Last week, I responded to a reader who had written about her frustration with her dog pulling on leash. I mentioned that there are three important elements in training your dog to walk politely on a loose leash.
The first is using equipment to control the dog's ability to pull successfully, which I described in my last column.
The second important aspect is to recognize what your dog gets out of its action - or what reinforces your dog. Reinforcements are anything that pleases your dog, motivating her to act and rewarding her action. For example, when your dog nudges your arm and you pet her, petting rewards the act of nudging your arm. When your dog pulls on leash, and gets to whatever he's pulling you toward, his pulling behavior is rewarded.
Loads of things reinforce your dog's behavior. Dogs are motivated by anything that feels good, smells good, tastes good, fulfills a need or offers an outlet for its instincts and energy. Spotting something to chase motivates a dog to pull. Getting to sniff an attractive scent reinforces pulling. Keep in mind that you need to view motivation and reinforcement from your dog's perspective, not your own. For example, as all dog owners know, a dog's opinion of what smells marvelous can be radically different from ours.
Dogs being dogs, there are myriad things on a walk that reward his behavior - either pulling or not pulling. Which brings me to the third element in training polite walking: We control access to reinforcements. Simply put, the key to training your dog to walk nicely by your side is to prevent your dog from experiencing rewards when he's pulling, while rewarding him for not pulling.
Using the tools I discussed last week that put your dog in a position of walking nicely, move forward as long as your dog is walking on a loose leash. The moment the dog starts to pull - even just a little - stop. Take a few steps backward to get your dog's attention on you, and then walk forward again. As long as he's walking nicely, reinforce his good behavior with verbal praise and an occasional food treat. In addition to praise and treats, other things can reinforce your dog for walking on a loose leash. Sniffing interesting odors can be a reward for your dog as long as he's on a loose leash. If he pulls you toward something he wants to sniff, stop, take some steps backward, and when he's on a loose leash, walk forward to the "sniffable" object, then release your dog to go sniff.
The concept that governs this is "Premack's principle," developed by psychologist David Premack. Premack's research demonstrated that desirable activities can reinforce behaviors. The opportunity to engage in a more desirable behavior can reinforce a less-desirable behavior (less desirable from the animal's perspective). In human terms, think of it as "finish your homework (less desirable) and you can go out and play (desirable)," or "eat your spinach (less desirable) and you can have desert (desirable)." In relation to walking your dog, think of it as "walk politely (less desirable) and you can get to that interesting tree to smell (desirable)."
The final, critically important element in training polite walking is consistency. Remember that when your dog pulls and gets to move forward, pulling is reinforced. When you consistently pay attention to this training by not allowing pulling to be rewarded, your dog will quickly get the message: Don't pull, and life is full of rewards.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.