One of the most frustrating ‘left overs’ from the days when dogs were treated as an animate object is the belief that the leash is a switch, steering wheel, or brake. If you hank it hard enough the dog will magically respond in a positive, obedient manner.
I’ve seen dogs progress wonderfully through obedience training, then start regressing to a defensive behavior, or shutting down, because the owner starts yanking on the leash. The question is why?
Why are you yanking on the leash?
Have you been yanking on the leash? Do you have an obedient dog?
If you understood dog behavior you’d realize that yanking on the leash has the opposite effect of what you want. It will not teach the dog to focus on you, which is important if you want obedience. It will not make the dog stop its behavior permanently, but only offer a temporary adjustment.
In fact, I don’t think it is a viable correction. If yanking on the leash worked, then you’d only need to do it a few times and your dog would get better. Instead, it escalates. The more you yank on a leash, the more you need to yank on a leash. The harder you pull, the more your dog’s ‘opposition reflex’ kicks in. Then walking becomes a battle of wills and strength, and 99% of the time it is humans who lose.
Correcting With The Leash Doesn’t Teach
The leash can be a good correction but not until after the dog has a rock solid heel. The dog needs to understand that heeling means to focus on you and follow your lead. If the dog doesn’t understand this then it doesn’t understand why you are yanking on the leash.
A correction is only a correction if your dog understands ‘exactly’ what you are correcting. And, if you correct at the exact moment the correction is needed.
The biggest problem with repeated or harsh corrections is that the dog will shut down, or stress. When a dog becomes stressed it stops learning. If you want your dog to learn fast then training must be fun. Dogs learn by playing. Even in wild wolf packs they spend a large part of their day playing. The alpha dog doesn’t teach by attacking the puppies.
In fact, animal researchers have found that the alpha is always calm. The alpha never loses its temper. It ay not be the biggest or strongest. The alpha is ‘in control.’ So the more you bully your dog, the more you prove to your dog that you are not alpha.
But the real question is this, has yanking the leash given you an obedient dog?
Correcting With the Leash Builds Frustration and Aggression
If you watch videos on Schutzhund training you will quickly notice that they build aggression by restraining the dog and pulling it back. The dog wants to go forward. The trainer doesn’t let the dog go. This builds frustration.
When you are giving leash corrections repeatedly, then you often escalate the problem with your dog. The dog becomes frustrated, then starts reacting aggressively.
Dogs are very associative. This means that if they are looking at a child when you give a leash correction, then they will associate children with pain. You are teaching the dog ‘leash aggression’. The next time they see a child they are likely to become aggressive in anticipation of the pain.
How to Stop Leash Corrections
I have seen one common behavior in trainers who constantly give leash corrections. They don’t talk to their dog. They don’t ‘mark’ when the dog does something right. They only correct when the dog does something wrong.
If dog is heeling well, they don’t reinforce or reward. So why should the dog continue to walk calmly? How does the dog know that is the behavior you want?
Positive or Negative, the dog will continue the behavior that is reinforced. This doesn’t mean that the dog will necessarily continue the behavior that is rewarded.
The first step is to teach your dog to focus on you. Then teach your dog to stay at your side. This is a stationary exercise. When the dog learns to stay at your side, then add motion.
Put your dog on a harness. This will prevent you from correcting, and will teach the dog that if he wants to know where you are he must look at you.
I also like to teach targeting and teach the dog to target on my left hand. That way s/he will stay by my left hand.
All of these require patience and practice. If you don’t practice then the dog will not change. The more you invest, the more you get back.