Sharon Waschler is a published author and dog enthusiast who trains her own service dogs. Recently, a post by Sharon on her blog, After Gadget, about loose-leash heeling caught my attention.
She was frustrated with Barnum, her current service-dog-in-training--he pulled on his leash. Sharon has helpers who walk Barnum and each of them reported that he was "fine" on-leash with them. Unable to reconcile this, Sharon observed her walkers and discovered that Barnum was, indeed, pulling. Because he was not lunging at things, her walkers thought his behavior was acceptable. With a bit of coaching, her walkers matched their methods with hers, and Barnum is improving.
The loose-leash method of training that Leader Dogs for the Blind requires of all its puppy-raisers, volunteer dog-walkers, and trainers should really be called "backwards walking." Whenever the leash has ANY tension whatsoever, you walk backwards at the same speed at which you were walking forwards until your puppy looks at you. The theory is that your puppy will soon figure out that he will not get where he wants to go unless his leash is loose.
This is a good theory. In practice, at least in my experience, my puppy learns that when I walk backwards it is time to high-tail it back to my left side. As soon as we return to walking forwards, it is totally okay (in his puppy-mind) to have a little tension on the leash.
Admittedly, "backwards walking" is a hard-learned skill that improves with experience, practice, and consistency. And I mean a skill that is learned by the puppy-raiser (me) who is attempting to teach this to her puppy! I don't think that each of my three Future Leader Dog puppies have been "better than the one before." With time, and some effort, MY proficiency is developing.
Yet. FLD Gus is nine-months-old and I'm frustrated with our stutter-stepping walks. When I read Sharon's post ("A Loose Leash Walk"), I realized I had forgotten one important step.
Here are some HINTS, prompted by Sharon:
- Walk backwards FURTHER. Even though FLD Gus twirls around and hustles back to my side, his attention is forward. As soon as we travel ahead, he reverts to tension, slight at it is, on the leash.
- Walk backwards until your puppy LOOKS AT YOU. I noticed that FLD Gus doesn't look at me when I reverse. If he isn't straining to look ahead or at whatever is distracting him, he is looking down, NOT at me. This is the important step I forgot! I don't wait until he looks in my eyes before I continue forward.
- Praise your puppy AS SOON AS HIS EYES MEET YOURS, and then go forward. After several longgggg series of walking backwards, FLD Gus started to look up at me as if thinking, "Why are you still walking backwards?"
- REPEAT as necessary, even if your projected 20-minute walk through the neighborhood only gets you to the corner and back!
Now that I am working with FLD Gus on loose-leash heeling this way, I see progress--it only takes one or two really long backwards walking before he looks up; as we continue, I find the need to back up is less. FLD Gus decides to walk more easily before me, his leash draping looser at his shoulder.
YAY! And thank you, Sharon, for reminding me just exactly what I need to do!