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Who’s Walking Who?

Walking your dog has health benefits for both dogs and humans. In fact, studies show that walking a dog decreases stress and lowers blood pressure but owners inadvertently train their dog to pull on a lead by reinforcing this behaviour every time they go for a walk. Here are some tips for how to turn the daily struggle into a relaxing walk for everyone.

REWARDS
If your dog is motivated to get somewhere it will naturally pick up the pace. When you don’t respond with a matching pace, your dog simply pulls on the lead dragging you along, finally being rewarded by getting to where it wants to go. In the process you keep tension on the lead, even wrapping it around your wrist, thereby teaching your dog that the way to walk on a lead is to pull.

Probably the number one reason that a dog pulls on a lead is “Opposition Reflex”. All dogs have a natural “Opposition Reflex” meaning that if you push against them, they push back.

When the lead is pulled back on their neck or chest, their natural response is to pull forward. This natural instinct is useful in sled dogs but is not what most owners are after for their own pet.  When asking why dogs pull, it is worth considering breed and personality also. For example, a scent hound might be far more interested in sniffing than focusing on its owner and a dog that gets out only occasionally will be highly stimulated by its surroundings. Keeping your dog’s interest whilst walking with lots of positive reinforcement and treats will help make the walk more enjoyable.

FIVE STEPS TO A BETTER WALK
These steps are identical for teaching a puppy or re-training an adult dog. The key is to teach the correct behaviour off lead first in an area without distractions.

STEP 1: FOLLOW ME AROUND THE HOUSE OFF LEAD
Keep moving away from your dog so that it follows. Reward every 2 or 3 seconds if it’s close. Be excited and interesting and fun. Keep session to only 30 seconds. Do the same in the garden.

STEP 2: STEPPING FORWARD OFF LEAD
Start with your dog on the left. Step off with the left foot and take two steps and stop. Encourage it forward and then to sit. Reward. Repeat 50 times then do the same with 4, 6 and then 8 steps. Reward often.

STEP 3: LAZING AROUND ON LEAD
Get your dog used to sitting around the house and garden on a loose lead without going for a walk. Take the lead on and off several times whilst it stays calm. Reward often. Practice frequently.

STEP 4: FOLLOW ME AROUND THE HOUSE ON LEAD
Keep moving as before but never let the lead tighten. Reward often. Do the same in the garden.

STEP 5: GET OUT AND ABOUT ON LEAD
Once your dog can walk close in a non-distracting environment like the back garden, gradually introduce it to areas with other dogs, people and bikes. Continue to reward often and keep the sessions short. Keep a positive and fun tone to the training session and always end on a high note.

HEAD HALTER
Head halters work on the same principle as a horse’s head halter and have been called “power steering” for dogs. They place gentle pressure on key points of your dog’s head controlling the tendency to lunge or pull without putting strain on its’ throat. They are not a muzzle and still allow it to open its mouth, eat, drink, pant and fetch. The soft nylon straps fit high around the neck, loosely around the nose and across the base of the muzzle. Some attach to your dog’s own collar for added security but if not, keeping a second lead attached to the neck collar is recommended just in case it manages to escape.

Although they are available for dogs of all sizes and even puppies, head collars are not suited to all dogs as head shapes differ markedly between breeds. They are however particularly useful for walking large dogs or dogs that may suddenly snap or lunge at others aggressively.

Dogs should always be supervised when wearing training head collars and harnesses. They are not suitable to tie up a dog or for every day wear around the house.

TRAINING HARNESS
Training harnesses are designed to gently discourage dogs from pulling. The design has two separate nylon straps that fit snugly over the shoulder and under the belly just behind the front legs with another chest strap sitting comfortably over the breastbone. The lead is attached to a smaller loop at the front that moves from side to side allowing your dog to be steered without any pressure on the neck or throat.

Traditional harnesses can encourage a dog to pull harder because of the “Opposition Reflex” but when walking with a training harness, simply applying gentle pressure to one side on the lead will slow it down when it is forced to change directions slightly. When your dog is walking correctly the pressure is then released and the lead left loose. When first using a training harness, plenty of praise and treats will encourage your dog to walk calmly and easily on the lead.

TRAINING HALTERS
A training halter differs from a harness in that it combines a collar with padded nylon cord restraints that slip under the dog’s front “arm pits”. As the dog tries to pull forward, the restraints firm up under the legs slowing it down. If the dog pulls hard enough the halter restrains the front legs until it calms down and the tension is released.

Training halters can be effective within a few minutes and many find that once a dog has learnt the behaviour of walking well in these, it will begin to walk loosely in a traditional harness.