Leash Thoughts - Part II, Teaching Calmness

Leash Thoughts - Part II, Teaching Calmness

(Image Caption:  Ajax and Capri demonstrate standing and watching.  Capri checks back with me with both eye contact and one ear.)

Continuing on from my first Leash Thoughts post, I want to share my technique for teaching a new dog how to deal with strange dogs walking by and avoiding leash aggression problems.  I've been able to teach new dogs that are excitable and a little bit reactive to learn to stand calmly when other dogs walk by, even when the other dog is barking and growling and putting up a fuss.  I'll use Freyja as my example because when she came to us, she was exactly like this but learned quickly and is now a rock star around strangers.

First, I should lay the groundwork by sharing my expectations of proper behavior in this situation.  I'm going to use the "royal we" because that's how I deal with my dogs.... we are pack, we walk together, we behave the same way when we're together.  That also means that I don't just teach them commands, I model the correct behavior for them, as you'll see. 

Correct behavior for my dogs is to be calm, always.  If something crazy is nearby, we stand at a safe distance and calmly observe it.  I'm their leader, so I protect them from harm and also show them what to do in situations.  Part of this is also teaching them that - to let them know how I am and that they can trust me.  Okay, so calmness is the order of the day.

So the scenario is that we're walking along a quiet street and see a person coming toward us with a dog on a leash who we've never seen before.  I stop and encourage my dogs to stop also.  What we're going to do is stop and just stand there and watch the strangers go by.  I think this is really important because dogs are naturally curious and I feel that not letting them at least look contributes to them feeling frustrated.  So we look as much as we like.

Freyja, being newly adopted and all of this is strange to her, gets excited and keeps moving forward.  I don't pull her back with the leash, but instead I put an iron grip on it, close to her harness/collar so that she can no longer move forward, and I step up next to her.  At first it's very difficult to keep a slack leash because the new dog will always excitedly move forward to meet the stranger, so I compensate by just holding steady tension on the leash.  No pulling back.  Just holding firm.  All tension on the leash is what she puts on it, no tension from me.   I am simply standing with her, being calm and confident.  I also think it helps to put a gentle hand on her back - a second point of contact that communicates calmness to her.  If your hands are busy (holding poop bags?) or your dog is not that tall, you can step up so that your foot/leg is touching your dog.  I think this touch also gives them a little feeling of safety because they can feel you are there.

As the strange dog passes by, if Freyja tries to move forward or growls, I calmly and quietly say her name.  If her ears twitch toward me or she turns her face slightly back toward me, I know she heard me.  This is the best correction at this point because all it did was redirect her attention back to me.  It's a more-subtle version of treat-based "look at me" distraction training that trainers often teach (which is also fantastic).  Sometimes I'll chatter to her quietly, saying things like "Yes, there's a dog there.  We will stand calmly and watch it go by.  This is what we do.  We are calm."  Of course she doesn't know the words, but the gentle tone of voice helps redirect her attention to me, communicates calmness and keeps me in the correct state of mind (super important!).

After the other dog has passed us, I praise Freyja in a happy but still gentle voice and pet her.  We still stand in the same spot and let her look back.  One thing that dogs fear is being jumped from behind and this is definitely a worry when a strange dog passes by.  So I let her look back and assure herself that the strange dog isn't going to come back at us.  When Freyja's ready to move on she will turn her attention away from the other dog and that's my signal that we can continue on.

Over time (i.e. repetition) of these encounters, Freyja gradually starts to stand at my side with less and less leash tension (remember, this is tension that she puts on the leash, not me).  When she starts to leave some slack, I also leave the slack, but still keep an iron grip so that she can't run forward at the other dog.  She is tempted at first.  When she does, I don't yell or scold her.  I just calmly and quietly say her name to catch her attention, and let her stop when her slack runs out (which actually is only an inch or two).  Over time she does this less and less.  After about four weeks, when a strange dog approaches, she stands calmly by me, watching it, with an entirely slack leash.  At this point, she knows correct behavior and is doing it all by herself.  And she's also confident and secure, not frustrated, excited or anxious.

Still, reinforcement is always a good thing.  Now that both Loki and Freyja are calm on leash and stop themselves to watch strange dog pass by, I watch them very carefully.  If either one steps forward, becomes tense or growls, I calmly say their name and remind them of their manners.  Literally, I'll quietly say to them "Freyja, remember your manners".  And of course she doesn't know the words, but she does know the tone of voice and immediately returns to correct behavior of calmly standing and watching.

Try this with your dog!  I'd love to hear your results in the comments below!

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