Teaching Vizsla to walk on loose lead

Laura Wright
Volta at 12 weeks

Teaching Vizslas to Walk on a Loose Leash
(for older dogs – over 6 months of age)

Does your dog take you for a walk instead of you walking him? Have you
tried to break him of the habit but been unsuccessful? Would you like a dog
that walks on a regular flat buckle collar without pulling ? Have you taught your dog
to heel but find it too regimented for long on-leash walks 
and would like to give your dog a little more freedom to sniff the ground, etc.? Read on!

The answer to how to stop the pulling can be found if we ask ourselves the
question "Why do dogs pull?" The reason dogs pull is that they want to move
forward, towards more interesting smells, other dogs, etc. To make things
worse, the dog's natural pace is faster than ours, so they quickly find
themselves at the end of a taut leash. They pull because pulling works:
they want to go forward (often towards some specific thing) so they pull
forward, and we relent by going forward with them. It doesn't take the dog
long to figure out that pulling gets it to where it wants to go. The
problem gets worse when the owner resists the pulling a bit. The dog then
tries to pull harder and the owner finally gives in, resulting in a dog who
learns that if they just keep pulling harder, they'll eventually get to where they want to go.

The main secret to stopping a dog from pulling is to not allow pulling to get them where they want to go,
and to teach them that they can go where they want (within reason!) when they don't pull. The other part of training
involves teaching the dog that when it's on leash, it must pay at least some attention to where the person
at the other end of the leash is. The most common thing people do when a dog pulls is to yank on the leash.

This method can work to teach a dog not to pull, but in many cases it has
little or no effect, for several reasons. The first thing is that many dogs
don't seem to mind being jerked with the leash. Often these jerks start as
small ones and don't really have much effect on the dog, so the jerks get
progressively bigger, but all the while the dog is building up a tolerance
to them and gets pretty good at ignoring them. These leash jerks are our
way of telling the dog that what it's doing is wrong, but we are generally
very inconsistent with them. We let the dog pull until our arm gets tired,
then we jerk the dog back. What this tells the dog is that most of the time
it's okay to pull, but occasionally it's not. The dog has no idea when it's
okay and when it's not, but most of the time it's okay (ie. no leash jerk
comes), and the incentive not to pull isn't that big, so they pull.

The "quick fix" for pulling is to change equipment. Halters for dogs have
become very popular in the last five years or so and are a great tool to
stop leash pulling almost instantly. However, by themselves they aren't an
effective training tool and will generally not change a dog's behaviour on a
flat collar. They only teach the dog not to pull while wearing the halter.
To allow some learning to take place while wearing the halter, it's
important to give feedback to the dog. Give some sort of negative verbal
feedback (such as "ah-ah") when the leash is taut and immediately praise
and/or treat the dog when it walks with the leash loose. Dogs wearing a
halter can still pull on the leash, just not as hard as when wearing a
regular collar. This learning that pulling is bad may not transfer to
wearing a collar, as pulling on the halter feels different to the dog than
pulling on a flat collar, but if you're consistent with the praise and
treats when the dog doesn't pull, there's a chance it may catch on.

Many people, when trying to train their dog to walk nicely on a leash, give
up much too soon. This training takes time, especially if pulling is a
long-ingrained habit. Most importantly, it takes consistency on your part.
Inconsistency only gives the dog the message that sometimes it's okay to
pull, sometimes it's not, and will make the overall training process much
slower, not to mention confuse the dog. So once you start the training, if
you want to take the dog out on a leash but don't have time to be consistent
and train, use a halter or loop the leash once under its belly (with or
without a half-hitch), but don't let pulling be successful for the dog!

As with any training, it's much easier to teach the right way first and not
let bad habits even begin, so if you're adding a new puppy to your
household, this training will likely go much faster than with an older dog
who's already learned that pulling is generally fruitful. One of the nice
things about the method that follows is that, unlike jerks on a leash, it
can be used on a very young (7 week old) pup without doing it any harm. If
only the 'jerk' method is used, a puppy gets away with all kinds of pulling
when it's young, as nobody wants to jerk the neck of a puppy, and it's
really not pulling that hard anyway (we rationalize). Not starting as a
young pup makes the training process that much longer since you are working
against an already ingrained habit.

I don't take any credit whatsoever for any of the following exercises. They
are a compilation and combination of a few different authors' ideas, namely
Lana Mitchell, Morgan Spector and Jean Donaldson. They may not be the
original authors of these techniques (there are likely other people who have
written about these techniques that I don't know about), but they are my
sources.

As with all training, start in a relatively non-distracting environment, but
one in which you know your dog will pull. An empty parking lot can be a good
place to start. As the dog becomes proficient in one area, move to a
slightly more distracting situation. This follows for teaching anything new
to your dog. When upping the distraction level, you'll find that the dog
does worse than it did in the previous setting. This is NORMAL. Practice
just like you did in the less distracting environment and after a few
sessions the dog will discover that it can also perform its "new trick" with
a bit of distraction present. If after several sessions in the new
environment you aren't getting anywhere, you've probably gone too far too
fast, and should move back to a less distracting place. Set the dog up for
success! If you take a dog into an environment where you're pretty sure it
won't be able to 'perform', this is not fair to the dog, a pointless
exercise, a waste of time and frustrating for you. Don't set the dog up for
failure!

Exercise #1

This exercise is meant to teach your dog to pay attention to where you are.

Take your dog out on a solid (non-'Flexi') leash and begin to walk with it.
The idea here is that you are going
to be so unpredictable in your walking that the dog will be forced to pay
attention to where you are going next. Continually change direction as you
walk. Walk for ten paces or so in one direction, then turn away from the
dog and walk in another, gently (especially with a young pup) but firmly
pulling the dog with you. If he's tending to go left, go right and vice
versa. Don't give the dog a cue that you are changing direction - it's his
job to watch you; if you give him warning that you're changing direction, he
no longer has any need to pay attention to you. When you change direction,
don' start to walk in the exact opposite direction of the dog - this will
result in the dog being able to pull against you using its best pulling
muscles. Instead, always walk away to one side or the other. If you walk
back at a 45 degree angle, the dog has a much harder time resisting this
sideways pull. It's harder for the dog to brace against it and the dog has little choice but to
follow you. Walk away from the dog with your back to it. This portrays a
more 'serious' image ("We're going this way now, so you'd better follow")
than backing away from the dog, facing it ("Please, will you follow me?").

Each and every time the dog catches up to you after you change direction,
praise the daylights out of it and if you want, give it a treat. It's well
known that dogs who are food-motivated learn new things faster with treats
than with praise alone. As you continue to do this exercise, you'll find
yourself pulling your dog less and less. It doesn't take very long for most
dogs to catch on to this 'game'. Once they realise that you are highly
unpredictable in your walking, they will start to pay attention more and
more and will eventually change direction long before the leash pulls them
that way.

Exercise #2

This exercise could be named "red light/green light". Essentially what you
are teaching the dog is that a taut leash is a 'red light' and causes the
walk to come to a grinding halt, while a loose leash is a 'green light' and
allows the dog to move forward. There are two parts to this exercise. The
first part alone may work for some dogs, while others may need both parts to
get the message through.

Walk with your dog and the second the leash goes taut, stop in your tracks.
Now comes the waiting game. Wait until the dog moves in such a way as to
create some slack in the leash, then immediately move forward. With enough
repetitions, the dog learns that every time the leash goes taut, the fun
walk stops, and he also learns that he is the one who has control over that.

For my Vizsla, I found that it didn't bother her to stop and stand there for
what seemed like hours on end. She'd happily keep looking ahead and keep
the tension on the leash. So with her, I had to go to the next step. Once
you've stopped, if the dog doesn't make the leash go slack within a
reasonable time frame, turn and walk away back the way you came from, taking
the dog with you. Again, so that you can pull him with you, walk away at an
angle at first until the dog is turned around. Once the dog is coming with
you and the leash is loose, and before he lunges on ahead in the new
direction, turn and resume the walk in the direction you were originally
going. You can praise or treat here if you like, but with many dogs, just
being able to continue the walk is reward enough for them. As Jean
Donaldson writes, "A good motto is 'We'll keep doing this patch of sidewalk
until you do it without pulling.'"

Exercise #3

This exercise involves walking towards something that the dog really likes,
and not letting the dog reach the object unless it walks to it on a loose
leash. This is probably the hardest exercise for the dog at first, but
generally the exercise in which the fastest progress is made. This is
because there is something tangible that the dog is being kept from when the
leash is taut, as opposed to exercise #2 where the dog is just kept from
going forward towards nothing in particular.

You have a choice of what object you choose. It could be a visible pile of
treats (it's important that the dog can see them from a distance - you could
have him watch you or someone else place them on the ground to help him know
they are there) or a favourite toy or even a person sitting invitingly on
the ground. Pick a starting point about fifty paces away from the object,
start walking towards the object and wait for the dog to start pulling.
Keep the leash a maximum of 2 - 3 feet long for this exercise. The instant
the leash goes taut, turn and walk back to the starting point with the dog.
You'll find yourself returning to the start quite often at first, but soon
you'll also notice that the point at which the dog starts to pull is later
and later. Good leash handling is important here. The closer you get to
the object, the more 'on the ball' you have to be in terms of not letting
the dog get to the object when it's pulling. The last thing you want is for
the dog to get a mouthful of treats after pulling towards them! The last
five or six feet are the hardest. Once the dog successfully reaches the
object, if it's food, they'll eat it, and that's their reward. If you used
a toy, let them play with it by themselves or with you. If you used a
person, allow the dog to interact in a fun way with the person.

Once the dog has the hang of what you're asking, vary the object. If you
started out using a toy, switch to food or a person. Each dog will have a
'hierarchy' of what things are most important to him. Start with the least
important object and work up. Some dogs are food hounds, some can't get
enough of toys, some will greet people before they will greet other dogs.
You know your dog best.

There may be some of you who have worked hard at teaching your dog not to
pick up food they find on the ground, so you may not want to use a pile of
treats as the object and undo all your hard work in that respect. If you've
taught your dog a "leave it" command, then you could use a pile treats and
just don't tell the dog to "leave it", which in essence gives it permission
to take it, or else give the dog a cue that means he's allowed to have
what's on the ground.

The above method is from Morgan Spector, but it is an adaptation of a method
from Lana Mitchell. The big difference between Morgan and Lana's methods
are that Lana never lets the dog reach the desired object. She doesn't ever
use a pile of treats by themself, but usually a person who has treats on
them or right in front of them on the ground. This way the dog never gets
the treats inadvertently after pulling if your leash handling wasn't the
greatest (the person sitting can cover the treats up if the dog gets to them
via pulling). With her method, she walks the dog towards the person and as
above, takes the dog back to the starting line each time it begins to pull.
But as soon as the dog is able to take more than a few steps without
pulling, the dog is rewarded with food from you at that instant (before it
starts to pull). The "game" ends at this point and they go back to the
starting point. In this case, going back to the start no longer becomes a
'punishment' for the dog, but an opportunity to start the game again and
earn more treats. She also advocates that even when the dog finally reaches
the person, that they don't give the dog the treats they have. The treats
always come from the handler (you).

One word about a slack leash. I've heard it asked, how slack is slack?
What if the leash is taut but the dog is only pulling a little bit? To me,
it's much easier for the dog to understand what you want if you make a big
distinction between taut and slack. Slack means the dog feels nothing but
the weight of the leash downward on his collar (ie. feels almost nothing).
If the leash is in a straight line, that's not slack. Slack means it's
hanging down in a curve, even if it's just a slight curve. If you make this
distinction you don't fall into the trap of thinking "well, he's only
pulling a little bit, so I'll let him get away with it." Pulling a little
bit will probably lead to pulling a lot.

Again, it's important to reiterate that success will not come overnight.
It's been said that the length of time it takes to cure a problem behaviour
is as long as that behaviour has been going on. I'm not sure that's
entirely true in every case, as I think a dog who's been pulling for five
years can be successfully taught not to pull in probably less than five
months. But in general, the longer a behaviour has been occurring, the
longer it will take to change it, as it essentially becomes a habit. And we
all know how hard a habit is to break, especially if it is rewarding to
perform it!

So in summary, if you allow a dog to pull while walking, it will be rewarded
for pulling and continue to pull. The
secret is to not let pulling get the dog where it wants to go. The dog only
goes where it wants when the leash is
slack. If you diligently follow the above exercises, you'll have a dog that
you're happy and proud to walk on a leash!

 

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