DEAR DIDI: My boyfriend and I rescued a Lhasa Apso/Poodle puppy from the dog pound. He is very sweet and fits into our family nicely. Our one issue is when we go on walks. He pulls constantly and chokes himself to the point of coughing. So we bought a harness. He isn’t coughing anymore but he still pulls amazingly hard for a small dog. Is it possible to teach him not to pull so hard? Danni in Denver
DEAR DANNI: All dogs can and should learn to walk politely on leash. This is not just for looks and image because, obviously, most of America’s dogs will never be in an obedience competition or dog show. It is for your safety, the safety of your dog, and the overall enjoyment of both of you on the walk. Hundreds of people seek medical care on a weekly basis for accidents involving a dog tripping them. This can cause minor sprains to shattered shoulders and hips. The reverse can also be true. If our smaller dogs get in the way they can be stepped on, or fallen on top of, resulting in injuries to your canine. The quintessential American image of walking a dog is something we all desire, but all too frequently find, instead, that walking the dog is a chore fraught with conflict instead.
There are dozens of methods used to help a dog learn how to walk politely on leash. Which technique I choose to employ can be based on the breed, age, previous training, temperament of the individual dog and the abilities of the human all factor into the equation. The one constant that everyone must understand from the get-go is that all dogs are genetically equipped with an instinct behaviorists refer to as opposition reflex. It is a puppy’s instinct to fight any force applied by going the opposite direction. Some owners try to get their dogs to sit by pushing their rear ends down. The dog digs in and resists the action which leads the human to believe the dog is being stubborn. In an effort to have control during walks we tighten up the leash which engages a dog’s opposition reflex and causes him to pull even harder. He doesn’t even know he is doing it and he can’t help it. It is an instinct. Just like it is instinct to yank your hand away when you feel pain. Once the you understand the opposition reflex you can begin teaching your dog that being polite and staying by your side on walks will earn him bountiful rewards!
Practice when your dog is hungry rather than after being fed. Have a super yummy treat available because this gives him a reason to pay attention to you and try something new. If you are right-handed then I recommend your dog walk on the left side so that your dominant hand will be free to turn doorknobs, fumble for keys, sign sales slips at the pet store, etc. The reverse is true for left-handers. The key to success is to train in the house first to have fewer distractions. Walk at a rapid pace, turn directions frequently and, above all, keep that leash dangling at his neck rather than tight. Even the slightest tug can engage the opposition reflex. Going for a three mile walk tends to lull pooch and owner into tunnel vision instead of focusing on each other. Go around the sofa, into the kitchen, down the hallway, turn suddenly into guest bedrooms, etc. Your dog will stay interested just because he can’t figure out what you are doing or where you are going. Make sure to praise whenever he is in that magic spot next to your left leg so that he learns being there is super fun and gets him rewards. When he is walking perfectly in the house try it in the backyard. Be patient and perfect your indoor practice before adding distractions outside. Don’t forget to keep changing directions frequently and keep him focused. Then try it in the front yard. Use your voice, body language and treats to be more exciting than all the sounds and stimuli your dog sees outside. Pretty soon you will be going on walks and both of you will be enjoying the time together without coughing, choking or power struggles!
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