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Tuesday, July 27, 2010


FLD Mike at 8 weeks.
When Andy makes the turn onto my sister Anne's street, FLD Mike struggles up to a sit from where he had been lying at my feet.  He is getting too big for the confining space of the passenger seat floor (where we are taught to transport our FLDs), but this is where he feels most comfortable.

FLD Mike knows where we are and pants in anticipation of a gambol with cc'd Rosie.

I'm going to work on loose-leash heeling today, I tell Andy as we pull up into Anne's driveway.  FLD Mike tends to yank on his leash until he gets into the backyard to play.  I typically alternate "backwards walking" with diverting commands (SIT or DOWN) until I release him.  Today I intend to work with Mike up and down the street until he can calmly heel all the way to the gate.

"Good luck with that," Andy says as he heads to the garage to work on his boat.

FLD Mike is ecstatic and bounds out of the van, but I make him WAIT while I put on his working vest.  Mike.  Heel.  We head down to the sidewalk.  Mike, right.  We turn and walk away from the house.  I keep him moving forward even as he bounces along, head craning to look back at the house.  He settles into a composed heel after passing several houses.

I add a few commands--SIT, DOWN, AROUND, SIT, STAY, COME, HEEL.  He is working for me now, checking in when I say Mike before each command.  We cross the street and double back.  As we get closer, FLD Mike's head cranes and his bounce returns.  I heel past; he pays attention.  I cross back over.  As we bypass Anne's house, Mike shows interest but is easier to bring back on task.

Repeat.  And then repeat, without crossing the street.

I think he's ready.  Mike, right, I say as we go around the van and turn toward the house.  He prances, eager to reach Rosie; she is barking and carrying on at the gate.

FLD Mike lunges.  I am ready and immediately reverse my direction.  Mike swings himself around to follow me, relieving tension on the leash, but his eyes stay on Rosie.  I keep walking backwards; he finally glances up at me.  I stop.  Mike.  Sit.  He sits, but trembles.  Mike.  Heel.  I take a step forward.  Mike coils his body and springs.  I step back.

I feel like the inchworm that measures the marigolds.  Inch by inch we advance.  We heel a few steps; Mike can't control himself and he lunges; I step backwards and we do it again.

Andy is finished with the boat.  Anne comes out and they both lean against the front of the van to monitor our progress.  Rosie gives it up and lies down just inside the gate to wait.  After a half-dozen or more times watching FLD Mike and I backwards walk when we are only a few paces from the fence, she stands up, lets loose a huge yawn, turns, and trots into the back yard.

Andy says, "Rosie is telling you, Mike:  'Just do what you're told already!  And hurry it up, I'm tired of waiting for you!'"

It seems to work.  Mike.  Heel, I say one more time, and finally he controls himself and we walk calmly up to the gate.  Mike.  Sit.  He sits.  Good boy, Mike!  Now, wait.  He holds his sit while I open the gate and un-hook his leash.  OK!  And he's off!



From the very first time you clip a leash to your puppy's collar, NEVER tolerate tension against the leash.  EVERY TIME your puppy pulls, stop and take a few steps back until your puppy looks at you or stops pulling.  Don't say anything; your consistent backwards walking will make your puppy understand that pulling will not get him/her anywhere.  Only a loose leash will allow your puppy to move forward, where he/she wants to go.

This is a  technique that demands constant attention on your part.  It can be extremely frustrating, especially if you are pressed for time or if you try to take a walk with someone else who isn't struggling to teach a puppy how to walk on a leash.

  • ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS walk backwards when you feel tension on the leash!
Consistency.  That is key.  And the most difficult thing to achieve.  Think about when you take your puppy to the grocery store--it is very easy for you to get distracted and tricky to backwards walk with a shopping cart!  I sometimes think that "backwards walking" as a method of teaching loose-leash-heeling (the preferred method by Leader Dogs) is an impossible procedure to perform 100% of the time, thus causing one to fall victim to "variable reinforcement."  (See "Definitions" for more about variable reinforcement.)

FLD Mike heels nicely on a loose leash.  Most of the time.  That is, if there aren't any other dogs around, or if we're not at puppy class at Leader Dogs for the Blind, or if we aren't walking near a lake where Gypsy is swimming for a stick, or if we're not approaching cc'd Rosie's backyard as she jumps for joy behind the gate.

Well, you get the idea.  These are a few of the things that really get Mike's attention away from what he's supposed to be doing.  Walking easily on my left side, his waist even with my leg, with no tension on the leash.

I'm glad that I started "backwards walking" with FLD Mike when I first brought him home, because now he knows what a loose leash heel is.  He was easy to control at seven weeks and less than eight pounds, but now, with testosterone building up in his 10 month old adolescent body (56 pounds of pure muscle), he's A LOT to handle.

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