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 performing 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 tightens ——-> 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 of tight leashes stopping movement doesn’t question this fact of life: it has always been that way, and always will. The puppy will adjust to this world without question.
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 who unthinkingly gives in to leash pressure anytime they feel pressure on their collar for the rest of their 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 overview: 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 butcher shop. Lots of good smells!