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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Thoughts on Circles & Loose Leash Walking

Have you heard? The circling method of loose leash walking is taking the dog training world by storm! I want everyone to get and stay excited about circling and I want to learn more about it myself and find ways to incorporate it into my classes. I also want to offer an "add-on" for people who want to keep moving but may find themselves unable to circle. (Narrow sidewalks, sticker bushes and busy roads come to mind.)

When I heard about circling several weeks ago, it immediately brought a few things to mind: 1) a back-and-forth method I've often used with students' dogs and my own, 2) the effectiveness of a quick turn away (U-turn or "spin" trick) from triggers in my Reactive Rover classes, 3) the natural communication system of dogs, where turning or bending is a sign of polite manners and 4) the observed effect of a tight leash on reactivity

It's now time for me to admit that loose leash walking has consistently been one of my least favorite things to teach.

 Positive trainers have long relied upon a couple of methods for teaching loose leash walking. The first approach is to remove all rewards when the dog pulls. For example, if your dog wants to move forward by pulling, you remove his ability to continue forward by stopping in place ("being a tree"). When the dog creates slack in the leash again, you reward him by moving forward, praising, clicking/treating, etc.

Does this method work? In theory, it should. Is it enough on its own? Not from where I'm sitting. Many students find it tedious (as do I) and simply don't follow the "be a tree" rules outside of class. Furthermore, even diligent students don't always get great results. Many accidentally teach their dogs an unwanted chain of behavior: pull to the end of the leash, stop, move slightly back toward owner, receive click and treat, continue moving forward. It becomes a vicious cycle.

The second approach is to reward the dog for what he's doing right: walking on a loose leash. We encourage handlers to use forward movement, happy praise, increased speed, and clicks and treats to emphasize our desire for the dog to walk within the length of the leash (approximately 3 to 5 feet) without making it tight.

A young Foggy in his head halter and the coveted loose, "J-shaped" leash. 
But even as I explain these popular training exercises to my students, I know very few of them are going to follow through at home. (Heck, most don't even follow through from the classroom to the car after class!) I've started relying more on the use of no-pull devices (like front-hook harnesses or head halters) to address the pulling problem with students. Circling is a welcome addition to the training toolbox, but...what if you can't circle?

Rather than stop and wait for your dog to turn back to you from the end of his leash ("be a tree"), feed him constantly or circle (if space doesn't allow), you can do a 180 turn and move back over the same ground you have just covered.  

Poe and I demonstrating the "back-and-forth" approach to loose leash walking. Each time, we are able to continue farther down the sidewalk and his attention to me increases.

Walking back-and-forth over the same stretch of sidewalk or path is much more likely to create a polite walker than continuing forward toward ever changing scents, sights and sounds. No clicker, no treats no stopping. No harsh equipment or words. Just steady movement and quiet praise.

But alas, I can't conclude without dropping some hard truth. A few minutes per week of practice here and there will not override a reinforcement history of pulling --> moving forward the rest of the time your dog is walked. Get consistent about methodology and equipment and commit to trying these methods to see what sticks each and every time you walk your dog on leash.

Pro tip: Think of walks as training exercises and focus on the journey, not the destination. Walks can be quantified in terms of time spent and number of steps taken, rather than reaching a particular destination. 
Pro tip: If your leash becomes tight during a meet-and-greet with another dog, try these options: turn and walk away (U-turn or circle) as quickly as possible with as little leash tension as possible, walk quickly forward while lowering your leash hand to create slack or drop the leash (if safe to do so).

Happy walking!

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