Loose Leash Walking

Ok, so I am finally on my favorite topic – Loose Leash Walking or LLW. At the onset, let me remind you that I grew up in a household with a Doberman. The Dobbie was trained by a cop and did a remarkable job of heeling. He would walk beside you like he was in a military parade. Of course, we did not maintain the training and he lost all his Heel Skills. Oh yeah, that’s another thing we did not know back then. Dog training is not a one off, like going through college and getting a certificate to hang up on a wall. Training is a life long process and what is learned can be un-learned just as easily and often when we least expect it. Anyways, I’ll get to that topic of life-long training in a bit.

So, coming back to Heel Work, based on my previous experience, when I started walking Nishi, I expected the same results. But anyone who knows Nishi will know that she is so much of “stop and smell the flowers” kind of a puppy. I would walk briskly down the road, expecting her to follow. I would clap my hands, click away to glory, call her name and do all kinds of things to get her attention when she was busy sniffing at some interesting plant. The end result was me looking like a fool and being thoroughly frustrated and tired when I got home.

I would complain to Uttam only to be met with a quizzical look and his claim that she is perfectly well behaved when he walks her. I put that down to one of two explanations:

  1. Playing into the popular myth that men show more dominance and hence dogs are more obedient around them, I shook my head in frustration and grumbled: “what’s with men and dogs. Sexist dogs! Argh!”
  2. I assumed that Nishi tugged and pulled when she was with Uttam too. But because he was stronger, he just did not feel it.

Then one day, I joined him on his walk and what I saw gave me the long overdue wake up call I needed. It was not Nishi who was different with us. It was us that was different around Nishi. Uttam saw that Nishi liked to sniff and explore.Instead of trying to get her attention away from it, he would actually try to find more spots that she might find interesting to sniff. He tried to find more mud piles that she liked to frolic in. He waited while she had fun and giggled when she looked up with her face full of sand. Obviously on the few rare occasions when he did not want her to sniff or smell, he would just walk up to her, put his hand on her face and gently get her attention and lead her away from that spot. And she did not mind at all, because her mind had already moved on to the next exciting spot that she knew she was going to get to stop at. And guess what, both came home absolutely happy at the end of each walk. Made all the difference!

So, that, in my opinion, is what LLW is all about. Now I keep Nishi’s leash long enough for her to show me where she wants to go. The optimal length of a leash perhaps requires more discussion. But that can wait for another blog. For now, lets assume I am talking about 5 feet long leash. And as long she walks over calmly, I just let her go over, spend some time sniffing and frolicking. If I really really really don’t want her to go somewhere, then I just walk over and gently move her head away from what she has her nose buried in. This is important because dogs’ hearing almost gets shut down when their smelling is on hyper drive. We’ve noticed that no matter how loud we call Nishi’s name she does not look up. But if we walk over and gently tap on her head, she suddenly looks up like she just got woken up from a trance. So, I have realized that there really is no point in yelling screaming and shouting her name. She just cannot hear and it’s not her fault.

So what happens if she is not so polite in getting to this “interesting spot”? What if she pulls? While I don’t have the strength to pull her back, I know I have the strength to just stand my ground. This method is sometimes referred to as the “Be a Tree” method. Imagine that when she pulls, I hook her leash to a tree. I try not to move, yell, scold…nothing at all. I use that time to just drift off to think about my to do list. If it’s getting on my nerves, I take deep breaths and starting counting. Eventually the pulling stops and just for a second she will slacken the leash or sit. The walk resumes at that second. Sometimes I say “good girl”. But most times, I don’t have to do that either, coz resuming the walk is reward enough for her. Eventually the message Nishi gets is “when I pull, walk stops. When I stop pulling walk starts”. And that’s it. This has been most effective for me so far. But, it is work in progress and it will continue to be, because there are times when Nishi’s “reasoning” has been masked by severe excitement. At those times, I just continue to do breathing exercises and switching between my roles of Nishi-mom and Tree!

I have read of many many techniques. A few things that I saw across most techniques:

  1. When Nishi pulls, walk stops. Period!
  2. I NEVER pull Nishi. If I want Nishi to come to me, I call her in a excited voice and pretend I have found something exciting and want us to check it out. The aim is to get her excited and come with me for more “exploring”. If she is too distracted and my trick failed, then I just have to go over and move her head away from what she is finding so interesting. Sometimes, bits of chicken stashed away in my pocket help during this, where I promise a reward of herb chicken if she stops stuffing her face in the packet of Sambar and follows me.

But for me, in most cases, just going up to her, moving her face away from her “object of interest”, then saying something in an exciting tone and breaking into a little jog helps. She gets thrilled and runs beside me. 

There are many other techniques that have some additional steps. One of my favorite is Turid Ragaas’ technique. So, she asks you to start at home. That step went well. Then I moved the training to the garden in our apartment. Went ok. Finally moved to the street and everything fell through. It just was not working. Then I ordered the DVD to see what I was doing wrong. I watched it several times looking for the right technique. Eventually it hit me. ALL the training was being done in a completely isolated place with minimal distraction. Until the dog was trained fully, walking would happen in this isolated place. And that could take up to a month. Now where am I going to find a place like that for a month. That’s when I realized that most of these techniques, while very effective in other parts of the world, might not be as effective in India. So, now I stick to the “Be a Tree” method and it’s working well for us.

Of course, there are a few pit falls. Firstly, after Nishi’s accident in february 2010, we had so much on our mind, that training stopped all together. BIG MISTAKE. So now we have to start all over again and she is so much bigger and stronger now. My learning here is to never stop training, EVER. The second is that when I have the leash in my hand, if Nishi pulls, I find it hard not to just let my arm move forward and let her pull. So I found an interesting alternative: tie the leash around my waist. Then, as soon as she pulls, it gets taught around my stomach and I react faster and stop instantly. I need to get a longer leash to try this. Let’s see how that goes. Will post more on that.

But here is the most important lesson I have learned. Leash walking training is really a life long thing. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it is possible to un-learn. My dobbie did, and he got so bad that it was hard to imagine that he was once so perfect with his heel work. So, if it’s a life long activity, then it is important to figure out how to enjoy it. I feel that what might eventually determine success of our leash training is my ability to enjoy the training and allow Nishi to enjoy it too, so that we never see a need to stop or suspend training. Here is to many more happy walks 🙂

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