Animals teach us so many important lessons and many of them are worth sharing. My dog Gypsy taught me many things but the pearl I share most often has to do with the importance of our own body mechanics in giving a clear and consistent message when teaching leash etiquette.
Gypsy was a mixed breed rescue dog, most likely some combination of German Shepard, Australian Cattle Dog and Husky. The sled-dog part really seemed to come out when it was time for walks. She was an excellent puller! The head collar helped a lot, but she still pulled quite a bit. While we were still working on learning leash etiquette, each walk was filled with a lot of Stop & Go. Stop for pulling. Go for allowing slack in the leash. Repeat, ad nauseam, especially in the first 10 minutes out.
Then one day a set of circumstances added up to a major training light bulb moment.
I was walking Gypsy and Diamond together and also needed to stop at the mailbox. So, a leash in one hand… 2nd leash in the other hand… mail in… the third hand? The mail had to be carried under my arm pressed between my elbow and my ribs. It was a slippery stack with several envelopes, so I needed to use a decent amount of pressure to keep from dropping anything.
It just so happened that I was holding the mail, with my elbow to my ribs, with the arm that was holding Gypsy’s leash, and funny thing, she didn’t pull at all.
Holding the mail forced me to keep my elbow to my ribs and NOT give at all with my arm when Gypsy got to the end of the leash. All of a sudden the end of the leash was the end of the leash. Period. Once I finally provided her a clear and consistent signal, she was awesome! She knew exactly what to do in order to avoid hitting the end of the leash, and therefore avoid the Stop & Go routine.
Now that I have taught so many students, I can look back and be thankful to know that I am just one of a majority of people who make the same communication blunder when walking the dog on leash.
What usually happens is that when the dog reaches the end of the leash, we allow them to pull our arm out away from us. As a consequence, they effectively earn themselves another foot and a half of sniffing bliss. Sometimes this knocks us off balance and they earn several feet of joyous exploration. Other times we may observe and plan ahead, and they are stopped short. For the dog, the end of the leash is impossible to predict. Pulling hard at the end of the leash intermittently yields great rewards. This is a perfect formula for training a dog to pull.
What works really well to NOT train the dog to pull, is if the leash is always the exact same length, and if pressure at the end of the leash always means the same thing – forward progress stops. When we allow the dog to accurately predict what will work and will not work and at exactly what distance – they do what works – they ease up on the leash to earn forward progress.
Teaching leash manners has many components. There are many tools and strategies for teaching each of them. One thing I have found to be true is that when owners learn to be consistent, keeping their elbow to their ribs, leash pulling always improves.