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Who is in charge when walking a dog to heel?

A few weeks ago, I had some owners come to see me for a one to one class, as their only problem was their dog pulling whilst on the lead. When they arrived, their dog did indeed pull and I discussed with them the reasons why.

Normally a dog pulls because, if inadvertently, the owners taught it to pull. They were unsure if this were true. They had been to puppy classes where even the trainer had tried to correct the problem, but it persisted. They thought they had done all that was necessary to correctly train their dog but he still pulled.

We walked up to the obedience field and I had a demonstration of how it could pull the owners. This dog looked very strong so I asked if I could walk the dog using my lead.

This is simply a rope slip lead that goes round the dog’s neck in much the same way as a choke chain, whilst the other end attaches to the dogs normal collar. There is a big knot in the middle of the lead, which I hold in the palm of my hand. When the dog is correctly by my side with my left arm hanging straight down, then there is slackness in the lead.

Instead of using a ring, as you will find on most pet shop rope slip leads, mine uses a large carabiner. This is so that when the dog is in the correct position the lead is also slack round the dog’s neck. This means that only when in the correct position there is no pressure at all on the dog’s neck so it is almost like having no lead on at all.

The idea is to walk with the dog and as soon as it pulls forward, I pull the dog back with my left arm until the dog is back by my side in the correct position. As soon as it is back, I release the lead so there is slackness again. The dog will pull again but with this dog, it quickly learned that it found it more comfortable walking without pulling.

I find using the left hand on such a short lead, it does not matter if the dog lags behind, moves away sideways, or goes forward. With this method, you can easily bring the dog back to the correct position without having to jerk the lead, as you would do with a choke chain.

The owners had a go and their dog worked well for them but occasionally they still fell into the trap of keeping the dog from going ahead by keeping the lead tight. For the dog, it does not make any difference if it is pulling a few inches or ten feet ahead of the owner, it still pulls just as hard as there is always a tight lead.

For these owners I lent them a spare ordinary type slip lead for them to practice with until they could purchase one themselves. A week later, they returned it only to say the method did not work. I could only disagree and say that they saw for themselves that their dog did not pull in the obedience field. So what is so different about outside?

For one thing, there are many more distractions but in training a dog, you need to teach it initially with as few distractions as possible. You have to practice when you know you have your best chance of success.

In my classes, I do try to make many distractions so the dogs do make many mistakes, but I am teaching the handlers not their dogs. Then during the week, the handlers go home to teach in areas where it is quiet. As they improve then they can increase the level of distractions.

The dog must learn not to pull and that it gains nothing, yet this dog like so many others has spent many months learning this skill. In such similar cases, the handler must learn the motor skills to correcting their dog other wise they fall back into their old ways of finding a lazy comfortable level where the dog pulls and the owner simply hangs on.

I have seen all sorts of methods to try to reduce the strain like using a tracking harness. Wearing one of these for tracking was the only time my dogs could pull me. The weight is on the dogs shoulders so not only can he pull me round a track he could even pull a sledge in total comfort. Still some owners think that such a harness stops the strain on the dogs neck, not realising it only allows them to pull even harder.

You can even purchase shock absorber chain leads that have springs in them. This is so the jar from the dog jerking forward does not pull your arm out of your socket.

Alternatively, there are many variations of Haltis and harness types that you can buy that are suppose to stop a dog pulling or at least reduce its pulling strength. A Halti type head collar does indeed stop a dog pulling. This is because dogs do not like anything round its muzzle. In addition, if it pulls even harder then its head automatically turns back towards the owner and away from what the dog was looking at, which it will also not like.

The owners mentioned puppy classes. Many of these often only teach sociability with other dogs etc. Most people would be or feel reluctant to teach puppies to walk by their side using the old Barbra Woodhouse method. What normally happens is they are content to let their dogs pull lightly in the beginning. However, by the time they reach six months they have a dog that could pull a car.

This means that when owners go to training classes it is all correctional work not only for the dog but also for the owners. I watch the owners in my class train each week and I can see them rapidly improve. I do not have to say to them “Check your dog.” Instead, I have to say, “Make sure your lead is slack.”

Trying to get round the heelwork course having to think about easing their dog back and releasing each time is initially mentally tiring. This is just like learning to drive a car on those early lessons it is mentally hard until such skills move into autopilot. The same applies to making your dog walk by your side with a slack lead. Once in autopilot, then they can forget about it and spend more time on more advanced training.

Just as you cannot learn to drive a car from reading a book or watching someone drive a car, you cannot learn to train a dog simply reading this article or watching someone do it. You have to have faith that the method of your choice works and apply it in constant practice in areas where you know your dog will do it correctly. It is only when your dog is use to walking by your side with the slack lead and you feel confident you have more control, then you can begin going to places you would normally visit. If the dog tries to pull again then you have to go back to basics. Teaching heelwork is separate training to maintaining your dog’s attention when there are distractions. Trying to teach both at the same time is almost an impossible task.

If a dog will walk correctly in my obedience field and for the owners in their own garden using this method, then it proves it works. The fault lies in not spending time practicing before entering the outside world with all the distractions that exist. Just like learning to drive a car you start by using quiet roads and build it up from there. The same applies in training your dog. Do not be impatient trying to run before you can walk.

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