Anyone who’s ever tried to train a dog to heel should be able to relate: teaching a dog to walk politely on a leash can be a long, slow process. Truly, it can feel like a geological age and the faster you try to make the process go, the worse it gets.
Look at it from your dog’s perspective:
This looks like a really fun game! There’s a leash to bite and tug! There are treats to be dispensed! I’m getting so much attention! I can do this forever!…Okay, we’re doing this again? It is going on forever. I want off this leash. I want to go outside. I’m so bored. And why is my human turning red in the face and making that huffing noise? And what happened to all the yummy treats? I’m gonna just lay down and eat this leash.
There’s Got to Be a Better Way to Leash Train
Before I became a certified trainer, I thought I could figure it out on my own. How hard could it be? Dogs love to go for walks, right? I’ll just slip this harness on and off we’ll go….
You can probably guess how great that went. The first couple of days, I couldn’t even get the harness on the dog. It was a real dramatic performance worthy of an Oscar with the pup fighting and wriggling like he was trying to escape a serial killer.
Both me and the dog were totally frustrated with each other. He wasn’t getting it, and I was pretty sure he never would. Clearly, I had picked the most stubborn pup at the pound.
Then something clicked, and I realized it wasn’t the dog. “I ” was the one who wasn’t getting it.
As a trainer, I’ve learned that the two most important things to remember while working with dogs are:
- Break every behavior down to its simplest parts and teach them one at a time.
- Keep training sessions short (and fun).
This wisdom applies to every single behavior you want your dog to learn. And you should always start with the basics–the things your dog should learn in obedience training. These basics are often the foundation for teaching other behaviors and “tricks.”
So before leash training even starts, you should make sure your dog will sit nicely and be able to watch or focus on you. And make sure you give him a chance to inspect his surroundings and check out any new stuff in his environment. Like a harness.
By the way, you can introduce the harness with a fun little game. After you let your dog inspect the harness, dangle it in front of him and lure him to put his nose through it with a treat. Repeat this about a million times until he’s comfortable. Then you can move on to the next step: slipping it over his head. Repeat and treat. Repeat and treat. Repeat and treat.
Take it step by step until he accepts the harness being buckled around him without complaint (or turning into a wrestling match). This could take months. (Just kidding but let it take the time it needs.)
Proofing Isn’t Just for Baked Goods
Even breaking things into small steps, you must avoid the temptation to move on to the next step too fast. Repetition is the key to helping your dog learn a behavior thoroughly, remember it, and embrace it for good. The goal is to make a dog’s response to a command so rock solid that you can rely on obedience no matter what.
When you are teaching a dog to heel on a loose leash, you haven’t succeeded if your dog heels for a few steps, gobbles the treat you hand her and then bounds ahead of you. Sure, she may know where she should be when you say the word “heel,” but she’s nowhere near doing what you want her to, which is to stay right beside you with no tension on the leash.
Proofing a behavior is establishing once and for all that your dog understands and will reliably respond to a command. Proofing a heel means that she demonstrates that she can do it all the time without reacting to distractions like other dogs or temptations like a fly-covered sandwich on the sidewalk. Yum.
If You’re Serious About Dog Training–Get Trained!
Working with dogs can be a joy. If you want to learn to be a dog trainer, go for it. It can help you with your own dogs, it can be a profitable side gig, or you could realize it’s your full time calling. Dog training is the perfect career if you want to start your own (rewarding) business.
Animal Behavior College has been certifying dog trainers since 1998. You can learn online no matter where you live (a local externship gives you plenty of hands-on experience), or you can enroll in the on-campus program in Santa Clarita, California (there’s a new session starting twice a year). Call 800-795-3294 to learn more.