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Lead-off Good, Lead-on Bad

May 2, 2012

How do you ensure walking with you is not poisonous?

Every piece of equipment you put on your dog is punishing to some degree. All dogs will try to remove the least obnoxious collar when first introduced. Some equipment worn around the face will, for some dogs, invoke a lifelong need to remove it. Equipment is designed to make management of dogs easier for the benefit of people. Just because your dog gets excited when they see the equipment, it does not mean they “like it”. The production of the equipment is a pre-cursor to leaving the prison, just as your walking boots and coat.

Many of my  clients are able to recognise that their dogs’ behaviours on-lead are different to off-lead. The differences between these behaviours evolve from thoughtless associations.

I always remember Ian Dunbar’s remark on punishing a puppy for peeing in the house. Jump up, scold puppy, remove it from warm, sitting room carpet and evict onto cold, wet grass. Shut door. Either the pup will learn to pee outside, or learn to avoid you and pee where you cannot see it. You will discover it sometime later, either because of the increasing smell or because you need to move the sofa. This is the problem with punishment – we cannot control the fallout.

How does equipment punish?

Just because the collar is pretty and of lovely soft fabric it does not make it pleasant to wear. At the least it will irritate. I have a lovely necklace on a very fine chain, that I would enjoy wearing more often if the chain didn’t seem to catch those very fine hairs on the back of my neck. And having experienced a hair cut yesterday I lived the rest of the day with one rogue hair between my bra and skin. And ladies – you know what that feels like. That need for  “adjustment” that should not be seen in public, and the only solution is a full removal, isolation and dismissal of offending 1mm of hair. Goodness knows what a collar all around the neck can do – particularly if the collar wears away the guard fur to a bristly length.

Then we also have the jingling, for some dogs every movement is a jingle. They wear their collar 24 hours a day, with some serious metal work clanking under their chin. At least let them sleep in peace.

Dogs can wear a collar and enjoy both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of life – a poottle around the garden first thing in the morning checking out the overnight wildlife, through to a grab and yank to be stopped from snatching the custard tart dropped on the floor. Often the collar itself does not represent punishment or pleasure since both emotions are experienced when wearing a collar. But once we attached the collar to a lead it changes context and we begin a catalogue on unpleasant associations.

1. Frustration. Prevention from going to explore, investigate, chase and play; the main pleasures of being out and about, Going for a walk is to go shopping for sniffs – reading the myriad of scents and stories left by other animals. Frustration can begin with very young, inquisitive puppies, designed to learn from the experience of smell – taste – touch. Just the time when they are introduced to the collar being attached.

2. Being pulled around. The lead-collar is used to pull the dog where the person wants to go, at the speed the person wants, which removes choice for the dog. The direction may give every signal of “avoid” to the dog, but they have no choice and are dragged along.

3. Trapped. Being fondled by Stranger. This also goes under the euphemism of “socialisation”.

I was also exposed to “socialisation” as a child. I do not fondly remember Uncle Bert that stank of booze grabbing me, nor Aunt Ada who insisted on rubbing her whiskery cheek on mine. As a young child I put up with it, but at 15 years old I had learned avoidance.

The same with puppies, they will tolerate invasive greeting when they are young, but learn that this is not good manners as they grow older and try every form of communication to say “no thanks”, but because these socialisation experiences are happening when on-lead and next to the owner, they cannot avoid with grace, they may need to resort to avoid by threat.

4. Forced rudeness. Dogs are extremely skilled social creatures, and when their skills are developed in the right environment, they can move around mutual territories without causing offence or extreme reactions. They would stand-off on initial awareness, probably a good 15  metres (40ft) away and do some air sniffing, perhaps stand still with a pleasant tail wag (Hey, we OK?) and wait for a response before proceeding any closer. They may then move to the nearest scent point and leave more liquid information, or if the other dog has already done so, move over to read their information. It is gradual, respectful, and allows an escape if things don’t pan out.

Now you are walking along the street with your dog trotting at your side and you see another dog coming towards you. The progress you make towards each other is double the speed you are walking (remember the trains heading towards each other in Maths class?). Your dog will see a strange dog heading directly at them, with a speed indicating serious intent, a hostile approach. The width of our pavements prevents the space that represents respect and good manners. Before you know it the dogs are far too close, uncomfortable and forced to react. On-lead, next to you.

5. Walking out of balance. Dogs have four gaits: walk, trot, canter, gallop. When moving with their walking human pack, we usually see walk and trot. For dogs larger than a Cocker Spaniel, and a person less than 2m/6ft their trot is slightly faster than the human-walk, and the dog’s walk speed is too slow. (You can see the video of this: Movement Video on YouTube). At the other end of the scale the very large breeds can walk with our walk.

The restriction of the lead, in conjunction with punishment based head halters and harnesses,  prevents the dog from either of their natural movements, walk or trot, and they are forced to pace. This is the same as if you were using your left arm going forward with your left leg, and right with right leg. After 20 paces, your back will begin to tighten up, and probably your fists clench in frustration. Now imagine a group of people walking towards you, very fast, with that peculiar pacing action – be suspicious huh? If you have a dog unable to pace, the outcome is yo-yo walking. Dog goes to end of lead, stops, waits for you, or is pulled back to your side, over the next 10 steps the dog is back at the end of the lead again. On-lead, next to you – uncomfortable.

6. Training. Not what I would call training, but often deliberate punishment through the equipment for human-perceived transgressions. On lead, next to you. Training class, chaos, shouting, barking, being bum-sniffed without warning, too close to other dogs. Yeah, love being on-lead.

7. Visiting the torture clinic. Aka The Vets. Which has every indication of being a Very Bad Place from the fear-scent of previous visitors. Drag, pull, collar tight, finger up bum. On lead, next to you.

8. Street walking. Breathing pollution. Sneeze, yuck. Bad smells, squealing brakes. On lead, next to you.

Off lead is heaven

Explore, run, walk trot, stop, start. No pacing. Follow, search, aaaah, read a good article, add perfumes to your neck and shoulder. Pleasure. Chase a pigeon, nibble some sheep poo, move away from weird oncoming dog.

Free choice, to be touched or not, free choice to be sniffed or not. Unlimited credit card in favourite shop.

Without thinking we exaggerate the pleasure of being off-lead in comparison to on-lead. All the bad things happen on-lead and all the true pleasures are off-lead. Any wonder that the dog’s behaviour is quite different? Not only is the association with the equipment but also next to you. This is worrying, if your dog spends most of the time trying to move away from you shouldn’t we take notice? Additionally there are often specific occasions and environments  when this association is predictable – walking down the street, training classes, meeting people and dogs.

Your options:

1. Never take your dog out on a lead.

In some environments totally impractical. But you may be able to go to the woods, park your car, let the dog out directly to free running? It is a rare dog that grows up in a safe environment where restriction is unnecessary.

2. Never let your dog experience free running.

All pleasant and unpleasant experiences are in association with the same environmental cues. You can cue close walk with me with a certain lead, or collar, and free running with a long line, or self-retracting lead and harness. Or you can free-run with your dog on a lead?

3. Give more pleasant experiences, and block or avoid unpleasant experiences on-lead.

  • Give your dog time to make choices, when you want to change direction. Invite, don’t pull.
  • Walk slower so that your dog can move at a natural gait, or jog at their trot.
  • Respect that they go out for the pleasure of sniffing, give them time to sniff.
  • Cross the road, move away when you see fast on-coming, hostile, dog-person traffic.
  • Don’t force intimate contact from either strange dogs or people unless that is the dog’s choice.
  • Teach your dog structured scent games: tracking, substance searches etc, enjoy their activity with your dog whilst on-lead.
  • Play, games of tugging, sausages games within the length of the lead. Ensure pleasures and play around you, not always throw and chuck and dog runs off.

Be Aware.

In reality we need to use equipment to keep the dogs safe from threats they cannot understand or have the skills to avoid. Make sure you do not unbalance the association with this equipment with most of  the unpleasant events in outdoor life happening on-lead, and all the most pleasant events off-lead.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. chiluv101 permalink
    May 2, 2012 2:46 pm

    Excellent article!

  2. Cathy Sirett permalink
    May 2, 2012 3:01 pm

    what an interesting post — I really made an effort to ensure that the lead was not poisonous as I did not want any of the negativity many dogs have about the lead

    With the collar, I used only positive reinforcement for sniffing it, touching it, having it rest on the neck, doing it up and undoing it – and I can honestly say that my dog never had any negative feelings about collars

    Think I will follow your blog as some good stuff here!


    • May 2, 2012 3:46 pm

      That sounds exactly as it should be done Cathy. I was watching a young lab puppy being dragged around by owners who were shopping in the market, not in the slightest aware of how distressful this was for the puppy. It served a purpose of making me put it into writing!

  3. Arianna permalink
    May 2, 2012 5:13 pm

    Great points!!! Number 5 was so important for me!!! After years I can understand why my Aileene is so slow …. pacing!! Now I can understand why!!! Thank you very much!!

    Fortunately we walk a lot in the coutryside where dogs can walk in the way they prefer..

  4. May 3, 2012 12:40 am

    Really great article. With ever growing restrictions on where dogs can be walked off lead, managing dogs on lead in an enjoyable and safe way is paramount.

  5. Kirsty Reid permalink
    May 3, 2012 3:51 pm

    The idea of a dog wearing a collar 24 hours seems a bit odd to me. Our labs only ever have their collars on when they leave our house or garden and go out into the outside world. Having something round your neck the whole time sounds horrible to me and if I wouldn’t inflict it on myself I don’t want to do it to the dogs in my life either.

    • Marcia Barkley permalink
      November 18, 2012 3:58 am

      Keeping the collar on 24/7 is something I confess I wish more dog owners would do — not as a control mechanism, but to carry the ID tag. I volunteer with a local shelter, and we’ve learned that a stray dog that carries a tag is much more likely to be picked up by a “good samaritan” simply because that tag provides some possibility that the owner can be contacted. Microchips are life-savers, but they are not visible to that “good samaritan” out there. Collars can be comfortably fitted … removed for daily grooming … and made quiet by the application of small pieces of electricians’ tape on the back side of tags to prevent jingling. It need be no more intrusive to the dog than a necklace that a person might wear 24/7, or the earrings that many women wear full-time.

      • November 24, 2013 5:58 am

        Oh thank god, a voice of reason! Do we really need to use terms such as “inflict” when talking about putting a normal, well fitting collar on a dog? If one extreme in dog training these days is represented by people who justify almost any harsh and aggressive behavior towards dogs clearly the other extreme is represented by people who over dramatizing even the smallest everyday event into an existential crisis.
        The main point of the article is very good and important but really doesn’t require such melodrama to make. It makes no difference if you THINK YOU would be bothered by a collar on your neck 24/7. It only matters if the dog factually does and we can look for behavioral evidence of if the dog is bothered by the collar. Very few dogs with a normal well fitted collar show any such evidence, certainly not more than most of us show over wearing clothes and in the US less than 10% of people sleep nude so clearly the vast majority of us choose to be clothing encumbered 24/7.
        It’s unfortunate that the truly valuable information in the article is, judging by the comments, perhaps overshadowed by dubious side point.

  6. May 5, 2012 11:19 am

    Very good article. Our dog only wears a collar when she leaves the house or garden too and seems happy when we get it out. I have trained her to walk with a loose lead but she certainly does prefer to be off lead and who can blame her!

  7. relating2dogsandtheirpeople permalink
    May 15, 2012 7:36 pm

    This post takes my pet peeve of a tight leash to a whole new level. So many are walking their dogs like zombies without realizing where their dog is in space in relation to them and the leash. I’ve recently decided to describe this to dog parents to think of walking with their spouse in the mall and dragging them around by their arm (obviously that’s much nicer than their neck) and how they would hurt the relationship by doing this rather than verbalizing they’d like to go into a store vs. yanking them by their arm. Thanks for taking this topic to the dogs perspective.

  8. Teresa K permalink
    May 26, 2012 2:57 am

    Excellent article! Always so much to be learned by careful consideration of “how does the dog experience this?” or “what is my dog’s point of view here?”, and Kay does this so brilliantly!

    If there is no where to manage complete off-leash freedom, then it is helpful to train a “go and play” with a long line or flexi. You can give your dog a degree of freedom that way, letting them go, explore, then come back to you and check in occasionally. Let them set the pace and follow THEIR lead. If done deliberately and routinely, you won’t confuse or ruin even very young dogs just learning to loose leash walk, as this experience is completely different.

    Sad to say, we live in the country, but right by a busy rural road. I have a dog door that leads out to a dog run, which can be opened out to a fenced yard. I have two very early am potty-goers, so I typically leave the dog door open all night to the dog run, but close access to the fence yard. Even though the fence is sound, it is too risky to me that a pup might find a way to escape for an adventure, so all my dogs wear their collars 24/7. But this post makes me think it is time to switch to some lighter models at bedtime, maybe the type that have contact info embroidered right on the collar, so they would be at least a bit more comfy at night. Thanks, Kay!

    • May 26, 2012 5:17 pm

      I certainly think long line “cruising” is a good substitute or early lead-free outings. Play may be too boisterous and difficult for other players. It does demand some exceptionally good line management from the person, otherwise every man and his wife will get tied up. Difficult to explain to the air ambulance!

      • Teresa K permalink
        May 26, 2012 7:03 pm

        Definitely! This is something I do when we can be pretty much alone. I don’t think it is safe for two dogs to play on flexi or even really on long lines, and any people along need to keep a wide berth. For me, there are few safe options available for off leash play, so I opted early on to teach the “Go Play” game, usually on Flexi.

  9. May 26, 2012 7:30 am

    Good article. I wanted to say though, that I have an anomaly of a dog…he finds his lead reinforcing lol. He’s my Assistance dog that I trained, and allow and find endearing, him to tug on his leash and bounce around. He holds it a lot, and at times at a park if off leash, will bark at me relentlessly to be put back on! It’s hilarious. Guess I’ve been lucky that a leash hasn’t ever been anything negative to him 🙂

    • Teresa K permalink
      May 26, 2012 6:54 pm

      That’s fabulous that your Assistance dog has such a positive association to the leash. He must love his job and your bond together must be very strong. His work must make him very happy.
      I too, have an Assistance dog, who I would like to think loves his job just as much. He is excited and happy when I get his gear out (his primary task is to pull my wheelchair). I did made a point since he was a puppy to train a “Go Play”, which he can do on a long line or flexi. I think just a short 10-15 min break of sniffing and wandering where HE chooses helps him to destress and relax.
      It’s great that your dog has such a love for his leash, but I did want to mention that even and maybe especially Assistance dogs NEED these small moments of fun and relaxation. They help keep them loving their work, which involves LONG periods of being attentive and obedient on leash.

  10. July 2, 2012 9:25 am

    i love this and it really gives the perspective from the dog’s point of view. i must confess it wasn’t until my own dog became reactive, following an accident and necessary removal from canine company for 6 months, that i really embraced this area and i have learnt so much. i try to be constantly aware of things from my dog’s perspective, even though this causes disapproval from others eg ‘some people are just so stupid to cross the road when they see another dog coming’ to outright abuse ‘your dog’s aggressive!!’ from those that don’t understand what’s going on. what i find hardest is seeing other people basically abusing their dogs – yanking them about, shouting, hitting them for pulling or other ‘transgressions’. if anybody has any solutions to how to cope with this i would dearly love to hear!! it makes life very hard indeed

  11. July 2, 2012 12:58 pm

    An extremely thoughtful article. Since I live in a very dense city environment I am particularly impressed with the “forced socialization” aspect of dogs practically colliding on sidewalks and people poking their fingers around dogs’ eyes all the time. Double the pleasure in an elevator!

  12. February 21, 2013 6:11 pm

    Very interesting. I was at your “connected walking” talk at ClickerExpo and have been experimenting with it since. Even though my dog was already really happy with the lead (we are lucky to live in the country and don’t meet many other dogs on lead, plus I have been very careful!) it has made a big difference just to walk more at his pace. I realised he was having to walk a few strides then trot a few strides to keep up with me. He was doing it but it must have been really hard for him!

    • February 22, 2013 12:04 pm

      Thank you Roz – what size of dog is your dog? I am trying to collect data on relative person to dog stride length. At the moment shoulder of dog to knee height seems to be the most successful, then shoulder to hip height at the other extreme. All the poor souls in between need to compromise in some way to “walk together”.

  13. May 14, 2013 3:28 pm

    Very thought provoking. I teach Rally obedience classes and from day one we do a lot of off leash work. I have always observed that many dogs are better off lead then they are on lead. I find that handlers pay more attention to their dogs off lead and seem to work harder to keep their dogs with them. I had not thought of the leash as a poisined (werable) cue.

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