Is there actually a situation in which it’s OK for your dog to pull on leash? Oh, yes. For fearful and reactive dogs there are at least two!
- One is when you are practicing desensitization/counterconditioning with your dog in public and can’t ask her for an operant behavior.
- The other is later, when she is approaching something she used to be scared of with joy and enthusiasm.
Those of us who have fearful, reactive, fear-aggressive, or feral dogs and are using desensitization and counterconditioning with them out in the world are working on giving them a positive conditioned emotional response. We do this by building associations between triggers that formerly scared them and wonderful things.
Working on these associations first and foremost affects other decisions we make when we have our dog out and about.
Doing DS/CC Correctly
The guidelines for doing successful DS/CC call for great clarity. It has to be absolutely clear to the dog that the great treat exactly follows the appearance of the trigger and nothing else. Each time and every time. We work on our timing, and on making the relationship between those two things completely salient, doing nothing to muddy up the works. The CARE for Reactive Dogs website has great instructions for the mechanics of clearly pairing the trigger with the treat under the 2nd section: CAREMethod.
In addition, our dogs’ behavior doesn’t matter. Yes, you read that right. As opposed to operant learning, which is about the consequences of behavior, respondent learning does not depend on the dogs’ actions. The pairing of the stimuli to create a new emotional response is the whole game. Of course we take great pains to keep everybody safe and make sure our dogs are under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, but if we screw up on the latter and they see the stimulus and bark or otherwise react, they still get the goodie.
How can walking on a loose leash fit into this scenario? It can’t. Not at this point. It is a trained behavior that asks a whole lot of the dog. However, it is not at all ruled out as a learned behavior after the dog has become comfortable in the world. Many fearful dogs go on to be wonderful family pets or even competition dogs. And even those who never get completely comfortable in public situations can enjoy learning all sorts of tricks and other behaviors for enrichment and to help them fit into the human world at home better.
So I’m not saying “don’t train your dog.” Working with your dog at home is wonderfully enriching for both of you. You can include some behaviors that will help you when you are out doing a session of DS/CC. Most people pretrain some behaviors that can help them move their dog around the environment and get out of sticky situations. The important thing is not to try to train your dog during a session of desensitization/counterconditioning.
Loose Leash Walking
Loose leash walking is a great skill. It not only makes life much easier and more pleasant for the human, it is of great benefit to the dog. If your dog has been taught to walk at your side before you ever put the leash on, and proofed and taught in progressively more difficult environments, she may never run to the end of the leash and get stopped in her tracks, or experience the nagging discomfort of pressure on some part of her body when she forges ahead.
But doing leash work in progressively more difficult environments is a problem for the fearful dog. If she is still fearful, as soon as the environment holds any challenges at all, you need to be working on the pairing of stimuli to create a positive conditioned emotional response, not trying to practice a difficult behavior.
Asking for loose leash walking, a difficult behavior, from a dog whose fears you are trying to rehabilitate, not only won’t work, it will likely set your dog’s progress back. Not only does it throw you into the world of operant learning, leaving the dog’s emotional state by the wayside, you are also diluting the purity of the pairing of two stimuli. You must have a one-to-one relationship: experience trigger, get great food. If you start giving the same food for behaviors as well, you are shooting yourself in the foot. (Some people carry two kinds of food, and use the lesser value food for working on other behaviors during “down time.” Others prefer the clarity of not using food for anything else during this period.)
The good news is that if you are consistently treating your dog at the perception of triggers, they will probably develop the operant behavior of sticking close by you anyway. You may “accidentally” make staying or walking at your side a very strong behavior. But you can’t insist on it. And it may break down when your dog gets so comfortable in the environment that she stops noticing the triggers, or chooses other delights like a good sniff of the bushes instead of the treat. But what a happy day that is!
Conditioning your dog doesn’t happen all at once. She may be completely happy in several public environments, but you still need to generalize to more. If she was feral and humans are strange to her, there are still new challenges to be had even after she is largely happy among people. For instance, although my formerly feral dog Clara has gradually gotten used to people who are flamboyantly dressed, people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers, children swinging bags, workers doing noisy construction, and many other variations among the human population, there is still the occasional challenge. Last week she got slightly worried about a woman who had a jingling ankle bracelet, just enough to decide to go the other direction.
During this period of training as well, letting the dog lead the way pays off. Clara is now at a stage where she is comfortable enough that she can explore her environment, even with people all around. She often pulls forward excitedly when we are approaching her friends or a favorite part of the shopping mall or some good pee-mail. Likewise, she can “vote with her feet” in a non-panicked way when occasionally she doesn’t like the looks of something.
Even with all her progress, it is too early to ask her to walk strictly by my side. I need the information that her movements give me. She generally needs very little intervention from me nowadays except to put the brakes on if she is in danger of being bothersome to a stranger or getting in over her head. (She is a very curious dog.) But I still carry the high value stuff in case a new challenge arises.
I do ask for some operant behaviors, and as she gets even more comfortable, it will be possible to work on walking consistently at my side. But frankly, at this point, she is enjoying the world so much that it gives me great joy to be led around!
What It Looks Like
This video shows Clara at a large public shopping mall where a lot of her socialization has taken place. This is a place she is comfortable, and you won’t see me doing any classical pairing with treats in the video. She can now walk happily down the sidewalks there among groups of people, even next to doors that might pop open at any time.
In the video I show her both eagerly pulling towards things she is interested in, and meandering around checking the pee-mail with me in tow.
Most of the footage was taken on an extremely hot day. We were only out for 10-15 minutes at a time, but the heat is the reason she is panting.
Even though I have to allow the leash to become taut at times, because of her speed or because I am trying to handle a camera and treats in addition to a leash, it pleases me to see that there is no reactivity caused by frustration with the leash. When she is pulling ahead, she is doing so because of excitement and enthusiasm, and that overrules everything else. She just tugs me along.
Pulling Isn’t Comfortable!
That’s right. Much of the gear we use, from flat collars to front attach harnesses, has the effect of making pulling uncomfortable.
So what do we do when we are breaking all the rules, and the dog is allowed to pull? I used a front-attach harness in the beginning with Clara. Most people with fearful or reactive dogs in public need the control that affords. Now that Clara can do so much more in public, I’ve gotten her a padded back-attach harness that does not discourage pulling. All dog owners can investigate different gear and see what is the most safe and comfortable for their dog.
But let me be clear: it can be unpleasant for a dog to be restrained, by whatever method. When Clara is “in the lead,” I do my best to minimize physical discomfort and frustration from gear and the “slow attached human.” See the video in the Resources section below for some great ideas on how to do that.
If you have a fear-aggressive dog, or any dog that makes noisy displays in public, you have experience with the stigma of a “misbehaving” dog. There is immense social pressure for you to make your dog shape up. Total strangers are completely comfortable giving unwanted advice, or shaming you in public, or even trying to discipline your dog themselves. Most want you to get tough with your dog and show your dog who is boss. (And all the time your dog is essentially crying for help.)
It can be extremely embarrassing to have a dog that is acting up. But if you have made it through that phase and your dog’s fearful displays are gone, you can certainly deal with the occasional snotty comment that comes by about your dog pulling you around. You know, like, “Are you walking your dog or is your dog walking you? Heh heh heh!” Perhaps you can come up with a clever comeback.
For me, it warms my heart to see my formerly feral dog having a great time exploring and checking out the pee-mail and pulling me around, while either ignoring the proximity of humans or actually tailing them curiously. When we started, her comfortable proximity to a single non-moving human was about 60 feet, and she was extremely sensitive to any situation where she might feel like her escape options were limited.
I think some people still have an image of a classically conditioned dog as being robotically controlled and micromanaged. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching Clara that the proximity of humans predicts great things has allowed her to get huge enjoyment out of environments that would formerly have been impossible for her to even enter. Also, from the earliest stages of the process, she was free to move around.
Isn’t Sniffing a Stress Behavior?
It can be. But with a little experience, it’s not hard to tell the difference between a stress sniff, and exploratory odor sniffing. I have a followup post about this coming soon.
- This video by the empathetic Lupe Matt has a nice take on letting the dog make choices on leash. What if it were up to the human to maintain a loose leash?
- This wonderful site from Jennifer Titus codifies desensitization and counterconditioning into a user-friendly protocol: CARE for Reactive Dogs.
- Debbie Jacob’s site for owners of fearful dogs has oodles of helpful information for owners who are dedicated to improving their dogs’ lives: Fearfuldogs.com.
- The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
- Sniffing for Joy
- Punishment is not a Feeling
- Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
- What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?