How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Leash: Confessions of a Dog Trainer

Anyone who has ever tried to train a dog heel must be able to relate: teaching a dog to walk politely on a leash can be a long, slow process. In reality, it can feel like a geological age and the more you try to push the process forward, the worse it gets.

Look at it from your dog’s point of view:

This looks like a really fun game! There is a leash for biting and pulling! There are treats to hand out! I get so much attention! I can do this forever!…Okay, shall we start again? It lasts forever. I want to let go of this leash. I want to go out. I’m totally bored. And why is my human getting red in the face and making this whooshing noise? And what happened to all those delicious treats? I’m just going to lie down and eat this leash.

There must be a better way to leash train

Before becoming a certified trainer, I thought I could figure it out for myself. How hard could it be? Dogs love to go for walks, don’t they? I’m just going to put this harness on and off we go….

You can probably guess how well that went. The first few days, I couldn’t even put the harness on the dog. It was an Oscar-worthy dramatic performance, with the puppy fighting and squirming as if trying to escape a serial killer.

The dog and I were totally frustrated with each other. He didn’t understand, and I was pretty sure he never would. Obviously, I had chosen the most stubborn puppy in the pound.

Then something clicked and I realized it wasn’t the dog. “I » was the one who didn’t understand.

As a trainer, I have learned that the two most important things to remember when working with dogs are:

  1. Break each behavior down into its simplest parts and teach them one at a time.
  1. Keep workouts short (and fun).

This wisdom applies to every behavior you want your dog to learn. And you should always start with the basics: the things your dog should learn during obedience training. These basics often form the basis for teaching other behaviors and “tricks.”

So, before leash training even begins, you need to make sure that your dog will sit comfortably and be able to observe or focus on you. And be sure to give him the opportunity to inspect his surroundings and discover anything new in his environment. Like a harness.

Besides, you can introduce the harness with a fun little game. After letting your dog inspect the harness, hang it in front of him and encourage him to stick his nose in it with a treat. Repeat this about a million times until he feels comfortable. SO you can move on to the next step: putting it over your head. Repeat and process. Repeat and process. Repeat and process.

Take it step by step until he accepts the harness being buckled around him without complaint (or turns into a wrestling match). It could take months. (Just kidding, but let him take the time he needs.)

Proofing isn’t just for baked goods

Even if you break things down into small steps, you need to avoid the temptation to move on to the next step too quickly. Repetition is key to helping your dog learn a behavior well, remember it, and stick with it for good. The goal is to make a dog’s response to a command so strong that you can count on its obedience no matter what.

When you teach a dog to heel on a loose leash, you haven’t succeeded if your dog takes a few heel steps, gobbles up the treat you give him, and then jumps in front of you. Sure, she might know where she should be when you say the word “heel,” but she’s nowhere near doing what you want her to do, which is stand right next to you without no tension on the leash.

Verifying behavior means establishing once and for all that your dog understands and will respond reliably to a command. Checking a heel means she is demonstrating that she can do it at any time without reacting to distractions like other dogs or temptations like a fly-covered sandwich on the sidewalk. Yum.

If you’re serious about dog training, practice!

Working with dogs can be a joy. If you want to learn how to become a dog trainer, go for it. It might help you with your own dogs, it might be a profitable side job, or you might realize it’s your full-time calling. Dog training is the perfect career if you want to start your own (rewarding) business.

College of Animal Behavior has been certifying dog trainers since 1998. You can learn online no matter where you live (a local internship gives you plenty of hands-on experiences), or you can enroll in the program on campus in Santa Clarita, California (there is a new session starting twice a year). Call 800-795-3294 to learn more.


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