Giving in to leash pressure is a loose leash walking foundation skill that will cue Chai to reorient when reaching the end of her leash and keep her from pulling sideways once we are working on collar mode.1
June 1, 2023 (day 56) – Chai’s first two leash pressure sessions on a collar!
I haven’t put a collar on Chai before her first session today – she doesn’t even have a collar of her own yet, so the one you’ll see in this video is a bit big. It’s one of Game’s collars that I rarely use. I’ve only walked Chai on a harness so far. Note: it is MUCH easier to teach leash skills to a dog who doesn’t have a history of pulling yet. If your dog does, it is completely normal for them to take longer than Chai. It is easiest to teach leash walking to a puppy.
Collar leash pressure session 1:
In her second collar leash pressure session, Chai gives in every time before I bring out the treat – that’s our cue to take things into a new environment in the next session after!
June 2, 2023 (day 57) – leash pressure in a new environment
We repeated the leash pressure behavior up on our roof – a low-distraction outdoors environment (no video). Chai did just as well as she had done inside. Leash pressure on a collar: check! We’ll be moving on to the next foundation behavior for our invisible line LLW behavior: the hand touch!
(1) In this post, I am specifically referring to the invisible line approach to loose leash walking. If you’ve taken the class Out and About I used to teach at FDSA, you’ll know what I’m talking about in terms of the “invisible line.” If you’ve taken Out and About but not worked on leash walking, you can look up the broader context of this approach in the leash walking lectures in your FDSA library!
If you have NOT taken Out and About and want to know what the heck I am talking about, you can get a micro e-book on my loose leash walking approaches here. It comes with all the training steps, larger concepts that are not a part of this blog post (WHY do we need these baseline behaviors in the first place and WTF is an invisible line?), more unlisted example videos and other fun training materials.
You’ve already learned that for the automatic leash pressure method to work, you and your puppy will only walk forward on a loose leash. You’re still missing something crucial though: a way of measuring leash pressure. In order to be successful with the automatic leash pressure method:
You need a way of measuring the amount of pressure your puppy is putting on the leash.
You need to define the amount of pressure that will trigger a stop.
And you need to consistently apply this metric anytime you are walking your puppy on their LLW equipment (e.g. collar).
Can’t you just play it by ear? No, sorry – you can’t. People are notoriously inconsistent when doing this kind of training based on their gut feeling. This is confusing to puppies. They may learn to keep their leash loose anyway … Or they may not. In any case, it will likely take longer. So instead of fumbling our way through, let’s keep our criteria crystal clear from the start!
Measuring leash pressure
Here’s the elements will be looking at:
1. How to hold the leash in order to effectively measure pressure.
2. How to do the actual measuring, and define a point of tightness that will trigger stopping.
3. How to define that the leash has loosened again, triggering movement.
How to hold the leash to effectively measure pressure
Find your default finger loop
Make a loop with the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand (left image below). Look at your hand. Feel your hand. What does it feel like for your thumb and index finger to touch?
Now get up from your chair, and let your arms hang down by your side, standing relaxedly (right image above). Do your fingers still touch each other, or is there a gap between them? How large or small is the gap? Do this exercise in front of a mirror if you can! Remember that I want you to consciously relax your arm and your hand. If there is a gap between your thumb and index finger, think about the kind of object that would snuggly fit between them. For me (right image above), this is a piece of kibble: I could put a single piece of kibble between thumb and index finger of my relaxed hand, and it wouldn’t drop to the ground. For you, there may be no gap at all, or there may be a slightly wider gap. Maybe your object is a walnut or a bottle cap! If you’re not sure, experiment with the objects you find around your kitchen or living room!
Next, I want you to start walking, swinging your arms loosely and naturally by your side. Pay attention to the distance between your thumb and index finger. Is it the same distance you had when standing still, or does it change? In my case, it’s the same: a single piece of kibble would snuggly fit into the gap between my thumb and index finger. Spend 30 seconds consciously describing the feeling and the default size of your gap: what is the relaxed distance between thumb and index finger when you are standing still or walking? How would you describe it to someone on a voice call who can’t see the gap?
The reason I’m having you pay close attention to your finger loop is that we aren’t usually aware of it, and of how it feels. We need to change this in order for the measuring method I’m about to teach you to work.
Now that you have raised your awareness of what it feels like to have your arms swinging loosely by your side, grab a leash. Hook the handle on your index finger while keeping your arm, hands and fingers just as relaxed as before. If your default position is a slightly open loop – no need to close it.
Note that there’s no dog attached to my leash! This part is just about you and the leash.
Now, start walking around the room again. What does the weight of the leash feel like on your index finger? Think about it as if you were describing the sensation to someone over the phone: they can’t see you, and they don’t have a leash to try it themselves! Keep your arms and hands relaxed as you walk around the room, and focus on the sensation of the fabric wrapped around your finger. The weight. The way it affects your finger loop. Let the leash drag on the floor behind you as you walk.
For the next step, add a collar to the leash, and attach the collar to a piece of sturdy furniture about the same height as your puppy’s neck. The handle of your leash goes on your index finger again.
The effect of leash pressure on your finger loop
You’re now going to explore what it feels like when there is pressure on the leash: what will your finger loop do? Start out with your loop in its relaxed default position. Take a few slow steps backwards, watching and sensing what is happening to your index finger. Can you feel how the loop being pulled open when you step back, and the leash goes tight? What does it look like now? The opening will be bigger – maybe instead of a piece of kibble, you could snuggly fit a small tomatoe in the gap when it’s fully opened by the pressure of the leash. What does it feel like when it’s just opening a little because you’ve taken a smaller step back? Say, the size of two kibbles instead of just one? How does this feel different from the default position of the leash on your finger loop? Try this with both hands. Watch your finger ring expand, and pay attention to the changing sensation in the muscles and skin of your fingers. Repeat a few times with the leash on the index finger of both hands!
Going forwards, when you work with your puppy on LLW, this is how you will be holding your leash: the handle is going to be hooked into your finger loop, and your hand and fingers will be relaxed.
How to do the actual measuring, and define a point of tightness that will trigger stopping
You are going to measure the tightness of the leash by means of whether your finger loop is open or closed. Let’s defined “closed” as the relaxed position of your loop. For some people, the thumb and index finger will actually be touching each other when the arm is hanging down by your side in a relaxed way. For others – such as me – there will be a small gap.
Now that you know what “closed” means, let’s look at an open(ing) finger loop: anything more than your relaxed default position means that the leash counts as tight. In the case of someone whose relaxed finger loop means touching thumb to index finger, the moment a piece of kibble fits into that loop already constitutes a tight leash. On the other hand, for me, that same amount of opening (kibble-sized) is relaxed. But the moment the imaginary piece of kibble drops to the floor (due to the dog pulling), my leash will count as tight.
Once you have defined what tightness means to you, the next step is simple: anytime the leash tightens (your finger loop opens past its relaxed position), you will stop. You won’t reel your dog in. You won’t jerk on the leash. You’ll just stop. Every single time, no exceptions.
How to define that the leash has loosened again, triggering movement
As long as you keep the muscles in your arm, hand, and fingers relaxed, your finger loop will go back to its relaxed position as soon as the leash loosens. The moment your finger loop returns to its default shape, the leash counts as loose again. You can measure this both visually, by looking at your hand, and tactilely, by feeling your loop close and, in case your relaxed default is completely closed, by the sensation of the tips of your thumb and index finger touching each other. As soon as this happens, you’ll start walking again. Always, without exceptions.
How operant and classical conditioning work hand in hand
A classical association
Over time, your puppy will learn that there’s a clear stimulus-stimulus relationship:
Leash pressure on neck —> everything stops.
No pressure on neck —> freedom to move.
Once your puppy has realized the classical association, they will learn to manipulate it. Now, we’re firmly in operant territory! Through trial and error, the puppy is going to figure out that they control the pressure on their neck. They will learn what turns the pressure on: charging ahead, or moving a certain distance (depending on the length of the leash you are using) away from you. They will realize that these behaviors are like pushing the “everything stops” button.
They will also learn how to turn off the pressure on their neck. They will realize that there are several “freedom to move” buttons they can push when they feel pressure on their neck.
Let’s ask Puzzle to show us the most common ones:
+ Sitting down + Weight shift backwards + Turning towards you + Moving towards you
The videos below center on the finger loop and on the four green-button behaviors Puzzle can use to get me moving again after the leash tightened. Note how her movement affects my finger loop! Also note how brief the stops are. The automatic leash pressure method isn’t annoying to teach – you can go on a normal walk, and actually cover ground, while you practice.
Alright – that was quite a lot of theory and practice sans dogs! Now head outside, and give it a try with your puppy! Have fun!
In the first puppy leash skills post, you saw two unedited clips of what the automatic leash pressure method looks like in practice. This post is all about drilling deeper.
One of the laws of automatic leash pressure is that you never get to pull on the leash, or reel your puppy in. However, sometimes, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need a puppy straining at the end of their leash to get out of the way. Maybe there’s a kid with an ice cream cone about to stumble over your puppy, or maybe they got off the sidewalk and are trying to cross a busy road. This brings us to our ancillary skills. These skills have a single purpose:
They will allow you to move your puppy without jeopardizing the golden rule of never pulling on the leash, and never reeling puppies in.
Ancillary skill #1: follow a treat magnet
Teach your puppy – independent of leash training – to follow a treat you hold in front of their nose for at least a few steps. Take the treat between thumb and index finger, present it in front of the puppies nose, and steer them in whichever direction you want them to go by having them follow the treat. Here’s an example of applications in real-world LLW contexts.
In the video below, Puzzle wants to eat something on the ground that I don’t want her to eat (looks like eggs someone broke). I simply use a treat magnet to get her to keep going – and the leash stays loose.
Here, I don’t have a video helper, so I just walk up and down with the camera set up at a distance. Puzzle thinks it’s weird that we are turning around to walk back to the camera. She sits down. I wait a few seconds, but she doesn’t look like she’s planning on getting up anytime soon. Treat magnet (in combination with a little treat toss) for the win! I reactivate her with food, and we keep going. (Sorry about the blurry video!)
Ancillary slill #2: be comfortable being picked up!
If things are scary and your puppy wants to take off running rather than continuing their loose leash stroll, or you realize you are late for a Zoom meeting and have to get back home ASAP, there’s a simple solution: pick them up, and carry them to safety. Puppies who learn that they are always safe when you carry them will even learn to seek you out (rather than bolt) when they get scared. Practice picking up your puppy at home, in low-stress environments, to build positive associations!
Not exactly a LLW context, but I’m using the puppy pick-up skill here at an Oxxo (small supermarket; left picture) and at a pharmacy (right picture): I want to take Puzzle places to get her used to the world, but I don’t want her to walk inside these businesses since she isn’t yet housebroken: Picking her up is the best of both worlds!
As a rule of thumb, I tend to use ancillary skills 1 and 3 if the puppy is merely distracted, and ancillary skill 2 if they are scared or if I am in a hurry. That’s because walking voluntarily gives a dog more agency than being carried – and agency is generally a good thing!
The best way to carry your puppy is either in a comfy bag, or supporting their butt and back legs with your arm/hand.
Ancillary skill #3: just call them over!
Sometimes, you don’t have treats, feel like the distraction is too low to warrant the use of treats, or your Saint Bernard puppy is getting too heavy to be picked up. Being able to call or othewise entice them to come to you is perfect for these moments: again, it will allow you to move your puppy without thightening the leash or reeling them in. Just like picking up your puppy, this is something youll want to practice in a low-distraction environment, outside of the context of leash walking. For me, it tends to just happen naturally as I interact with a puppy throughout the day: I end up building both an informall recall (In my case, “Pupupup!” as well as a kissy noise), and teach them that me squatting down or doing playful piano fingers on the ground is a cue for them to approach me. When I need it in the real world of LLW, the behavior will be ready!
Here’s a brief example of using a kissy noise, squatting down and the beginning of piano fingers to get Puzzle out of the way of the woman and her kid:
I won’t necessarily treat in anxillary skill #3. Just get the puppy where you need them to be, and then keep going!
Now that you’ve got a good idea of ancillary skills, there’s one more crucial element missing: you need a way to measure the pressure your puppy is putting on the leash in order to guarantee consistency. How much pressure will cue you to stop? It should always be the same amount, independent of your state of mind, where you are walking, or how lazy or high-energy yur puppy is feeling. We’ll look at how to develop a simple measuring system in my next post!
Apart from some fun CU work, I was excited about getting Puzzle’s assistance in videoing the steps for one other skill: loose leash walking!
Those of you who have taken my Out & About class know that I’m an opportunistic LLW teacher: depending on the dog, owner, goals and circumstances, I’ll apply one of several different LLW approaches. The method I’m going to share with you today is one I don’t generally talk about in my classes. Let’s call it the automatic leash pressure method.
I’ve only used this approach in some of my own puppies (and never in an adult dog). I just don’t have enough data to feel like it is something I want to teach to people who are paying me. If you give this a try with your puppy after reading my post, be sure to let me know how it’s working for you!
The force of habit
Our strongest behaviors are habitual ones: they are the ones we do unthinkingly, without involving the decision-making prefrontal cortex at all. Our body is so used to doing them that they are on autopilot. For example, when I’m driving and there’s a red light, my foot will automatically step on the break and slow down. I don’t have to consider my options and think about whether or not I want to stop. I don’t have to turn off the podcast I’m listening to in order to not be too distracted to make said decision.The behavior is on autopilot, no matter whether it’s rushour or I’m the only car on the road, and no matter whether I’m singing along with the radio, talking to the person in the passenger seat, or keeping an eye on my GPS. I’ll even step on the break if I’m driving in Thailand (i.e. on the left side of the road) rather than in one of the right-side-of-the-road countries I’m used to. Habits are habits because we’ve engaged in them lots of times in all kinds of contexts, and we have never not engaged in the habit: running red lights is not on an intermittent reinforcement schedule. I’ve stopped at red lights ever since I learned to drive, every single time.
A classical conditioning approach
This kind of habit is what I want to build in the automatic leash pressure approach. Unlike any of my other LLW methods, which rely on operant conditioning, this one is mainly about classical conditioning.
What do I mean by this? Well, in this context, stimulus A is always and without exception followed by stimulus B, independent of the puppy’s behavior. Stimulus A is the leash tightening. Stimulus B is stopping.
A ——-> B Leash tightenes ——-> Movement stops
When A happens, then B happens. No exceptions. Ever. Like gravity. You may not be able to rely on many things in this Covid-ridden, white supermacist world of looming climate catastrophy, but there is one thing that always holds true: when leahes tighten, all movement stops.
A puppy who grows up in a world tight leashes stopping movement doesn’t question this fact of life: it hs always been that way, and always will. So the puppy adjusts to living in this world.
My theory is that if you consistently stop any time the leash tightens even just a little bit, from the first time the puppy wears a leash onwards, you will end up with a puppy that automatically gives in to leash pressure anytime it feels pressure on its collar for the rest of its life.
There are a few ancillary skills that are helpful for you, the human, to train (treat magnet; getting the puppy comfortable being picked up; calling the puppy over).
There’s also a specific way of measuring how much pressure is too much pressure (i.e. when you need to stop) that will help you be consistent.
I’ll share this in a subsequent post!
The videos below are just to give you a brief overveiw: yes, I stop a lot – but I it doesn’t slow me down significantly; it’s not an annoying way of walking a puppy. Also note that this is a really busy and difficult environment: if Puzzle didn’t constantly forget about leash pressure among all these people, there would be something wrong with her.
You’ll see me stop if she needs time to sniff behind me, move the leash to the other side if she wants to walk there, and use a treat magnet once to redirect her from eating something I don’t want her to eat. In the second video, I squat down and call her over to get her out of the way off some passers-by. This is really important: I will never pull on the leash to get her to move! It is Puzzle who needs to loosen the leash. I’ll help her if she needs help – but never by means of reeling her in.
Also pay attention to the different strategies Puzzle can use to loosen a tight leash. I don’t care what strategy she picks – weight shift back, turning towards me, sitting down … The moment the leash loosens, we’ll start walking again.
Btw, and the place she wants to go into in the second video? It’s a buthcer’s shop. Lots of good smells!