In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have our dogs on leash when we train. Right from the beginning our dogs would learn to stay by our sides and pay attention to us. I consider myself very fortunate that I have a facility in which I can train off leash. If you never use the leash to train your dog, then doing off leash work is simple!
Unfortunately, many of us are not in a position where we can train off leash, mostly for safety reasons. If we are in a group class, we probably need to keep our dogs on a leash to keep them from visiting the other dogs and people. If we are training at the park, we might need to keep the dogs on leash to prevent them from running out in the street or visiting those adorable children on the playground. Using leashes in these situations are absolutely fine, and even encouraged! However, the problem begins when we are using the leash for more than just safety reasons. Once we start using the leash to affect our dog’s behavior, that’s where we get into trouble.
It’s Easy to Rely on Your Leash!
It’s so easy, isn’t it? The dog is distracted as you walk to the start line, so you just kind of pull him or her along. The dog stops to sniff in the heeling pattern and you keep going, of course, and cause the leash to tighten and the dog comes with you. For those of use that have been training for many years and perhaps learned long ago how to pop the dog in the sit, it can be hard to break that habit! How many times have you taken your young dog into a crowded situation and looked down, realizing you’re holding the dog right next to you with a tight leash? Or you’re going around on the outside of the figure 8 and your dog is lagging so you pull on the leash to get the dog into position?
The problem is, it’s so easy to use the leash to affect the dog that we do it almost without even thinking about it! Now imagine you’ve been managing your dog with the leash, perhaps somewhat inadvertently. You think your dog is ready to enter Advanced Rally, so you go in the ring and take off your leash. The dog sets up and everything is looking great, until the first about turn. The dog starts to lag and guess what – there’s no leash that tightens! You encourage the dog to get up next to you but on the fast sign you lose your dog again. And on the halt, your dog didn’t sit because you didn’t pull up on the leash!
The Leash Becomes Part of the Behavior
Your dog is telling you that the leash is causing those behaviors to be correct in training. Without the leash, the dog doesn’t understand the behavior. So, how do we train the behavior without using the leash, when we didn’t realize we were using the leash to begin with?
The obvious answer is to take the leash off and go someplace safe to practice. You can also attach the leash to your pants, get it out of your hands, and make sure it’s long enough for the dog to get out of heel position. Does the dog stray from heel position? If your leash gets tight during your session, you know the dog isn’t ready to be off leash!
If you’ve determined that your dog isn’t ready to be off leash, look at how well you trained the actual behavior. Perhaps for heeling your dog does fine until you do an about turn. That information would tell me that the dog does not have a well-trained about turn. I would go back to the basics on the about turn, breaking down each step at a time, and teaching the dog how to stay with you around the turn. The same can be said for any behavior. If your dog lags more and more as you heel forward, then the dog doesn’t understand heel position.
The issue is not one of teaching your dog how to heel off leash. The issue is teaching your dog to heel, and not relying on the leash to keep your dog in position. Break down the behavior until your dog can be successful. If you have to go back to heel 1 step, reward, then do it! It will be worth your time if you want to compete in the upper levels of rally or in obedience.
One game that I spend a lot of time on is unclipping the leash. I break this down into tiny little pieces and put tons of reward history on it, both to help my dog feel more comfortable as I take off the leash, and to reward attention. The dog must give me eye contact to begin. I start by putting my hand on the leash, near the clip, then mark/reward. I do this until the dog can maintain eye contact while I touch the leash and until I mark. Then I start touching the clip. Then I start to unclip the leash. Next I completely unclip the leash. Eventually I have a dog that will maintain eye contact while I take the leash off and hand it to the steward. Then I break down going to the start line, setting up, and rewarding. Sometimes you’ll be able to set up on the start line before you remove the leash but sometimes the judge will want the leash off as soon as you come in the ring and the start line might be farther away, so make sure you practice both scenarios.
Take the time to teach your dog that the leash doesn’t cause behaviors! If you can do that from the beginning of your dog’s training, great! But if you now realize that you’ve used to leash to cause behaviors to happen, it’s not too late! Be very aware of how you’re using the leash and the transition to off-leash in the ring will not be a problem!