The Key to Leash Training
Bear the Swiss mountain dog was out of control, his owners said. He would run off and drag his people, even the adults, behind the leash like a plow horse. When they opened the garage door, he would aggressively bull rush any dog walking by. His size and ferocity scared the pants off of several people.
Bear did well in Woofers Canine College, reformed nicely, and when he returned home, I began working with his family so they could keep him on the straight and narrow. One of the hardest tasks for them, however, was walking Bear on the leash. He no longer pulled me but pulled them as hard as before.
I've learned over the years that most of us inadvertently teach our dogs to pull on the leash. We hold tension on the leash which causes them to pull more and us to hold tighter. It is difficult for many people to avoid pulling their dogs. It takes some coaching and practice.
But despite my coaching his people, Bear would revert to pulling after a couple of weeks. I wasn't sure what to do because he didn't pull me. One day Bear was with me while my five year-old "dog training assistant," Zizi, was helping me work with dogs. From the day I met her at four years of age, Zizi had shown natural leadership with dogs. They listened to her. Zizi knew how to walk dogs on the leash, but she was no more skilled than your average dog owner. However, she had more confidence than some adults, so I decided to use her to demonstrate to Bear's owners that most anyone is capable of walking a dog on leash.
"Zizi," I said. "Will you walk Bear on the leash today? I want to shoot a video."
She said nothing, simply stood up and grabbed a leash.
"Just walk him around in a circle."
Bear walked next to Zizi without once tightening the leash.
"Now change your pace. Walk slowly, then quickly, then slowly. Keep him at your side, okay?"
It was so easy for her, Zizi seemed a bit bored. She was so light, and Bear so strong, she couldn't pull on him if she wanted. She had to rely on him listening to her. Bear performed perfectly, of course, and then I showed the video to Bear's owners as a way to prove to them that Bear wasn't performing well for me due to supposedly superior skills. Anyone can do it, even a five year-old girl.
The episode made me wonder, How can a tiny kid walk a dog on the leash without a dog pulling when many adults find this difficult?
Maybe Zizi didn't overthink the task. She didn't know it would be difficult, so it wasn't. Strength certainly had nothing to do with it. If Bear had wanted, he could've dragged her like a doll. Was it her confidence or her energy?
Over the next few months, I continued to observe Zizi and dog owners walk dogs on leashes. I thought about how Zizi had always been highly confident and strong-willed. I knew that dogs not only liked her, but they also respected her. She had an inner strength and an air of leadership that made them want to listen. She was good to them--they loved her--but the relationships seemed to be built on respect.
Her ability to walk a dog on a leash had little to do with technique, which is what everyone believes is key. The technique is helpful, but it is not central. The relationship is the foundation, which, to me, is built on respect. To get a dog to walk properly on a leash, or to get it to stop attacking dogs or biting people or bond with us more deeply begins with the relationship. The key is finding and tapping into our inner strength.