Excerpt from Heeling Seminar June 3, 2017
One of the most common problems I see on a weekly basis is people whose dogs drag them, pull on the lead, or lunge and bark at other dogs or people. I’ve seen dogs brace their toes into the dirt, lean into their collar, and pull like a weight pulling champion.
These dogs often attend class wearing harnesses, which destroy their shoulder joints. Or they are wearing prong collars, which give a false sense of control – because really, it isn’t aversive enough to stop a dog if it really wants to get away from you.
This is a predictable problem. I always know what moves are coming next, like watching a pair of ballroom dancers do the tango. Heeling is a dance. One leads. One follows. The steps are agreed upon by both, and expectations are set by past moves and past behaviors. The Tango evolves as a pair of dangers become more familiar with their partner.
The heeling and ‘walk with me’ exercises evolve in the same way the tango does. When you are learning a dance when things go wrong, the dance stops. Both partners stop moving, and start discussing expectations, how they should move, and what should happen next.
The pair of dancers will repeat a move over, and over….and over until they have it mastered. They will correct the smallest mistake. Each movement will have meaning. It will be a cue to alert the partner about what their role is, and what move is coming next.
The truth is, the person who should be leading is the one who determines the steps of the dance.
Now, to be honest, there are some dogs who are more tenacious than others – Labs come to mind. There are other dogs that are more amiable than others. But it doesn’t matter whether you are working with a DDR East German Shepherd, or a couch potato, the moves you see on your walk will be those you rehearse the most.
Mistake #1: The Dog Doesn’t Want to Walk
You may want to go for a walk, but it may be a traumatic exercise for your dog. Like that 9-year-old boy forced into ballet class, your dog will act out. Let anything happen that your dog doesn’t want and you now have a reactive dog.
If your dog is reactive then join the midnight club. Walk it only when no one else is around, or go to a park at ‘off times.’ You need to start somewhere, and the best way to start relearning how to walk is to find a place where you can practice the ‘right moves’.
Mistake #2: Dogs Are Not Programmable
I see this all the time. I will give exercise #1. A proximity or position exercise. 5 minutes later there is always one person in class trying to lure their dog with a treat into doing an advanced pivot, backwards, for 20’. The dog is given no time to learn and practice.
We are always focused on the ‘end product’. Dogs are focused on the immediate 2 or 3 moves. They want everything broken down into small steps. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, not 1-2/3-4 and 5, 7, 1, 8 and 9. If your dog learns each step of the heeling process then it will repeat what it has learned.
Dogs will rehearse what you taught them. If they are not heeling, then you didn’t teach them to heel. We want to completely jump owner the teaching and practice process, and land in the perfection or punishment stage.
The dog doesn’t know what you want. The dog doesn’t know how to behave. The dog doesn’t understand the exercise. So the dog becomes frustrated and acts out.
Mistake #4: Heeling is a Partnership
When I see people walking their dog outside of the training center the person is usually staring into space, or at their phone, and the dog is wandering around, sniffing, and ‘leading’ the owner where it wants to go. Then it is time for class and the owner starts to pull the dog. Of course, the dog rebels because it has been the leader up until now. You’ve completely changed the dance, changed the rules, and the dog will have nothing to do with this new set of rules.
You need to rehearse the same moves, over and over, or stop and start over. It is that simple. If your dog pulls, then stop moving. You’d be surprised how quickly your dog will ‘get it’ and join the dance, instead of ‘cutting up’ on the middle of the floor.
Mistake #5: Distraction, Duration, Distance
Do you think your dog has heeling down? Maybe it has learned that when you stop walking, it should stop walking. Are you sure? Take the exercise to a different area. Walk a different length. Add new distractions.
You may find that your dog has ‘pattern learned’. It has memorized a pattern. Change things up and you realize that your dog hasn’t learned.
This is also a good way of learning whether your dog understands that heeling applies to ‘always’ or just when you are doing the exercises. If your dog ‘breaks’ and bolts after you finish an exercise then it hasn’t learned the true purpose of heeling.
Mistake #6: Fatigue and Boredom
Dogs do not have long attention spans. Heeling shouldn’t be a 10-block process. Break it up. Heel for 100-150’ feet and then stop. Give your dog a few simple exercises, and then proceed. Every 2 – 3 blocks ‘release’ the dog and let it sniff around, go pee, and ‘stretch.
Sometimes a dog is so bored it is excited when it meets someone new on the walk. It is happy and becomes excited – and our first response is to yank the lead. The dog has just been punished for making a polite ‘hello’ gesture to another person. After a while the dog starts fearing the approach of people, and stressing, wondering when the ‘yank’ will happen.
Mistake #7: Inconsistency
Many people generalize. If we are at the park my dog can sniff. If we are on the sidewalk my dog should heel. If my dog is in the house it can bark at the neighbor’s dogs. If my dog is on a leash then it shouldn’t bark or lunge at other dogs.
Dogs do not get it. They don’t realize that all the rules change because a leash is attached to their collars. Obedience is a lifestyle. It is 24 hours a day. If you want a dog to obey when off a leash then expect it to obey when on a leash.
Mistake #8: Frustration – A Leash is Not a Steering Wheel
Are you creating a reaction? In many cases the answer is yes. One of the hardest things to stop people from doing is yanking on the leash. Really? If I were to walk behind you for 20 – 30 minutes, smacking you on the back of the head with a pencil at random times, with no explanation, and with no warning, then you would react too.
A leash is not a steering wheel. It is not a break. It is not an alternative to teaching a dog commands and cues.
Mistake #9: Communication
How does your dog know that you are turning? How does your dog know that you are stopping? How does your dog know that it was okay to sniff 5 blocks ago, but not now? Give your dog some credit. It can learn cues.
Start talking to your dog. Tell it when you are going to turn, or stop, or if it is okay to sniff. Your dog will start relaxing and responding. It will be less frustrated because you will not always be yanking on the leash, and you will both have a better time.
Mistake #10: Stop Over Reacting
Many people teach their dogs to react. They are nervous when they see a German Shepherd. They don’t like someone or they don’t like groups of kids hanging out at the street corner. Maybe they resent the way skateboarders use the sidewalk without respecting another people’s space.
When you have an emotional reaction, you give off a chemical ‘cue’ that your dog understands. But this cue isn’t cognitive. It is a reaction. “My owner doesn’t like that so it must be bad.” Dogs can think, but they are not smart.
If walking a dog makes you anxious then go for walks where you can relax. Don’t teach your dog to be anxious.
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