Are you having a hard time figuring out how to teach your dog to walk nicely on leash? If you’ve looked online for help, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the conflicting advice and the seemingly endless number of ways to go about teaching this important skill. Here’s a way to quickly assess whether you should watch on or whether to move on. 

Are they telling you that:

  • harnesses cause dogs to pull?
  • you can’t teach a dog leash skills without the use of a collar?
  • for the dog to learn, you need to show them when they are wrong?

A Red Flag

If so, you need to find better advice. All these ideas come from a mentality that is punishment-based and focused on what’s going wrong. This is still a common approach in the dog-training world (and the horse-world) unfortunately. Given our understanding of learning theory and the cognitive abilities and emotional complexity of animals now, there is an understanding of how this approach can inhibit learning and create associated issues. When we focus on what we DO want instead, the learning experience will be more productive, the retention better and the student will be more invested in the process.

How to Filter Through All the Info

The statements I listed above are dead giveaways that the methods are focusing on what the dog is doing wrong. But even if you don’t hear these, there may still be red lights. But how can you tell? A straightforward way to determine what’s going on is to ask one simple question. Will your dog be trying to avoid something or will they be offering behaviour because they are trying to get something they want? Avoid something unpleasant or uncomfortable, or seek something they want or that makes them feel good. This is so simple, yet it will immediately show you the gist of the method or the exercise.

Practice What You Preach

So you are probably thinking that’s all well and good, but what should you do instead? Well I’m so glad you asked. Because guess what? That’s just how your dog is feeling too! Focusing on what we don’t want isn’t particularly helpful when we are actually trying to learn something. Instead, having a clear plan, with easily implementable steps is better – both for the teacher and the student. A good training plan will teach the dog the skills they need. What those skills are will depend on what polite leash walking means to you. Some people prefer their dogs to stay very close, while others are OK with their dog just being nearby. Some people prefer to cue their dog for behaviour, while others want their dog to make choices based on what the parent is doing. It all comes down to personal preference. Whatever you choose, your dog should be guided through the process, learning the skills that are required. This needs to happen in a way that is fair and keeps the process enjoyable for the dog.

Give It a Try

Now that you have this simple but powerful way to filter through information, advice and methods, give it a try. Pick a video online and listen to what the person is suggesting, or watch them working with the dog. Is the dog being influenced because they are trying to avoid something? This could be a pull or pop on the leash, some kind of pressure or intimidation or a verbal correction. Or is the dog offering a behaviour because they are trying to get something they want – a treat, enthusiastic feedback from the handler, a rousing game of fetch or toss? Once you understand the difference,, it’s pretty easy to see what’s actual going on. And it’s something you won’t be able to un-see moving forward. It will be all too clear when dogs are invested in getting the good stuff versus trying to just stay safe or comfortable, by avoiding something unpleasant. Even if it is a minimal aversive, the experience is still very different than the dog who is in a seeking mode . And you’ll start to see the difference in how they look in each of the situations. Their body language and demeanour says it all. Which experience do you want your dog to have?

Now that you know how to choose methods and what your approach should be, I’ll show you some of my favourite leash skills and exercises that I teach my dogs. Stay tuned for my next blog in this series!