I was recently in conversation with a friend, discussing the difference between “heel” and loose leash walks. “Heel” is based on the principle of instructing a dog. Loose leash walks on the other hand are based on negotiating with a dog. So the discussion between these two methods is one of an instruction based technique versus a negotiation based technique.
Instructions or commands by nature are a power based structure where there is a power imbalance. One is telling another what to do and the other does not have a choice in the matter. A negotiation on the other hand is about finding an arrangement that works for both.
The first problem with a power based system is that, the power imbalance puts our dogs in a place where they don’t feel much control over their lives. They are often looking for ways not to follow what’s been asked of them as a way to reclaim some control. That’s why so many clients end up with me complaining that their dog knows what’s wanted to of him but will not always follow the instruction.
For example, the clients who learn loose leash walking are advised to negotiate with their dogs and strike a deal that on most occasions they will allow the dog to define the walk, but on few occasions they would request the dog to allow them to define the walk. Since the dog has a choice almost all dogs find the deal rather appealing and take it gladly. Noncompliance is non-issue in this situation.
The second problem with a command based system is it’s limited repertoire. Here we try to teach a dog the meaning of a few words. Now there are dogs that have apparently learnt hundreds of words. But we are all not Einsteins and neither are most of our dogs. Realistically this vocabulary is going to be small. Even if we were going to negotiate with our dogs, we would not know how to based on a vocabulary of just commands like SIT, DOWN, GO, COME!
The complicated negotiation mentioned above is not even possible with these words. It requires a far more complicated language. Here is where the knowledge of dog language is useful. When we are tasked with learning their language, we pick up much more than just commands. We learn a much more nuanced and complete repertoire with which we can actually negotiate.
The last problem with a command based system is that it assumes that our decisions are always the better decisions. It discounts the fact that in certain situations a dog’s decision can in fact be better. Rambo came in this morning and I was told he was aggressive. I had evaluated that this was because of Rambo’s fear of dealing with dogs.
We went out on a loose leash walk. We suddenly found ourselves at the mouth of a street with two dogs blocking it and barking their heads of at us. We did not command Rambo to come away, but offered the option of walking away as a choice. We could do that because we were not relying on a command, but instead on polite dog language to suggest another option to the dog. He saw our suggestion, considered it and not only walked away, but led us through another less stressful path back home.
His instinct was right about not taking those two belligerent dogs on. His human guardians were stunned watching their “aggressive” dog walk away. What commands
had failed to achieve, a negotiation had achieved beautifully on our very first loose leash walking session.
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