Updated: Jun 26, 2022
For companion dog owners things like loose leash walking, sit, stay, heel, etc., are goals on the horizon. For me, with my Maremmas, I consider those things “parlor tricks.” Yes, I could teach those skills to my dogs but why would I want to?
What I want to teach my dogs is to be bold, curious, and engaged in their environment. I use the leash while I further teach them to do this because having a line on them may help keep them safe. Most of the time it is not my intention to guide them; I follow them. If they want to investigate I am happy to go with them, and reward them for doing so. These are reconnaissance ventures, and the pups are in charge.
My dogs do learn that there are times when I have a destination in mind. They learn to come with me because I invite them to. I do this by asking for eye contact, enticing the dog to follow me using my voice, or touch, or my body language. I also ultimately teach a cue called “let’s go.” This cue means that I want the dog to go forward with me with purpose, either at my side or in front of me. So if I have a dog on leash and give this cue the dog will walk off with me comfortably and happily.
I do NOT pull on leashes. To me a leash is only one of the many ways I have to communicate with my dogs. The leash is there to insure the safety of my dog as we venture out of his field and to the vet, or the local hardware store (all my puppies get to go there) but it is not my primary way to let them know what I want.
Animals have something called an oppositional reflex – we have it too. If you push on an animal he will resist. If you pull on an animal he will resist. But if I invite participation or use a well learned cue to direct behavior seldom is resistance offered.
I use collars on my pups as long as they are willing to travel lightly with me. Usually at some point in adolescence the pups will become enthusiastic and pull on the leash. At this point I switch to a front attachment harness, specifically the Balance harness, purchased from www.clickertraining.com. This harness fits beautifully. It is very well designed, is comfortable for the pups no matter what they are doing, and they absolutely cannot wriggle out of it. This is super important to me when I leave the ranch with them!
When a dog wearing a front attachment harness pulls on the leash the harness will turn his body slightly sideways; it isn’t possible for the dog to pull and continue straight forward. When the dog’s body turns a bit it is easy for me to get his attention. I can click and treat for eye contact. I now have the dog’s brain again. This serves as an emotional reset. The dog is reminded that I am still there, we are still supposed to be partners, and we go softly forward again. Beautiful!
Take a good look at the body language of these two young dogs. Centurion is slightly stressed; I know that because he is panting and not making eye contact with me or the person visiting him. This is OK stress, briefly. Milan is showing the white portion of his eye, a behavior called wall-eye, and his body is low and crouching. This is too much stress; he is over threshold. I dropped down to him, snuggled him in closely, and then loaded him in the car and headed home, with praise for a job well done.
To me, this is what leash work is about.