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).

Was the Change Due to Hormones?

Rhodesian Ridgeback lies in her bedThe lady is looking after her daughter’s gorgeous young Rhodesian Ridgeback, Mara, while the daughter is settling the other side of the world. Mara will follow in a few month’s time.

She has looked after Mara on and off for the past year and she has been working very hard to give the dog the very best life possible whilst in her care, giving her plenty of exercise, the very best food and other behaviour/training help.

Sadly, the very well-socialised and friendly dog suddenly changed about three month’s ago. After her third season she had a false pregnancy. Almost immediately she changed. She become intolerant of certain other dogs. I wouldn’t call it aggression – more a matter of ‘attitude’. If the dog has a ball then that could be an issue. If they get close to another dog and there isn’t sufficient space she could react. She doesn’t like pushy dogs running up to her anymore. She may pin them down but she has never done any damage and their owners haven’t been concerned, but it’s a shock for the lady who now is on edge when meeting other dogs and wary of letting Mara off lead.

She has been given advice to keep Mara away from all dogs and on lead only for several months. I personally feel that as Mara is not significantly fearful or reactive to other dogs in general, this is too extreme. I fear that if she is away for too long from her usual interactions and play with her canine friends along with missing the social dog walks that she used to go on, it could create a far greater problem in the end.

Life for Mara is now very different in other ways too. Where before, when she lived with the daughter, they had a busy social life with people coming and going, noise and action, life now is quiet and peaceful. Against this calm backdrop sounds can be alarmingly out of proportion, encouraging her to be more territorial and protective.

Hormones could have a lot to answer for! Mara has now just been spayed so any hormonal aspect should be dying away, but the behaviour has been rehearsed and may remain or get worse if something isn’t done about it. Rather than avoiding dogs, the lady’s best approach is to have a lot more control over Mara. To make sure that at home she is relevant so Mara takes notice of her (she currently may ignore her), comes to her immediately when called and looks into her eyes when asked ‘watch me’. Established at home, these techniques can then be used outside.Ridgeback is sitting on her tail

I suggest meanwhile that the lady deliberately seeks out the safe old doggy friends so that Mara can continue to play, even if she’s on a long line so the lady has more confidence, and also that she goes back on the social walks, maybe only staying for a while if Mara shows any signs of stress. In confined places the lady can use her new attention-getting skills along with food and in open spaces Mara’s favourite thing – a ball.

With all the conflicting advice, it’s hard for someone to know what is best . Other instructions she has been given and that I don’t agree with is to totally ignore an already calm and polite dog when coming home or to rebuff a friendly dog that comes over and lovingly places her head on your lap or leans against you – labelling this as ‘dominant’. This to me is nonsense from the dinosaur days of old-fashioned dog training and the lady can relax and follow her instincts.

I am sure she will have preserved Mara’s lovely nature and regained her sociability for the time when, in a few months, she is ready to join her young owner the other side of the world.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Mara, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs 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).