Happy Walks on Loose Leashes

A large labrador mix

Enzo

These two dogs large dogs were adopted by a couple in South America and just a month ago flown back with them to the UK.

Enzo is obviously a Labrador mixed with probably several other things and he looks just like a massive chunky Lab. Until six months ago the three-year-old had a life roaming free, doing his own good-natured thing and probably siring lots of puppies. Everyone in the area knew him. Now he’s been castrated and has adjusted amazingly well to life confined in a small house with nearly all his outings necessarily on the end of a lead. He’s very independent, self-contained but not unfriendly.

18-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, Timber, is also enormous – more the size of a large Great Dane. The couple have worked hard on his training. Unlike Enzo, when people are about he is wary and watchful. He will bark at someone entering the house and though he didn’t bark at me, he spent much of the time with his back to me, blocking me out.

Rhodesian Ridgeback hiding from me

Timber

When out on walks, both dogs are not at ease near other dogs, particularly if those dogs are loose. Neither Enzo or Timber are used to being constrained by a short piece of webbing attached to a human, with no freedom for avoidance or escape.

Humans tend to react to things a dog may find threatening in precisely the opposite way to how the dog himself might naturally want to react. Humans tend to keep on approaching, not ‘showing weakness’.  A dog is much more likely to avoid, either by making a large arc or turning away.

This illustrates clearly the importance to achieving happy walks of the behaviour of the humans to whom the dogs are physically tied. It also demonstrates how important it is that the dogs should feel as comfortable and as free as possible whilst necessarily being constrained.

Suitable equipment is essential. If a short lead is attached to a collar this will undoubtedly cause discomfort, pain even, should the dog suddenly feel the need to lunge. If a head halter, this may give the human more control but it takes even more control and freedom away from the dog. Imagine the harm a sudden jerk might do to his neck. A normal harness can turn the dog into a kind of carthorse, dragging his human along. There is only one kind of equipment I would use in order to achieve happy walks, particularly in the case of large, strong dogs, and this is a longish training lead attached at the front of a really good harness – maybe clipped to the back also for extra security.

Now the dog will feel comfortable, less restricted; the human has better control in emergency. With this equipment it’s a whole lot easier to teach a dog to walk nicely without using constant corrections.

Even though these two large and lovely dogs understandably can’t be trusted off lead as they have grown up with freedom, they can still surely have about 15 metres of freedom at the end of a long line.

In ‘training’ dogs to behave, the old-fashioned and still widely used methods despite all the scientific evidence, are about stopping the dog from doing things – stopping pulling, stopping lunging at other dogs and so on, using correction techniques or noises. As the gentleman says, ‘it works’. So, often, it does. Just because something works doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to achieve something though. One downside of correction methods is that they may only work in the presence of the person who has applied this particular training. Has the dog actually changed or is he merely ‘under control’? Does it address the root cause of the dog’s behaviour?

Changing to a more positive ‘do this instead’ along with making sure the dog isn’t trapped by us in too close proximity to the things to which he’s reacting whilst we change how he feels about these things will have much more permanent effect in the long run.

One final point. A thing that really does encourage pulling is when two people walk together with one dog each. This will inevitably lead to one dog trying to overtake the other. I suggest the man with Enzo has a head start and goes out first and that the couple meet up on the nearby green. Once there, they can put the long lines on the dogs and give them some freedom before setting off separately again with the shorter leads to do some loose lead walking practice.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Timber and Enzo (not their real names). Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good.  One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

Gun Dog Training or Force-Free?

Whilst harsh training methods may well Rufuswork in the moment, there is usually future fallout of some sort.

I may well get some people’s backs up, but here goes!

Dogs that are specifically trained and used as gun dogs are to my mind, a commodity. These dogs are trained specifically to do a job, they are often kept alone out in kennels and some have never seen the inside of a house. Usually they are very ‘obedient’ – possibly they dare not be otherwise.

(Please note that there are becoming more and more exceptions to this sweeping statement as gradually some gun dog breeders and schools are beginning to catch up with modern training methods).

There is no argument that many working dogs are a lot more fulfilled than those family pets who may be either left alone all day or over-spoilt. Many working dogs are trained positively and are treated as valued members of a family or at least have a close relationship with their handler. Assistance dogs and sniffer dogs come to mind in particular.

I have a gun dog breeding and training business near to me with probably around twenty dogs and in fact I got my cocker spaniel from there (that’s another story).  I saw first hand the dogs’ environment. Most of the dogs seemed submissive in general and a bit fearful of me when I stood by their caged areas. There were no bouncy, friendly welcomes that one might have expected from Labradors and Spaniels.

I was given a demo of the skills of three 4-6 month old dogs and they were certainly very obedient and were 100% focussed on the man even at that age. To be fair, they seemed to enjoy what they were doing but I guess their life didn’t hold a lot else by way of interaction with humans.

In saying their dogs are used as a commodity, I absolutely don’t include people who have family dogs that happen to take them to gun dog training classes because of their breed, like the owners of Rufus and of Bramble who I went to a few months ago. These conscientious dog owners do so because they believe it is the best for their dog on account of what he’s bred for.

A couple of years ago at Crufts there was a gun dog display of dogs trained to do gun dog things using positive reinforcement and it was a joy to watch these enthusiastic dogs – dogs that weren’t afraid of making mistakes. It proved it’s possible.

Rufus began with normal puppy classes. He met lots of people and lots of dogs – and became a happy and confident adolescent.  He then went to gun dog training for a year.

I don’t believe it’s purely coincidence that now, over a year since they stopped the classes, Rufus has become an increasingly nervous dog. The family members who attended the classes with him try to maintain the ‘firm’ approach and the other person lacks the same sort consistency and discipline, resulting in confusing mixed messages for the dog.

It’s like Rufus is waiting to be told what to do – external control. He doesn’t have much self-control.

Dogs that are trained to think for themselves using clicker or other positive reinforcement methods aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They become inventive and try different ways of getting their rewards and making us happy because they know they won’t be scolded or punished if they happen to get it wrong. The key to teaching a dog is not about making them do what we want, but making them WANT to do what we want.

It’s a big step for Rufus, now nearly four years old, to start thinking for himself. With clicker a ‘formally’ trained dog can take a long time to ‘get it’ before experiencing the fun of experimenting with what will bring results and what will not. If Rufus’ family persist they will eventually get a breakthrough. Then the possiblities of what he can learn for himself are boundless.

Gone now is the punishing and uncomfortable slip lead – like a choke chain, what can possibly be the purpose of this as opposed to a normal collar and lead, or a harness, apart from causing discomfort if a dog pulls?

We took turns to walk Rufus around outside on a harness with long lead clipped to the chest and he walked beside us like a different dog, round in circles, back and forth – a dream. If he wanted to stop for a sniff, why not?

In this comfortable state of mind, he is much more likely to be chilled when encountering unknown dogs or if a moped buzzes past.

Rufus is at the dawn of a new life, and his family will now work in unison to give him back his old confidence.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Rufus, which is why I don’t go into all exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dogs (see my Get Help page).