The mystery of the loose leash walking and how we did it

Having read a lot about loose leash walking and how to master it, I should write down some thoughts of my own about the subject, given that loose leash walking, or LLW, has been our main training focus for the past months.

Few months back our walks were still quite short and consisted mostly of going back and forth the same road or me standing still and Ailu wondering what is going on. All this, since I was trying to follow all the instructions there exist about how to teach your dog to walk nicely on a loose leash. I cannot say that we have mastered the skill yet, regardless of real effort, but we are definitely making progress and now we actually go for walks! Occasionally though, instead of the dog, there still seems to be some kind of a bouncing alien at the other end of the leash and there are days when I feel like dropping the leash altogether and going back home alone.

I have surfed hundreds of websites telling how to teach your puppy to walk pretty on the leash, watched videos, talked to friends and colleagues and I feel I know it all…in theory. In practice though, the problem seems to be that I cannot share my knowledge with the puppy.

Most common advice given to new dog owners about leash walking is to stop (be a tree) when the dog starts pulling and not move forward until the leash is slack. Alternatively, you are advised to turn around and walk to the opposite direction and only turning back when the dog is walking nicely on your side. The idea behind both of these methods is to avoid rewarding the pulling by letting the dog get to its desired place by pulling. The loosening of the leash then, is rewarded by letting the dog move forward again.

This method didn’t get us very far and for a while our walks consisted mostly on walking a stretch of few meters back and forth. I bet the neighbors had fun watching us! When I tried the stopping method, it kind of worked at first. Ailu stopped and sat down, a behavior that is probably her strongest. However, when I started walking again, she would get up with the speed of light and pull even harder. I stopped she sat. I moved she lurched. I stopped she sat….

Since the “being a tree” method did not seem to do the trick, I had a long thought about the matter and decided to incorporate another system into our walks. I got the idea from Kikopup, who has loads of absolutely brilliant dog training videos in You Tube.  For a clicker trained dog this method is really simple. It also has the added benefit in helping you in the future with the heeling position if you ever decide to do some (competitive) obedience training.

There are two main ingredients in this method. Rewarding the right position often (especially in the beginning) and preventing the dog from getting to a “wrong” position ie. pulling. When Ailu walks nicely close to me with a loose leash I click and reward her right next to my left leg. In the beginning I did this very often, perhaps every few steps. Now I’m only doing it occasionally, although she needs more rewarding in the beginning of the walk when she’s really excited about getting…well somewhere.

If I at any time notice her having that “look” which tells me she’s soon going to be at the end of the leash pulling towards some smell, I call her to me by making a kissy sound, or calling her name (which probably is not the best of ideas I know) . When she stops and turns even slightly towards me, I click and again reward her right next to my left leg. It doesn’t matter where exactly you reward the dog. I’m doing it close to my left leg because that is where she is expected to do obedience heeling, and this way Ailu gets extra reinforcement for the position.

I still occasionally use the “be a tree” method, but I have also found that for Ailu taking few steps backwards works better, so I rather use that. All in all I am pleased with our progress and very happy about the ways she has started to heel on her own (in almost a perfect position), even when I am not asking for it! Just another prove that position of the rewards really does matter. But that is a topic for another post.

Difficulty of praising

Recently I realized once again, how much you can learn about people by observing their interactions with the animals. Few days back I participated as an observer in a puppy school where 5 puppies and their owners were taking their first steps in becoming a well-behaved unit. They were practicing simple commands such as “watch me” and “leave it”. The idea was to praise the puppies and treat them when they got it right and take away the treat (and hence the possibility of a reward) when they did not. The puppies were excited and tried their best to figure out what was expected of them, like puppies do. And the owners were trying to keep their puppy’s attention from wandering to all the other puppies that for the most of  them seemed so much more interesting than their owner with their little treats.

Nothing out of the ordinary there. Puppies cannot yet focus for a very long time and in a situation where there are so many possible friends to play with around, it can be very difficult for them to concentrate on anything. What struck me as curious though, was the seeming difficulty to give praise the puppies when they succeeded. The instructor had to constantly remind people to give praise and reward the correct behavior. However, when the puppies lost their focus, started bouncing or trying to get to the other puppies, there was no shortage of scolding words.

Watching all of this, I started to wonder why it was that the owners seemed to forget to reward their dogs. It almost seemed like the good behavior was taken for granted and only the “bad” behavior was paid any attention to. Does this tell us something about the way we interact with others? Was this just a group of random negative people or is this a more widespread way of interacting with others? Sadly, at least to me the easiness by which the owners scolded their pups while forgetting to praise their good behavior seemed very typical of many people. We tend to expect people to do well, to (always) be at their best behavior, to never cross any lines or to hurt anyone. To succeed in that is not something to be praised, but rather something normal, something to be expected. However, if they make a mistake, cross a line, forget their manners, we are quick to criticise, to judge and even “put them to their place”.

I don’t think it is right to have that kind of attitude towards other people, but at least people are capable of understanding that some people just are like that. Dogs are not. Scolding for them is a punishment (well for most at least), but instead of telling them what to do it just leaves them feeling confused. They are not born with a guidebook of living with humans and cannot be expected to do what we want without being taught to. They need to be told when they are doing well or acting like we wish them to,  so they know to do the same thing again. Also when they make a mistake, scolding won’t help, since it is very likely that the mistake was caused by the fact that they did not know our “rules” and “wishes”, got distracted, or simply were just being dogs.

Dog training is, or should be, about positive reinforcement. Positive, however, does not equal permissive. Neither does it mean that you will be feeding your dog treats constantly for the rest of its life. What it does mean though, is that when your dog does well, you really need to let it know by no uncertain terms. I am not trying to say that the use of punishments in dog training is simply “bad”. In fact they have an important place even in the so called positive training methods. The whole issue is, however, quite complicated and I will discuss it in a later post. Now I just want to remind everyone to give praise where praise is due and invite you all to think how do you behave towards your animals.