A Loose-Leash Walk!

I know my post yesterday was about grief, so it may seem odd to be posting this practically euphoric post today, but that seems to be how my life is, generally: up and down. Either that’s the way I am, or that’s the way life is. I don’t know.

In the midst of sadness, there is joy. In the midst of fear, there is hope.

I have a lot of happy and/or hopeful posts I haven’t finished  yet, partly because I’ve been busy or there have been other topics, and partly because of the “will he or won’t he?” question about Barnum continuing as a SDiT. I’ll post about that issue — “What do the posts mean?” — another time. Hold that thought.

[Cue choir of angels singing.]

Today we had an actual loose-leash walk! It was probably the first time I’ve enjoyed a walk with him in — I don’t know how long — a year? Ever?

I have been working on “loose-leash walk” (LLW) with Barnum forever! Really, since he arrived. I could not understand why we were not making progress, despite all the issues I knew about (his distractibility, his low food drive, my pchair issues, etc.).

A while back, Sue Ailsby posted on the Training Levels list that if you’ve been working at LLW for three months and not making progress, it’s because you are not backing up far enough when the leash gets tight. You have to back up so far that the dog loses hope of getting to the spot he wants to get to.

I decided to tackle this with a two-pronged approach.

Issue #1: Focus

Since the “point of interest” for Barnum is pretty much “everything outdoors,” that meant he was always “over threshold,” so I decided to start training indoors. Not training the walking part, because he’s been doing perfect LLW indoors forever, and it never translated.

The problem was focus. I started a program about three weeks ago of heavily reinforcing eye contact, and especially, using a red light/green light approach to going outside every time.

You could also call this “door zen,” or “outdoors zen,” or “using life rewards.”

Basically, we’d get to the door and I’d wait for him to make eye contact. Click/treat. After a few of those, we’d move forward. Eye contact? C/t each time, and I’d open the main door. That leaves the storm door, which is much more exciting, because it is transparent, and then he can see outside. If I didn’t get eye contact within a few seconds, I’d back us up, and if necessary, shut the big door again.

once I was getting eye contact at least every three seconds or so, I’d move us outside, and do the same on the ramp, down the ramp, and to where he toilets. (I’ll save the toileting for another time. Big news there, too.)

I also incorporated c/t for looking when I said his name or for sustained eye contact when I gave the eye-contact cue, “Watch me!”

That has definitely helped.

Issue #2: Too Many Cooks

Barnum gets walked by three people in addition to me: One of my helpers, who walks him two or three times a week; his dog walker who comes once a week to take him to the pond; and occasionally, Betsy, to take him to the pond.

They all say that he walks on a loose leash with them. I question them, and they all give answers that suggest that Barnum is a perfect angel with them. This has been going on for many months.

So, I have been thinking, “What the hell is wrong with me?” Is it the speed of the powerchair? Is it me? Is Barnum really so dense that after a year he has not generalized the concept of walking next to an ambulatory person versus walking next to a chair (which my other dogs learned just fine)?”

The last time his dog-walker came to take him to the pond, I got a tip-off. Usually I’m in bed when they leave, but this time I was watching them walk down the ramp. I saw Barnum pulling, tight leash all the way, down the ramp!


I don’t think she thought of this as pulling, because he wasn’t hauling her around, as is typical for most dogs you see on leash. She was also focused on other things and not obsessed with LLW, like I am.

I decided to ask each of the other two people to show me how they walk Barnum.

Let me be clear: I did not think any of these people were lying. (And they weren’t.) I just wanted to evaluate what they were doing, what Barnum was doing, and see if I could  learn from it.

The first person was Betsy. As with me, Barnum walked nicely inside the fenced yard, and then as they headed up the driveway to the road, he’d go to the end of his leash. Which is what he always did with me. In fact, he might have done it sooner with Betsy!

I had to stay back a good distance to watch, otherwise Barnum kept looking at me. I called, “Is that what he normally does?”

Betsy said they never walk up to the street. She always takes him right to the van, which is just a few steps outside the gate. So, he really was not getting any practice with her.

Lastly, my helper, who walks him more than anyone else, and takes him on long walks. We started in the yard.

Right away, he went to the end of his leash. In the yard, already. My helper stopped, waited for Barnum to stand still, and when he did, she moved forward, thereby creating a loose leash! Barnum didn’t have to do anything but wait. He got to continue from where he was pulling.

Predictably, after a few more steps, he was at the end of his leash again.

I stopped them.

First, we discussed timing. I explained that she needed to act before the leash was tight, when the snap was still hanging down, or the leash was making a “J” shape. She knew this, but what she hadn’t realized was that this meant she had to start walking backwards before the leash was remotely tight — when she could tell that it was going to get tight at the rate he kept going. That way, she could change things up before the leash was truly tight — just when it was threatening to be tight.

Once she had practiced that a couple of times — she learned the timing very fast; she’s an athlete, so she has great reflexes — we moved on to the “backing up” part.

I told her to back up ten steps any time the leash got tight. That was not remotely far enough.

I told her try backing up ten feet. Again, not far enough. Barnum still did not have his attention on her.

Also, she wasn’t backing up fast enough. That’s one of the problems with powerchairs — they always back up slower than they go forward (blasted safety features!) — but it’s something a healthy ambulatory person should be able to do.

I told her to back up quickly, as soon as she started backing up, and to back up fifteen feet. That was better, but still not good enough.

I said to back up twice as far as they had moved forward — so far back that Barnum had given up hope of getting anywhere. I said, “It doesn’t matter how far you get. If you spend the whole time in the driveway, that’s fine.”

I think that last instruction was a key element, because she had been worried about doing her job — giving him exercise. When I gave her permission not to worry about that, she was able to relax and focus completely on training.

Another cool thing that happened was when my helper backed up far enough that Barnum was looking up at her face to try to figure out what she was doing, I said to mark that (click or say, “YES!”) and offer a treat. She did that, with me coaching (“He’s looking at you! Click! Click now!”), and he took the proffered cheese!

I told her, if she could manage to mark and treat for eye contact, great, and if not, don’t worry about it. I watched to make sure she had the hang of backing up, and I left them to it.

I know Barnum’s not getting enough physical exercise. That’s not my priority right now. I play and run him around in the yard every day after he has peed and pooped (his reward for pooping on leash) so he gets to work off some energy, but I know that’s not enough.

However, even if he doesn’t go very far, an hour of walking is still an hour of walking, even if it’s covering the same patch of dirt, again and again. He is also getting a lot of mental exercise; a solid hour of LLW practice tires him right out!

I’m taking the long view. Eventually, this practice will pay off in him getting more exercise and walks. I’ll be able to walk him even when I’m not at my best, physically or mentally. And one of my other helpers, who used to really enjoy walking Gadget, but who hasn’t been able to risk being yanked around by Barnum, will be able to walk him, too.

Today, we made it past one neighbor’s house, and almost to the second. However, the black flies were really starting to get to both of us, so he was just as happy to turn around. We spent fifty minutes going just a few dozen yards, but it was a few dozen yards with almost no pulling!

Oh! Lest I forget: he also took treats the whole time! He even deigned to accept hot dogs, when I was between bags of cheese! He was much more focused and mellow, all the way around. Good dog!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT?


6 Responses to “A Loose-Leash Walk!”

  1. 1 Karyn May 14, 2011 at 11:23 am

    I had been wondering about his *angel* behavior with the other people involved in his exercise routine. I am so glad you solved that and now the consistency part of life can begin.
    It sounds like things are going much better with his focus and interest in treats. That is awesome news. I am hopeful for you that things can turn around. I know its not easy being in that limbo place with him- but this is indeed something to be proud of- a move in the right direction.

  2. 2 brilliantmindbrokenbody May 14, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Haha, that does sound more like it. I had wondered, too, why he would react so poorly to the person who is probably the most consistent. It would have made more sense to me if he misbehaved worse for them!

    My parents have a dog who has leash aggression. We know he has a problem. We’ve tried to work on it, and he continues to have leash aggression, and I can tell you why in just a few words: my father isn’t consistent. Dad lets Cody pull, and puts up with it. When we were having trouble with Cody barking, it was because of Dad. Same with Cody jumping up.

    My parents get bits and pieces from Caesar Milan, which I’m not thrilled about, but at least they’re getting lower-grade stuff. For example, the way they got him to stop barking at people at the door was to stand in front of him and make him back up by encroaching on his space. Anyhow, like I said, I’m not happy that my parents are using Milan’s dominance tricks, but my mother did manage to pull one piece of training gold from the dross: you have to be consistent. She told me that they’re going to work with a trainer that a neighbor has spoken very well of. I hope that someone can get through to my father that his treatment of Cody is the problem.

    A bit wander-y, but your description of Barnum’s pulling reminded me of Cody’s heavy pulling and aggression towards other dogs when on leash.


  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler May 14, 2011 at 11:12 pm


    I should clarify that Barnum’s not pulling heavily (unless there’s another dog coming that he wants to play with, and then God help you), which is, I think, why the others didn’t think he was pulling.

    To me, anything that is not a totally slack leash is “pulling,” or “tight leash,” or not LLW, etc. People are so used to pulling dogs (it’s natural behavior among mammals — the opposition reflex), that Barnum getting to the end of his lead and then standing there, without putting weight on the line, probably wouldn’t register for 98% of the population.

    There was a time when he did pull pretty seriously, but we left that behind months ago. I wouldn’t be able to walk him in my crappy little indoor chair if he was really pulling — he’d pull me out of the chair or pull the chair over.

    My first dog, Lady, was about 40 pounds, and she could literally drag my mom down the street. She really did. She saw a squirrel and took off, and my mom got dragged and scraped up in a bad way. If only I knew then what I know now — she was so smart. Ah well.

    But yeah, consistency. As Sue Eh? puts it, LLW is really easy except that the hard part is you have to pay attention to the leash, always and forever. A tight leash NEVER gets the dog where he wants. You have to make a liftetime commitment that unless someone’s life is at stake, basically, you don’t let the dog go anywhere on a tight leash. Just today, I was sitting there, waiting for Barnum to pee, and I realized there was tension in teh leash and had been for probably 30 seconds or a minute before I clued in. You can’t let your mind wander. It’s takes focus, and focusing consistently with cognitive impairment can be hardcore!

  4. 4 Margaret Price May 15, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Hurray for learning LLW and solving the mystery! 😀

    Quoting you: “To me, anything that is not a totally slack leash is “pulling,” or “tight leash,” or not LLW, etc.” I am the same way when doing loose-leash training with Ivy (who is, as you know, not a SDiT; just my dog, whom I want to be happy and well trained).

    Funnily enough, I’m strict about the definition of “loose” with Ivy because she is the opposite of overpowering. If I pulled back on her even a little bit, I’d pull her off her feet. So our LLW training has been almost exclusively dedicated to eye contact, backing up, and rewarding the “walk with me” cue (which is what we use to mean “walk right next to me, keeping the leash very loose).

    If she gets far enough ahead of me so that the leash is about three-quarters extended, that’s the point at which she gets the “all the way back” cue, which means, “I’m going to stand here until you come back and stand next to me, and then we’ll start moving again.”

    Indoors and when meeting people, she likes food treats, but when doing our LLW practice, the ONLY reward is moving forward whee! forward! sniffing! moving! 🙂

    It took months (and some very boring-for-me walks) before she would reliably maintain a loose leash, but we have finally gotten there! Well, mostly. A “good” LLW for us at this point is along the lines of one reset every 20 feet or so.

    (I realize this is all quite different from what you’re doing with Barnum … I just thought you might enjoy hearing about our LLW adventures. 🙂

    I’ve also observed something interesting: When Ivy is very, very motivated to keep moving (when she’s tired and wants to get home, or when we’re on a street that’s loud or otherwise unenjoyable), she can maintain perfect loose-leash behavior for minutes on end. Hmm.

  5. 5 Margaret Price May 15, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    I forgot to mention this part … For a long time, I thought my LLW practice with Ivy was sort of unneccessary, from a physical point of view. That is, I thought I was just doing it because we do training games constantly whenever we’re interacting, and going out together is no different.

    But then I walked JD’s chihuahua (Killer) on a leash and realized that even a tiny dog who isn’t well trained to walk on leash is SO ANNOYING. For me and Ivy, LLW training is really all about training to be very focused on each other while walking–and I was totally flummoxed at having a dog on leash who was paying no attention to me!

    Also, I totally affirm what you said about the cognitive exhausting-ness of paying attention to what a dog is doing on-leash. Phew! We always both need a break afterwards.

  6. 6 brilliantmindbrokenbody May 16, 2011 at 12:31 am

    I noticed, and I tried to differentiate between Cody’s headlong rush at the end of a leash and Barnum’s…hmm…let’s say fully extending the leash. Cody would happily drag people along the whole walk with all his weight. The dogs I had as a child were no better; I remember with particular clarity the time I tried to walk the smaller one (who probably weighed in around 25-30 lbs) on rollerblades. I ended up crashing into a hedge and hanging onto it for dear life.

    With Hudson, I am not quite as strict as you. I hold the leash with my fingers relaxed, and if my fingers start getting pulled straight, I correct him. We weren’t taught as strict a LLW as you use in my training class, and I find that my version works for me more than 90% of the time. The remaining episodes involve verbal corrections and sometimes a slight tug against his prong collar. I am trying to figure out how I feel about the prong and whether I want to move away from it, and also…how my service dog school would react if I were to try it. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, because having the prong sensitizes Hudson to the leash. He’s pretty immune to it when he’s wearing his flat collar, which is hard on my leash hand/wrist/shoulder and the hand I keep on his harness, not to mention that a day of that is bad for my back and hips because it means he tends to walk just a little too fast so his support isn’t where it is needed.

    Sorry, I get rambly when I’m tired. I’m about to head for bed, and I’m afraid it shows.


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