and shod. Suggestions: playing fields, church parking lots, mowed areas in office parks, large yards, fairgrounds. Avoid busy parks and places where it is likely that dogs or people will run up and try to play with your dog or otherwise interrupt your progress.

Fit the training collar† onto your dog, and clip the 15' long line to his collar. Hold the loop of the 15' line in your right hand as you practiced, and anchor it on your navel. Anchor your left hand over your right. Keep your left hand off of the rest of the leash.

Choose a target at the opposite end of the open area.

Tell your dog "let's go" and briskly set off towards your target, keeping your hands anchored.
Do not look at your dog to see if he is paying attention. Don't try to get his attention, cluck at him, tug on the leash or coax him along. Just go.

Your dog has 15' of leash slack to work with. Make sure he always has that full 15'.

If he shoots off in any direction, stop, plant yourself firmly, and turn away from him if necessary to keep a big dog from dragging you. Let him hit the end of the leash, but don't add any tugging to that. If he starts dragging you towards your goal, stop and plant yourself.
If your dog lags behind, keep walking briskly towards your target. Don't worry yourself if he screams, plants his butt, bucks, froths, bites at the line, or dashes in all directions. Don't stop to untangle him -- he has 15' feet of line, and can step out of tangles by himself. Keep your hands planted on your belly. If your dog trots along nicely with the slack of the line dragging between you, that's great -- but you still need to continue the exercise and repeat it each day.

Smile at your dog if he trots beside you and looks at your face. This should be the sincere kind of smile that starts at the eyes. He'll get it.

Don't say anything to your dog. Use duct tape if necessary!

When you reach your target, stop for 30 seconds and rest.

After your break, choose another target, and set off for it silently (no further commands) just as you did the first. Stop for 30 seconds when you reach it.

Continue this sequence for 15-20 minutes.

At the end, tell your dog "OK" and let him sniff around for a few minutes before heading home/inside. Don't make a big deal out of it, don't erupt into celebration or start a game of ball. Let your dog "process" what he's learned quietly. This is a good time to do your "Sit on the Dog" homework.

Day 2:

Exactly the same as Day 1. You may use the same training area, or move to a different one. Don't repeat the same pattern of movement.

Day 3:

Use one of the training areas you used on Days 1 or 2. Begin the same way, by walking briskly towards a goal. If you see your dog start to take off in a particular direction without paying attention to your movements, turn (away from the side the line is on, so you don't trip on it) and dash in the opposite direction, anchoring your hands firmly on your belly and heading towards a new target. Don't warn your dog that you are going to do this. Repeat as often as necessary. Be careful that you don't foul in the line and trip.

Day 4:

New training area, preferably with different kinds of distractions. Same as Day 3.

Day 5:

All week, think to yourself "What is most likely to tempt my dog into bolting?" On Day 5, set your dog up with one or more of those temptations. That might be another dog, a cat, children playing, an open gate, a family member, a radio-controlled car, food on the ground, a tennis ball, or a park full of squirrels.

Take your dog to an area with potential temptation(s). Place the temptations yourself before you bring out the dog, if that's what it takes. Put on the training collar and long line, and march your dog straight towards the temptation, with the full 15' of slack line available to him.

As soon as he heads for it or his attention becomes fixed on it, turn on your heels and run in the opposite direction. (Again, be careful -- stay within your physical capabilities here.) If you have done the groundwork for the previous four days, there's an excellent chance your dog will not hit the end of the line.

If your dog does give in to temptation, walk away from the "bait" until he is once again following along with you, then turn and walk directly towards it again, repeating the setup as often as necessary.

Day 6:

Same as Day 5, but change the location and possibly the temptation, depending on how well your dog did on Day 5, and how many things are especially tempting to him.

Day 7:

We'll evaluate your foundation on the long line as you arrive for class on Day 7. I'll ask you to walk to a target on the field outside the training building (be sure to be dressed for this, as the field can be wet). I'm looking for a dog who walks pleasantly beside or behind you with a nice loop of slack dragging behind the both of you. Remember that the kennel property is going to be full of wonderful distracting things. Don't flinch from the temptation setups on the previous two days, and don't cut your practice short.

Back before I could do video uploads, I had a Yahoo photo account, and posted these photos of my then-foster dog, Teddy, on Day 5 of his leash training (Day 6 of living with us). Yahoo photos went away, but I recently resurrected the files from an old external drive.

Since we were having a lovely blizzard, the photos aren't great, and my technique is somewhat hindered by bad footing and visibility. I more lumbered than ran when I about-turned. But Teddy was a great and willing student. You can see the difference between the first and second approaches to a great temptation in the photo sequence. More important, you can see the position of the trainer's hands, what the leash is doing, and how to make the turns so you don't end up face-planting and then hog-tied by a dog.

*Which is also the correct term for a "trainer" who is so effing lazy and useless that she straps these S&M gizmos onto dogs -- much less baby puppies -- instead of, you know, training them.

** That's not a joke. Wanna make a self-proclaimed "positive" trainer pop a vein? Just whisper "Koehler" under your breath as you walk by. I used to think that apoplexy was a quaint figure of speech that did not correspond to any actual physical state. Anyway, Bill Koehler knew how to jab 'em, and wasted no opportunity. In return, and in revenge for having their asses handed to them by his followers in competition obedience, they ban his books.

† For this exercise, this is either a properly-fitted traditional slip collar in chain, leather, or nylon, or a properly-fitted martingale collar. Do not use a prong collar for this exercise. It would be bad. Do not use a flat (static, non-constricting) collar for this exercise, or any kind of harness. And under no circumstances ever use a head halter for this exercise. Unless you are attempting to kill the dog via cervical dislocation. That might work well.


  1. Nice and straightforward. Wish I could get my clients to start training a week before our lessons start!

    I think lots of trainers do some "version" of this core exercise as a foundation for their programs. But as any K trainer will tell everyone.... if it is not 100% K training it is not K at all.

    Nopne-the-less many of us do use some version. FWIW


  2. On your comment RE lazy trainers, don't forget that you can also put a "Gentle" Leader headcollar on a puppy as young as 8-10 weeks of age. And they must wear it for 14-18 hours a day, as long as someone's around to supervise them. Or else you will never have a trained dog.

    Something like that, if the "G"L literature is to be believed.

    Excellent summary of the basic foundation. It's so much easier to teach the dog and make it do all the hard work in regards to paying attention and keeping a loose leash! I feel sorry for people who have to be reacting to their dogs all the time, although not for their idiocy of buying into the "Your dog will crumble into a pile of dust and blow away if you do anything 'aversive' to it" mindset.

  3. Well cool, I guess I did a better job at choosing a puppy class than I realized. That was almost word for word how we did basic leash training. (it mostly worked too, and I'm sure that the only reason it "mostly" worked was my fault)

    And good god, a no pull harness on a pup? Especially one the size of an ES pup?? MAYBE, and only maybe, on a full grown adult, but heck, I put a prong collar on my dog LONG before the no-pull harness occurred to me, and even then it was only because he became stronger than me really really quickly and I needed that extra reminder to him that he was supposed to be paying attention to ME, and not that wonderfull distraction over there.

  4. I do like the reversal technique for teaching leash manners, but I also like the Easy Walk harnesses in the right situations (ADULT dogs). Out of all the "management" tools out there (for owners who are not taking the time to train their dogs properly), I probably would rather see that than many of the other tools. And I've had enough training clients who were completely overwhelmed by the strength of their dogs who were happy with the choice. I've never recommended it for a puppy or used it on a puppy.

    I do think no pull harnesses have their place. I generally dislike Gentle Leaders but I've seen them utilized well in aggression cases. I dislike prong collars for all but the thickest-necked dogs, but some dogs are great on it.

    I don't think there's any one perfect tool except for a decent trainer. I don't think there are (many) completely evil tools either.

  5. To be absolutely clear, the "humane" "no-pull" harnesses operate by putting pressure on the cranial (forward) aspect of the dog's scapula and humerus, impairing motion and causing the caudal (rearward) aspect of the shoulder assembly to torque outwards.

    "Properly fitted" these kinky gizmos are exerting that unnatural and painful force on the animal's shoulder assembly at all times. The dog is always in pain and always unable to move naturally; when someone pulls the leash, the pain is increased on the side away from the direction of pull, but the baseline force and pain are unavoidable. Nothing the dog can do makes it go away.

    I can spot a dog who is wearing such a straighjacket in the distance at approximately the same range that I can identify that it is a dog. The stilted gait is unmistakable.

    Do the harnesses "work" to prevent the dog from moving in a way that is noxious to the human in charge? Sure. So did expedition.

    Pass the cleaver, it's "kind."

  6. This is very clear and helpful, thank you.
    I admit to using the "dreaded harness" on my dog and it works fine when she's wearing it...but as soon as we take it off and use the leash attached to her flat collar she pulls again.
    I am bound and determined to improve her leash walking, though she usually leash-free around the farm and when we walk in the woods. We did the "Day one" exercise yesterday and it went very well.
    The slide show was great...can't wait for the video.

  7. This is very helpful, thank you. I admit to using one of the "dreaded harnesses" on my dog and it works well as long as she's wearing it...but as soon as we go back to just a leash on her flat collar she pulls. I am bound and determined to improve her leash skills, though she is always off-lease around the farm or walking in the woods with me.
    We did the "day one" exercise yesterday and it went very well. The slides were helpful, too. I'd love to see a video. (hint, hint)

  8. Heather,
    Thanks for this great explanation and the demo slides. I shared with my brother. I tried to show him this technique on Sat. w/ his 9 mos CoonhoundX. Delightful dog, but when she gets on a scent.....


  9. What books would you say are the most useful on dog training? Are there any you recommend?

  10. Why do you say a prong collar would be bad?

  11. Thanks for the reminder. I've used bits and pieces of this technique but not with the progression over time and with the hand placement you show here. Also, as I'm wont to do, I cluck away at the dogs and celebrate every good act as a holiday. I guess I didn't connect that over the top praise causes excitement and loss of focus.

  12. Rick, this exercise was not designed for a tool a powerful and subtle as a prong collar.

    The dog can get a 30' running start, which would translate into a severe correction on a prong -- so severe that the lesson would likely be lost, and with some dogs, there is the option of a surprised or angry aggressive redirect to the human.

    Prongs are meant to be used with very small amounts of slack in the leash and small handler movements -- usually wrist action. The exact opposite of this exercise.

    Additionally, the dragging slack will tend to "correct" a dog wearing a prong as it catches a little on the grass, etc. This is exactly what we don't want -- we want the dog to be most comfortable with the most slack he can create.

    I do sometimes switch to a prong when I'm teaching formal heeling, especially for dogs who will be working in traffic, where precision is important.

    The other issue with prongs -- not common if one uses the quality Herm Sprenger brand, which is the only one I allow, but still possible -- is that a link can come loose and you lose the dog entirely. This is also more likely when there's a lot of slack in the line and dragging, as there is supposed to be in this exercise.

    1. You know, this was a really useful question, in that it got me thinking more about the role of the loop of dragging slack.

      I have wondered why so many dogs independently find the heel position in the course of this exercise -- they drop in to within a foot of the handler's side and follow along, with all that slack dragging behind them.

      I'd previously answered this for myself with the explanation that they can keep a better eye on the human if they stay close.

      But that's not really true. It's probably easier for a dog to watch us from five or six feet to the side, which still gives him plenty of room to anticipate our moves, and makes it less likely he'll be trodden upon.

      However -- the dragging slack. If it is a very narrow bight of line, so that almost the whole length of the line is dragging "in line" with the dog and human's direction of travel, it will present much less resistance on the grass or ground than it will if it is dragging horizontally between them. So the dog will be most comfortable where he can minimize that little tugging drag.

      Maybe this needs pictures. Does that make sense to people?

  13. Not really germane to this post, but ... can somebody explain to me why Blogger all of a sudden forcibly boots me to the bottom of the comments when I click on the story link for this page? This has the feel of a Javascript hack gone wrong.

    1. It might be because I switched to the new embedded comments format, so that you can have multiple comment threads. As I'm doing here.

      That doesn't explain why it's happening, but my experience with blogger updates is that they tend to be buggy at first.

  14. I would also like to add that I greatly appreciate your writing this out. I Can. Not. Stand. Koehler as a prose stylist. He's imperious, condescending, and archaic even in his own era. Reading his book is like pulling teeth for me, sans Novocaine.

    1. I got Koehler's book, as Heather suggested....and it is PAINFUL to read, but I am slogging through and am learning a lot.

  15. I am glad you posted this--As a person who has had some trouble with my pup when it comes to leash training (she's fine for the most part, but we're dealing with a little dog aggression that complicates things) it's nice to see someone talking about a proper method for training your dog.

    We do have a head collar, but only use it at it specific times, when she's exposed to a lot of other dogs. She's 95 lbs, so it gives me the ability to ensure that, should she have a pang of that pesky dog aggression we're dealing with, that she's in control.

  16. My apologies for not signing my previous comment, I didn't notice the note at the bottom of the page.

    A teenage cousin is training her first dog, so I'm trying to find useful books for her, and this seemed like somewhere people would know.


  17. Thanks for this post! I've done this exercise the past two days with my Stella and each time I've returned from the park with a much calmer and more thoughtful dog.

    When I first got her about a year ago she had very little use for humans unless they had food and she pulled like freight train. She's a 3 year old border collie mix who had spent the previous year of her life in a crate in a garage.

    The gentle leader did very little to get her attention other than rub the hair off her nose; she pulled through the pressure. The chain slip collar was similarly ineffective; she just wasn't sensitive to it. A soft fabric slip collar used Cesar Milan style (right at the top of the neck) and my desperate decision to take up jogging yielded the best results (a tired dog is a good dog). When we went camping late last summer I got her a martingale so that I could tie her more safely, and so we tried this exercise with the martingale to good effect.

    I did similar exercises like this to teach her leash manners (forwards, backwards, circle circle circle) but she's not what I would call sensitive. After the 15 or 20 minutes of doing this exercise however she is much more sensitive to my position and to leash corrections.

    It's been slow going with her, due to plenty of handler error (I might have taken on more dog than I really should have considering she's my first 'project' dog) but every small step forward feels like a huge accomplishment.

    Anyway, just wanted to thank you for your training tips and fun stories!

  18. I don't want to celebrate too soon, but we are on day 3 of this method and I am aghast at the difference. We walked back to the car across a park with ample (if mostly distant) distractions and I only had to turn tail 3 or 4 times: for the rest, he just trotted along next to me as good as gold. His normal attitude to other dogs when he is on leash is to bark like a loon, but he saw not one but TWO GSDs and just went 'Hnuf!' once.

    The difference is that he's now focusing on me, not everything else: hence less pulling, less acting up and more good behaviour. Thanks for the post.



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