Help, my dog pulls on the leash!

Intro

In this series we have written time and time again that equipment cannot replace training and you should not use anything that causes them discomfort and pain to make dogs stop pulling (or barking, or jumping…). At the same time, many dogs are very strong and they pose danger:

    • to their owners (sprained wrists, leash burns, injuries from falls…),
    • to themselves (running blindly under cars), and
    • to other dogs (especially if they get loose).

In this post you will learn how to manage the situation while you train them to stop pulling (preferably with a competent professional).

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Dog walking… a dream job?

The image of a dog walker in our heads (or mine at least) is that of the woman walking 10 tiny, fluffy dogs at once on the street of New York1 or of a veterinary student making some money on the side. As it happens, one of my good friends started out this way (as a vet student, not pet sitter for posh people in NYC). But the business – Donau Dogs – that she runs now with her partner is something quite different. I visited them in October to find out more.

The bulk of their business consists of walking a group of dogs in the mornings – they take up to 10 dogs (5 per person) + their own two companions.

Managing a group this large requires strong focus and superb ability to read canine body language – the situation can spin out of control quickly with so many dogs, because, well, they are dogs.

Choosing the right place to walk is paramount – the fewer other dogs you meet, the less you have to “police” the group.

Contrary to popular belief they don’t have to take the dogs for a 10km tour, sometimes they barely walk 1km. But think about it in dog terms. The trip is bursting with stimuli: someone picks them up, they travel by car, get out, walk, sniff, play, search for food, see what the others are up to… That’s really tiring!

A new dog can join the group after an adaptation period when the owner comes along. The length of the adaptation period depends on how quickly the dog becomes comfortable with the group.

Most, but not all of them, will eventually enjoy off-leash privileges. Determining which dogs can be let off leash is an important skill. Some dogs just like hunting too much or are too excitable to be off leash in this situation. You just can’t pay the same amount of attention when you have 5+ dogs running around…

Food, best distributed generously, is one of the most important tools for a dog walker. Remember, these are not their dogs: that means that they have less reason to listen if something else catches their attention.

If none of the dogs have resource guarding issues, they won’t fight over food as long as there is enough treats for everybody.

Apart from rewarding the dogs, the food can also be scattered for treat searches – sniffing is engaging, relaxing and can serve as a good distraction. Obviously, dietary restrictions need to be taken into consideration.

Special needs have to be respected. For example, if they have a puppy with them and the puppy wants to lie down and observe, then it gets to lie down and observe.

Being a dog walker is much more than just playing with the doggies. Actually, my friends spend as much – if not more – time driving around, as walking the dogs. They have to pick them up, bring them back home and so on. As you might suspect, they also spend quite some time vacuum cleaning their apartment…

There is also a fair amount of administration and logistics involved to keep their human clients happy. But at the end of the day, what matters most to them is keeping their canine clients happy and that is quite simple. They get to do dog stuff: sniff, eat, frolic and occasionally roll in smelly things. 

 

Help, my dog loses control around other dogs! 

I know that walking a dog that pulls on the leash, jumps around and barks can be exhausting and frustrating. But trust me, they are not doing it to spite you. Contrary to what we like to believe, many dogs struggle with interactions with their peers, especially if they are on the leash1. In this post, we will explore the main reasons behind this problem and look at possible solutions.

At the same time, every situation is different, and this can be a tricky issue to train so it is always best to contact a competent, non-violent dog trainer who can help you personally.

Causes

In general, dogs “overreacting” to other dogs are mostly motivated either by fear or by excitement. In both cases the problem is the inappropriate level of arousal: the dog is not in control of their actions which also means they can’t listen to us then.

Just like people, dogs need to learn social skills and the experiences they make when they’re young can determine their behaviour later on2. Other contributing factors are their personality, stress levels, age and health. While you can’t change your dog’s personality or age, you can make sure that they’re healthy and not stressed out.

multiple dogs on the danube shore
Well-socialized dogs respect each other’s personal space.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

What does your dog really want?

One of the most important things to remember is that each behaviour serves a purpose and it is crucial for us to recognize what that purpose is.

  • A dog that loves playing with other dogs probably pulls on the leash (or barks or jumps) because they learned that their human will eventually give up and let them approach.
  • A dog that is fearful has probably learned that pulling, barking and jumping makes the other dogs go away.

Basically, they are trying to either decrease or increase the distance to the other dogs. They behave the way they do because it was a successful strategy and we “simply” need to teach them a different one.

Recognizing your dog’s motivation is key for further training because it will determine the reinforcement you use. In these situations typically food or play can be used to help the process along but your dog can only be efficiently rewarded with something that they want in a given situation (that is: getting closer to or further from the other dog) 3.

4 dogs, one of them on the leash
If dogs in a group know each other and have good manners, some can be on the leash (or often must if they’re with a dog walker) – they will respect the canine social etiquette and give each other space.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

The vicious circle of arousal – do not punish!

As I have mentioned above, the main issue is that your dog is too aroused to control their own actions. Regardless of their motivation, further increasing the arousal level will only make the situation worse. Shouting, jerking the leash, smacking your dog (or any other aversive action) will not make your dog calm down. What they can achieve is:

  • increase your dog’s stress level
  • make them fear you
  • destroy their trust in you
  • make them less likely to want to be close to you – which is the opposite of what you want in this situation

Aversive trainers often claim (quick!) success with their methods. But what they do is behaviour suppression, not behaviour modification. Many of these dogs either get more and more stressed out until they snap and “bite out of nowhere” (sounds familiar?) or they fall into the state of learned helplessness. 4 I can’t imagine you want any of that for yours.

multiple dogs sniffing next to each other
Having places where your dog always gets to search for treats during the walk can help your dog regulate their arousal: they add predictability and sniffing itself has a calming effect.
© Heide Klinger/Donau Dogs

Ok, so what can I do?

BEFORE THE WALK:

  • learn to read canine body language, so that you can assess your dog’s emotional state, as well as the other dogs that you meet
  • train only in situations that you can control – your dog can only train when they’re not too excited
  • invest in a harness – constant pulling on the leash while wearing a collar can lead to tracheal damage; the dogs pulling and wheezing are not suffering from asthma, they just have trouble breathing.
  • eliminate as many stressors as possible from their life – have a look at your dog’s routine: do they get enough of down time? are there other things that freak them out? is their day predictable enough to feel safe? (learn more about relaxed and yet engaging walks)

DURING THE WALK:

  • remain calm – it’s easier for your dog to keep their cool if you keep yours
  • always have treats on you – if your dog is into food  you can distract them before they notice the other dog- drop the treats early enough and they might just focus on them instead of freaking out5
  • support your dog – if they are fearful help them maintain a safe distance from other dogs
  • make sure all interactions are chill and positive – if you have the “lovingly-excited” dog you don’t want to prohibit all interactions with dogs, which would be punishing. Instead, find a friend or two with calm, well-socialized dogs and hang out with them, or join a social walk organized by a competent trainer.
  • always tell your dog when they’re doing well. here is a list of behaviours you can reward:
    • slowing down
    • approaching other dogs in a bow
    • looking away
    • turning away
    • looking at you
    • sitting down
    • lying down
    • sniffing
When off-leash, dogs can communicate clearly: Leus (on the left) approaches the other dog in a curve, a little tensely. The dog sprints at her, she jumps so that they stand in opposite directions and turns her head away. Tension dissolved, the other dog gets re-called and both dogs shake themselves off.

But what if a dog off-leash approaches us?

The default is: dogs should meet only off leash. If you see someone approaching with a dog on a leash, you should leash your dog too and keep a safe distance. If you keep your dog leashed, the other dog owners should do the same for you. If they are unwilling to do so, you can resort to these two tricks:

  • You can stop the approaching dog by throwing a lot of yummy treats – make sure that they can see it, make a fuss if needed. More often than not, the dog will pause to retrieve free food and you can quickly retreat.
  • You can motivate the owner to respect your request and leash their dog/move away by telling them… that your dog has fleas or other parasites. Seriously.

When off-leash, dogs can communicate clearly: Leus (on the left) approaches the other dog in a curve, a little tensely. The dog sprints at her, she jumps so that they stand in opposite directions and turns her head away. Tension dissolved, the other dog gets re-called and both dogs shake themselves off.

Myths

Last but not least, let us look at four common myths that might be slowing your progress:

Your dog pulls because they’re dominant and trying to control the situation NOT TRUE
Quite the opposite, it’s a sign that they’re overwhelmed.

A harness will make your dog pull more (because they won’t be “corrected” [=punished] for doing so) – NOT TRUE
You really can’t do anything wrong by looking out for your dog’s health; also, the tightening collar restricts access to oxygen, which in turn increases arousal (stress) instead of decreasing it.

All dogs love playing with each otherNOT TRUE
Watching dogs play is a delight but studies of free roaming dogs have shown that adults dog rarely engage in play. Like people, dogs are individuals and vary in their sociability.

You should never pick up a small dogNOT TRUE
You should learn to evaluate when your dog needs help and when they don’t. Let them handle as many situations as they can but if it’s too much, by all means do pick them up, this way they’ll know you’re on their side.

 

Surviving the summer

The summer is finally here. For us it may be the time for wearing cool summer clothes and drinking spritzers outside but our dogs might be less happy about it. Firstly, they can only sweat through their paws and their main way of regulating body temperature is panting. Secondly, contrary to popular belief, dogs can also suffer sunburn – especially the ones with short coats. Owners of flat-faced1 dogs such as bulldogs, pugs or boxers must take special care of their furry friends in the summer as they already have trouble breathing under the best conditions.

Short-snouted dogs (pugs, boxers etc.) struggle with breathing at the best of times. Their owners must take special care in the summer.
Source: http://www.balancebehaviour.org

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