Teaching Star to walk nicely

Shirley just adopted Star. Having had dogs all her life, she’d never known that simple walks could be a challenge. A 2-year-old Lab-mix around 40 lbs, Star is surprisingly strong, and Shirley is petite, and approaching her 76th birthday.   

Overall it was a great match. Star is loving, and almost intuitively careful not to get in Shirley’s path. The bond was quick and strong, and Star is generally calm . . . until Shirley puts on her leash. Then, Star pulls her out the door with Shirley trailing horizontally, she jokes, as Star moves in HER chosen direction and pace.

Shirley calling, “No, stop!” hasn’t worked; in fact, it seems Star interprets this to mean, “Let’s go!” Of course pulling back on a leash nearly always guarantees a dog Star’s size or larger will pull harder the other way, in an involuntary response called the opposition reflex. 

Shirley finally enlisted help from a dog trainer who told her she’d allowed Star to be the pack leader, in charge, and to get a choke collar. She did. If she pulled hard enough, Star would yelp, but otherwise, there was no change in behavior.

Thankfully, Shirley discovered “Decoding Your Dog,” which includes an explanation by top experts that a dog’s pulling has nothing to do with dominance, and everything to do with the dog’s lack of being taught how to walk.

To teach Star to follow her, I suggested Shirley buy treats (many varieties are available), and keep them in a small pouch or pocket. She needed high-value treats (the big guns), so, confirming Star had no food allergies, I suggested small pieces of low-salt hot dogs or turkey dogs, or small pieces of Vita Bone.

Next, I asked Shirley, as she gets the leash out, to have Star “sit,” and once her leash is on, to immediately present a morsel at her side, so Star doesn’t pull her outside.  Next I asked her to give small pieces to lead Star just to the place she goes potty.

Once Star has done her business, I asked Shirley to continue treating her to hold her attention.

Every few steps, holding the enticing goodie at her side, I asked Shirley to unpredictably change direction. Take five steps forward, then go left six steps, then to the right for 10, then then back up four — all the while holding treats at her side, giving them every few steps.

Keeping your pup guessing is a surefire way to teach her to follow your lead. Praise her when she catches on.  She won’t be pulling or chasing smells when her attention is fully on you.

At some point offer the yummy in response to eye contact, adding the cue “Watch me.” This further reinforces her job to pay attention to you.

Early in the walking exercise, provide a break after about a city block. Allow your dog time for that other cherished treat — sniffing her surroundings.

Over time, gradually increase the amount of time you expect your star to walk while paying attention to you. In the same way, begin to replace the treats with her daily kibble. Never stop praising when she gets things right, and keep a surprise treat onboard for walks. Everyone’s more compliant when they think there might be a special treat in the offing!

Finally, equipment matters. I’m not a fan of choke collars – which for sure it wasn’t helping and in fact was mildly hurting Star. Far better is a head halter like a Gentle Leader, or body harness, such as an Easy Walk harness. Each is better than a choke collar, and also gets better results.

Following this advice, Shirley became every bit the star her dog is.  It took a few months, but problem solved. 

Steve Dale, CABC (certified animal behavior consultant), reaches more pet owners than any other pet journalist in America as a newspaper columnist, radio host, blogger, television expert and author of "Good Dog." He is also an avid animal advocate and expert in positive training.