Don’t let your leash hold you back

Don’t let your leash hold you back

Believe it or not, I find that leashes very frequently become weights holding back the potential for training. The more one relies on the leash during the beginning stages of training, the more it hinders training at higher levels.

Yes, of course, leashes are often necessary for safety’s sake (and for the law) but they often get in the way of teaching reliable behaviors without the leash. The number of dogs that I see who behave beautifully on leash and who are less than stellar off-leash is pretty large.

There are three big issues I generally see as a result of leashes holding back training. Dogs learn that there is no chance for punishment without the leash attached (this is with people who use leash corrections), dogs learn that a tight leash is required to respond to cues, and humans rely on using the leash to gain their dog’s attention.

For handlers who utilize punishment (leash pops) early in the training (not just for proofing), it is very easy to create dogs who are super leash savvy. When the leash is on they are perfect angels but as soon as the leash comes off, they become crazy monsters. They quickly learn that if the leash is on they have to respond or they will get a leash pop but once the leash is off, that they have no reason to respond. This is an incredibly dangerous side effect of using physical punishment during training. If there is a malfunction and Fido somehow ends up off-leash and loose, they take advantage of being off-leash and do not rely to cues. The only reason the dog responds to cues is due to the threat of punishment and when that threat is gone, they no longer respond.

Many handlers new to my class have to work through keeping their hands quiet and not pulling up on the leash as part of the cue. If they cue their dog to sit, many will automatically tighten the leash–it’s not a leash pop but just a tightening of the leash. They often do this lovely contortion dance where they lift the leash hand up and out from their body (as if holding up a disgusting dirty sock–its’ up and away from their body). Because the tight leash happens each time they give a cue, the dog starts to learn that the tightening of the leash is part of the cue. What results is that the dog struggles to perform the behaviors reliably without having a tight leash–which is the opposite of what most of them want (most of them want a dog who DOESN’T pull on the leash).

I’m glad to say that this last one is something I have not seen quite as much of in the last few months (though I’m sure it may come back again). Up until recently, I frequently had to mention not using the leash as an attention getting tool. Handlers would leash pop or just jangle the leash (to make the tags make noises) as a way to regain their dogs focus. This really undermines the training the handlers need to work on for focus. I mean, what times is it imperative that you are able to gain your dog’s focus? In my mind it’s most important when they are off-leash and at quite the distance… if handlers rely on using a leash to gain focus, how are they supposed to gain the focus when their dog is off leash? Again, it’s setting the dog up to fail when the dog is required to perform off leash.

Leashes may be required by law but here are a few ways you can minimize their effect on your training so they do not become a crutch or a hindrance.

**Use a hands free leash. Keeping your hands off the leash prevents you from inadvertently tightening, pulling or popping the leash. It also requires you to be more connected with your dog in terms of better communication and focusing on using other methods to control your dog.

**Use a long-line. This is a great “next step” for working towards off-leash reliability. Since you are working with a long line, tightening the leash or giving a leash pop is more difficult. It requires a bit more work than the hands free leash because the dog has more space to ‘roam’ but it’s a great tool to make a handler really work with their dog.

**Focus on keeping a “J Leash” or a leash with lots of slack in it. Sometimes you may get wrapped up in the training and forget your technique, having a trainer there to help point out mistakes can be incredibly helpful. You can always use a video recorder to film your session and to play back–it’s not as good as instant feedback, but it can give you really helpful information in terms of how you use your leash.

I really encourage you to take a moment to rig-up a hands free leash and go for a walk… how much do you rely on your leash to keep your pup with you and/or gain compliance. How much harder did you have to work to keep Fido with you?

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