After a little more than a week, I knew it was time to take Puzzle back home. I had agreed with her family to “borrow” her for a week. I took one last video – the one where Puzzle is rolling around on the floor with Game and the tennis ball – and then took her home. My neighbor was happy to see me, and smiled, seeing how much joy he had given me by lending me one of the puppies for a bit. He gave me permission to visit or spend time with Puzzle anytime.
Since Puzzle and her family live just around the corner, Game and I would walk past her and see her a lot, even after she didn’t live with us anymore. So much happy (on the puppies’ part anyways!)
We quickly got into the habit of taking her on the shorter one of our loops – just up Cerro del Cuarto and back home. Whenever I wanted to go on a longer hike, I avoided the callejon with the puppies so Puzzle wouldn’t be tempted to follow us.
Puzzle’s first hike
However, one day, she did anyways – and I decided to just bring her along. I had gotten into the habit of bringing her leash and collar, just in case, so she’d be fine walking along the car street with us, too: for the first time, Game and I were going to take her to the trails! It was a great little hike, and our little friend, who had never experienced the trails before, had a blast. Here’s a few impressions from her first field trip to the creek, with some narration about my thoughts about introducing puppies to new kinds of environments/surfaces:
Puzzle’s first field trip to the trails and the creek:
Is there anything better than watching a puppy explore a new space?
Wanna have more off-leash fun with your own dog? Join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!
I generally have a few toys out – if I haven’t, Game will turn my shoes into toys.
Resource guarding incident #1: toys
On day #1 or #2 of the Puzzle week, I observed a resource guarding moment in Puzzle: she was guarding a toy from Game. In such a young puppy (supposedly 8 weeks; maybe a little bit younger), this is a red flag behavior for me. I happened to catch it on video. Let’s look:
… and analyze! Btw, I’m pretty sure what’s running in the background is a recording of Jennifer Summerfield‘s excellent webinar on behavioral medication for dogs.
01:02 Puzzle, who hasn’t played with toys before, shows interest in the Hucker as soon as Game leaves it alone to go for the red ball on a rope. Okay – nothing wrong with this. (Stimulus enhancement causes her interest.)
01:17 Now Puzzle has the Hucker, but Game and I are interacting with the other toy, which makes that one more enticing.
01:37 Game has dropped the ball, and Puzzle comes over to take a closer look at it. (Stimulus enhancement!)
01:44 “Okay,” says Game, “Let’s see what you’re up to, little puppy!”
01:48 Game likes tugging with other dogs, so when Puzzle takes the rope, she picks up the ball …
01:49/50 It’s not entirely clear what is happening from this angle. Puzzle certainly stiffens and stares at Game, and Game lets go of the ball. (Is it because of Puzzle’s stiffening/stare, or was she going to do it anyways? We can’t know for sure.)
01:51 Game decides to get the Hucker instead – it’s currently not being used by Puzzle, so why not pick it up (and maybe bring it over to me)?
01:51/52 The moment Puzzle realizes Game is going for the Hucker, she lunges at her.
01:55/56 Game is unsure of how to handle the situation – she’s a puppy, after all. In her world, puppies have more leeway than adult dogs. You can see her do a lip lick (my interpretation: dilemma/self-consciousness/self-soothing).
02:01 Game stays calm and relaxed and gives Puzzle time to calm down as well.
02:03/04 Another lip lick. Puzzle is still feeling a bit guardy.
02:20 Game yawns … she’s not entirely sure how to handle the situation. Yawns can be like looking at your cellphone in order to let someone else in an elevator know that you’re neither creepy nor particularly interested in standing close to them.
Game is not afraid of Puzzle. If Puzzle were an adult, she would not put up with resource guarding – but she’s a puppy, and in Game’s world, that is different.
Because I know Game and can read her well, I keep filming rather than intervening. I knew nothing bad would happen despite their size difference. (This post is NOT a recommendation of how to handle resource guarding among the dogs in your own household!)
02:24 Enough time has passed, and Puzzle is now on the other side of the crate door. Game picks up the Hucker again to go about her day. (Good girl, Game! You’re awesome.)
Let’s pull out one detail I find particularly interesting in this video: Puzzle’s mixed feelings about the situation she’s getting herself into. Puzzle is experimenting with the resource guarding behavior rather than doing it out of habit. Let’s watch a stretch in slow motion:
Watch the slow-motion video a second time, and then go back to the first (real time) video. Can you make out all the body language details from the slow-mo video in real time?
How do behaviors like resource guarding develop?
We know that most behaviors have heritable components – heritability being the differences of a trait within the individuals of a population that depends on genetics. So we have both a genetic component and an environmental component that will determine the final behavioral phenotype (the individual’s observable behavior).
Let’s assume (for argument’s sake, not because this is necessarily the case) that Puzzle has never tried resource guarding before. But she’s got a combination of genes that inspire her to give it a try – even though she doesn’t exactly know what she’s doing. There’s an environmental trigger (Game wanting the Hucker Puzzle had before) that pushes Puzzle into the behavior.
Several things can happen at this point, depending on the other dog’s reaction:
If the other dog gives up the toy, the guarding behavior will be reinforced (that’s the operant, environmental part of the equation: behaviors that are being reinforced will happen more frequently in the future).
If the behavior doesn’t work (it has no meaningful consequences), it may be tried again in the future – maybe slightly differently, maybe in somewhat different circumstances.
Or it may not be tried again in the future; maybe it was just a haphazard one-time attempt: the behavior extinguishes.
If the behavior is punished by the other dog (if Game reprimanded Puzzle), it should decrease or disappear in the future.
Puzzle is very young, so at the point that I took this video, I’d have predicted that she’d need several extinction or punishment experiences before the synapses necessary to keep the behavior in her repertoire would be pruned.
You can see how fast learning happens in real time in this very video: the first hard stare Puzzle gives Game at 01:49 (first, original speed video)/00:09 (second, slow-motion video) works: Puzzle’s hard stare is being negatively reinforced by means of Game moving away. Puzzle quickly tries the hard stare again at 01:59 (first video at original speed)/03:02 (second, slow-motion video)! When it doesn’t work, she escalates to snapping. (If this had been reinforced more than just once before before, we’d call it an extinction burst.)
Resource guarding incident #2: Chrissi
Apart from this moment with the toy, there was only one other resource guarding incident Puzzle displayed (which surprised me; after this one reaction, I expected her to be quite guardy in general). The second incident happened also on the first or second day Puzzle stayed with us. She was curled up on my lap while I was working on my laptop. Game came over to see what was up, and Puzzle snapped at her. Again, Game stayed perfectly calm. (“Eyeroll. Puppies.” Also, Game rocks!)
For me as a dog trainer who has seen owners struggle with resource guarding, both these behaviors are red flags when they show up in young puppies. I thought to myself, “Good thing I’m not going to keep Puzzle.” But – and here’s the really interesting thing! – after these two incidents, NO more resource guarding happened the entire time Puzzle stayed with us, or afterwards, when I had returned her to her family, but picked her up to let her spend a few hours at my place several times a week. I conclude that my initial assessment (resource guarding in young puppies is usually a bad sign for multi-dog households) was not the case for Puzzle.
If I were to anthropomorphize (okay, let’s stop kidding ourselves; this is me full-on anthropomorphizing): as soon as Puzzle learned that she could trust Game, she had no reason to guard resources from her – neither me nor toys nor food.
What a can of worms! How can we even operationalize “trust”?
Let’s start by operationalizing a behavior that is not trust-based (because that’s easier to define): Resource guarding is a behavior resulting from the belief that if you share something, you will lose something. (In the case of dogs, the thing they are unwilling to share is the same things they are expecting to lose. In humans, the thing they are unwilling to share could be a secret, and the thing they are afraid of losing could be a connection (a friendship, a marriage, a fight).
Trust, then, is the belief that sharing something will not result in its loss. Trusting behavior results from the belief that sharing something (a toy, food, a secret) will not result in a loss (of toys, food, or connections).
A dog who lets no one near their food is resource guarding. So is the human who leaves out the fact that they have kids or are divorced on their Tinder profile. Only once trust has been built (either systematically or organically) can the food or facts be shared.
To work or not to work on resource guarding
If I had planned to keep Puzzle, I would have prioritized resource guarding and systematically worked on it. Since I was not going to keep her, I didn’t worry about it, and worked on other behaviors I wanted to video instead. The fascinating thing: the resource guarding completely disappeared all by itself. Except for the two instances on days #1 or #2, there was no more guarding – ever. Puzzle’s confidence around and trust in Game grew (anthropomorphizing again, I know). In the video below – which is from the last full day she stayed with us – Game steals her tennis ball, and it’s all good anyways. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t work on resource guarding with your own puppy. You absolutely should! I’m just sharing the Puzzle Week story.) After a week with Game and I, Puzzle had become a relaxed house dog who was able to roll around the floor, mostly peed outside, slept through the night, and shared toys with Game.
Resource guarding in free-roaming dogs
Maybe a slight tendency to guard is a selective advantage for free-roaming dogs such as Puzzle and her parents. I’m saying this because I’ve seen it in several free-roamers-turned-pets-as-adults I’ve worked with as a trainer in Guatemala, and because I’ve seen it in free-roamers I’ve observed in the streets. Not in all of them – but definitely in a larger percentage than I’d expect to see in the pet dog population.
Here’s an example of an adolescent Husky mix displaying resource guarding behavior over food:
Wheee, that was a novel! Two more Puzzle posts to come (unless I think of more). Until then: happy training, y’all!
For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!
Due to their home and the possibility to go out into the alleyway leading past their house and interact with the passers-by, Puzzle and her siblings already got a good deal of default human socialization. Our neighborhood has lots of kids who tend to play soccer and ride their bikes or simply run around in the alleyway (there are no cars, which makes it a safe place to play and hang out). Kids, of course, love puppies, so the puppies got lots of kid time from the time they were old/brave enough to follow their mom out into the alley. In addition, the family that had the litter has a kid themselves – around 7 years old – so the puppies had contact with a child even before they left the nest.
The socialization experiences I added on top of this were more urban: I took Puzzle to the most touristy places of Guanajuato, to the busiest open-air taco stands, and walked her around cars and other traffic and city noises – a level of business and noise that is absent in our neighborhood. You’ve already seen Puzzle around people in this leash walking post. Here’s another example from a different plaza I used to take Puzzle to:
A car-free plaza I used to take Puzzle for off-leash exploration and people-watching.
La Universidad de Guanajuato
These are just some examples of the crowded-place excursions Puzzle and I took.
We also entered little supermarkets, bakeries and pharmacies together to help Puzzle adjust to different inside spaces. You can see two example pictures in this post.
Open urban spaces
Apart from crowded outdoors areas and small businesses, we also went to large, open urban spaces: another type of environment that is missing in our pedestrian, narrow-allied neighborhood, but may be part of her future life, no matter whether she ends up with a free-roaming life or a pet life.
This first video is outside of the litter’s home range, but a fairly quiet place. While there isn’t a lot going on, this place is wide and open, which makes it very different from Puzzle’s alley and most environments of our town. To get there, we have to walk along a traffickey street, which also adds a new experience. Seeing and getting used to people in different contexts and environments is important!
Cerro del cuarto
Meeting a free-roamer at the Alhóndiga.
Watching the world go by at the Alhóndiga.
The video below shows some loose leash walking practice at a busier part of the same plaza the pictures above were taken. You’ll see me handling the leash on my middle finger in this video. This, too, works – experiment, and find out which finger loop works best for you and your puppy!
The video below shows more leash walking around the Alhóndiga, around running kids. Included here for your amusement is me yelling at a guy who wants to touch Game. Game, you see, has been instructed to stay with my cellphone on its tripod and make sure no one steals it while I am videoing and focusing on Puzzle. Yes, I’m not being friendly to that guy. In my defense, I doubt he wants to find out what happens if a (generally very friendly and social) Malinois in working mode believes you are about to take my tripod. He heeded my advice, and Game held her stay. Good girl!
My next post is going to be a bit of a mixture of stuff – cute, funny, or useful clips/pictures that didn’t quite fit under any of the headings of the Puzzle series. Stay tuned! 2 more Puzzle posts to come … unless I think of something else! I feel like Sheherazade. I keep writing and writing, putting off the last post in the Puzzle series, and defying George Harrison.
The (not so) blank slate: what the puppy brings to the table
The laws of learning apply to all puppies equally. Also, every puppy is different. Both of these things are true: sadly, things are rarely as black and white as we control-loving dog trainers would like them to be.
I was pretty certain my neighbors hadn’t done strategic socialization before the puppies left their nest. However, they likely grew up in a family environment, around young children, cats, ducks, and their dogs (apart from the dam, they have a small male that looks like a Miniature Schnauzer/Chihuahua mix). That’s a good foundation!
As soon as they were ready to explore, on their own time, they started venturing out into the alley with their mother, a little bit braver and further every day. This is one aspect of growing up free-roaming I love: it’s up to the puppies when they are ready to leave the nest, and how far they are willing to go. Their humans just let them be.
Out in the alley, they would meet passers-by and the occasional dog or neighborhood cat. They were also always able to retreat behind the safety of their gate, and had a mom who’d defend them fiercely against passing strange dogs (but not against known neighborhood dogs) until they were between 6 and 7 weeks old, when she intervened to a lesser and lesser degree.
There were five puppies, and this is how I see their baseline temperaments on a scale. Note that my scale only goes from the shiest to the most curious puppy in that litter. It is not a scale of all puppies, or of puppies in general.
The parents’ temperament and stress levels
We also know a little bit about the parents’ temperaments: the mother is neutral/friendly towards all people outside the home. She’ll bark briefly when someone enters her yard. She is neutral/friendly towards known dogs, and slightly suspicious of unknown ones. The father (assuming he is who I believe he is) is confident and mellow around all dogs and all people.
Genetically, this is a nice combination for a free-roamer or a pet dog: mellow and neutral, leaning towards confidence from the father’s side; no exuberance or red flag behaviors in the parents.
I don’t think either one of the parents has a particularly stressful life. They have lots of freedom, plenty of food, and a routine that rarely changes. This should result in a good in-utero experience for the litter. (Mothers who are stressed during the gestation period are more likely to produce pups who are prone to depression, anxiety, and social deficits. This is known to be true for rodents1,2,3 and assumed to also be relevant for other mammalian species such as humans and dogs.)
Two sets of experiences for Puzzle
I wanted Puzzle to have two sets of experiences: one set would prepare her for a potential pet dog life, and the other one would allow her to thrive as a free-roamer and scavenger. The second set was taken care of by the environment she lived in and the freedom she had. I focused on the first set. I wanted her to experience living inside a house, being left alone, being crated, mat work, walking on a leash, being in busy places with lots of people, being in stores, being handled and carried, being dog-neutral and dog-confident as well as people-neutral and people-confident, starting housetraining, getting used to traffic noises and other city sounds, being inside moving vehicles.
Not all of these experiences fall under the category of socialization – some of them are more general pet puppy skills. I also did not get through all of them while I had access to Puzzle. However, I think we did pretty well, given the fact that we only had a few weeks together. The aspects I’m going to focus on in my next two posts are socialization to dogs, and socialization to busy urban spaces/feeling neutral and confident around strange people.
(1) Weinstock, Marta (2016). Prenatal stressors in rodents: Effects on behavior. Neurobiology of Stress, S2352289516300133–. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2016.08.004
(2) Cabrera, R.J.; Rodríguez-Echandía, E.L.; Jatuff, A.S.G.; Fóscolo, M. (1999). Effects of prenatal exposure to a mild chronic variable stress on body weight, preweaning mortality and rat behavior. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 32(10), 1229–1237. doi:10.1590/s0100-879×1999001000009
(3) Soares-Cunha, Carina; Coimbra, Bárbara; Borges, Sónia; Domingues, Ana Verónica; Silva, Deolinda; Sousa, Nuno; Rodrigues, Ana João (2018). Mild Prenatal Stress Causes Emotional and Brain Structural Modifications in Rats of Both Sexes. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12, 129–. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00129
I’ve written about socialization before, but it’s been a while: I haven’t raised a puppy since Game was little. And she’s turning 5 this year! It’s hard to believe how time flies.
I’m not going back to see what I wrote when I raised Phoebe, Hadley, Grit, and Game. I’m sure my opinion about socialization has changed since then – it’s constantly evolving as I/we dog trainers learn new things.
The sensitive socialization period
I’ll define socialization as introducing a puppy to the stimuli they will encounter in their adult life. Ideally, this introduction will happen during their sensitive socialization period. It is currently believed that the sensitive period lasts from 4 weeks (the age when puppies first leave their nests; Scott & Fuller1) to approximately 3 months. The most important part of the socialization period, says Jessica Hekman2, happens before the age of 8 weeks. During the socialization period, the puppy’s brain learns what stimuli are stressors, how much stress hormones should be released in response to these stimuli, and how long the stress response should last.
While dogs can still learn to tolerate or even like new things later in life, one of the reasons the socialization period is so important is that puppies are much better at generalizing at this age: meet one or two friendly small dogs? Deduct that all small dogs are friendly! Meet one dark-faced, pointy-eared dog – assume that all pointy-eared, dark-faced dogs are friendly. If they met the same kinds of dogs for the first time later in life, they might, in contrast, learn that this particular dark-faced, pointy-eared dog is friendly, but all other dark-faced, pointy-eared dogs are potentially still evil spawns.
I love Jessica Hekman’s image for the socialization period being the time when the on-switch (what turns the stress response on?), volume setting (how intense is the stress response going to be – i.e. what amount of stress hormones will be released?) and off-switch (when should the stress response end/how quickly should the dog recover from the experience) are being set.1
Interestingly, at a very early age – the so-called stress hyper-responsive period – , animals don’t show a stress response at all. Their brains do not yet make stress hormones in response to scary stimuli! That’s another reason early socialization is crucial: puppies show no fear response to scary stimuli before 5-7 weeks of age. Therefore, a puppy that just left the nest around 4 weeks of age is MUCH more likely to form positive rather than negative associations to the people, dogs, and objects they encounter.1 Once the puppy is 7 weeks old, making positive associations to new stimuli becomes significantly harder: suddenly, cortisol is part of the picture!
When the fear response first appears varies between breeds. For example, German Shepherds start experiencing fear around 5 weeks of age. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels only start experiencing fear around 7 weeks of age.3 Cavaliers, then, have 2 weeks more time to learn that the things, people, and animals in their environment are perfectly safe – which may be part of the reason Cavaliers tend to grow up to be open and curious towards new people, dogs, and objects, whereas German Shepherds are, generally speaking, more reserved. A lot can be learned in 2 additional weeks of fearlessness! This shows us that genetics are part of the equation, too. The puppy you get at 8 weeks is not a blank slate – it never was a blank slate to begin with, not even in utero.
Let’s veer away from the science for now, and look at socialization in practice. The trainer I am today approaches socialization pretty relaxedly. In contrast, the trainer I used to be recommended clients with new puppies go through a list based on Ian Dunbar’s recommendations:4 X number of new people feeding their puppy treats every week, X number of weekly new dog encounters, etc. I even had a handout my clients could check boxes off on, based on Ian Dunbar’ socialization list5. Dunbar recommends puppies meet 100 new people in 4 weeks. I lowered the number because I didn’t want to overwhelm my clients before they even got started, but it must still have been stressful for them to see all the experiences they were supposed to provide for their puppies.
Now, I just play it by ear. An open, outgoing puppy (like Game was) – I’ll just hang out around stimulating situations with them, at a distance they are able to contain their excitement. I’ll let them watch. I’ll play a little if they are ready. I’ll let them watch some more. With a socially confident puppy, I’ll focus on relaxation and engagement with me in the presence of distractions rather than actively having them meet stimuli they are already eager to approach.
With a fearful puppy, on the other hand, I want to do more than just generate neutral experiences. I want them to have distinctly positive experiences with the people, dogs or objects they are unsure of. To the best of my abilities, I’ll curate these encounters to build a library of positive experiences in the puppy’s brain.
Shy and “dominant” puppies (don’t lynch me for using the D-word, folks)
With an overly (for lack of a better word) dog-dominant puppy, like Grit was, I’ll try and arrange playdates with dogs who will – gently, but firmly – put them in their place if they cross certain boundaries. Lukas Pratschker’s Malinois was a great help with this when Grit was a puppy. My Greyhound Fanta knew just when to intervene, too.
With a dog-shy puppy, I’ll do the exact opposite, and introduce them to the calmest, friendliest dogs available to me. Again, Fanta was the perfect fit. For play dates, I might stick to puppies who are smaller and younger than my own puppy in order to give them a bit of an advantage and up their relative confidence.
With a people-shy puppy, I’ll work on growing their circle of human friends, and at the same time never force an interaction (this is something I learned over the last few years: by the time Grit was a small puppy, I still used to force things). Today, I firmly believe that whether to interact or not should be the shy puppy’s choice. My role as their handler is to make it as likely as possible that they will choose to approach voluntarily. At the same time, whether working with people or dogs, I’ll make sure the puppy has a safe place to retreat to (such as a crate, my body to hide behind, or my arms – they can always ask to be picked up).
So far, so good – that’s my art and science of puppy socialization in a nutshell. In the next post, we’ll look at what I did with one individual – puppy Puzzle – in practice!
(1) Jessica Hekman – The Biology of Socalization (Webinar at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, January 27, 2022)
(2) Scott, John Paul and John L. Fuller. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
(3) Morrow et. al. “Breed-Dependent Differences in the Onset of Fear-Related Avoidance Behavior in Puppies.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research 10(4), March 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.002. (Thank you for poointing out this study, Jessica!)
(4) Dunbar, Ian. AFTER You Get Your Puppy. Berkeley: James & Kenneth Publishers, 2001.
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!
Now that I’ve built confidence around my presence and movement, and Puzzle is drawn to the mat, we’re ready for some actual CU-style treat dropping: I am wandering around the mat, clicking for being on the mat and for sniffing for treats, and dropping treats all over the mat while she’s busy eating. We continue building the association mat equals treats (rather than handler equals treats).
As a side-effect, Puzzle gets introduced to her second marker cue: the clicker.
A snippet from her fifth mat session (Day 2), showing that she has become magnetized to the mat:
A snippet from session #6 (Day 2), showing both attraction to the mat, CU-style treat delivery, and how she learns about her release cue – another useful word she is learning on the go in the context of mat work!
In session #7, Puzzle and I talk some more about release cues, and the fact that the mat goes offline when there’s no puppy on it. Backing up off of the mat works, too! Watch until the end for the cutest part: