Confession time: I did not train Regis to walk on a loose lead for the first four years of his life. At all. Nada. He’s always been on a harness, and around a year I put him on an easy walk harness, but that’s it. No “one step-click-treat”. No “300 peck” training method. No ‘Be a Tree”. He essentially dragged me wherever he wanted to go every time we went for a walk. And to be honest, I really didn’t care all that much. I knew he wasn’t trying to be ‘alpha’ (since Dominance theory has been totally debunked and all), I was strong enough to hang onto him, and I was trying to focus on his reactivity while walking. Not only that, but I had a few years under my belt of walking dogs in the shelter system and as a job, and once you’ve been dragged by an 80 lb pit mix on a back clip harness down a row of kennels, not much will phase you in terms of pullers.
But I digress. When I started my own training business three years ago, I decided that I needed to start working with Regis on his leash manners, because, even if I didn’t mind his poor behavior, it certainly didn’t look good for my business. And there was that one time he yanked my arm just a little too hard, and I realized no one else would be able to walk him like that. So I figured, it might be a good time to start training his leash work. So we worked.
You see, when you’re training an adult dog, even if they haven’t had a single minute of formal training, they have a reinforcement history for their behavior. Because they’ve been alive, and operating in their environment, and been reinforced (counter-surfing usually gets me something good!) and punished (Eating bees kinda hurts, maybe I’ll stay away from them) for however long they’ve been alive. Your dog is always learning, whether you mean for them to be or not.
So Regis spent the first four years of his life learning that pulling and impulsivity get you where you want to go. To compound this issue, he’s really not terribly food motivated, and once he’s over-stimulated by his environment, begins rejecting food. So needless to say, teaching him polite walking has been far from a walk in the park (pun intended).
And about 3 years later, I’m proud to say that 99% of the time, he’s “in the game” and content to walk on a loose leash, and I can get his attention back from squirrels and other dogs easily. Yes, we still have some rough days, especially when we’ve seen a lot of dogs or had a particularly stressful day. That’s when I really have to focus on the progress we’ve made. It’s easy to have a picture in your head, and say “This is what I expect this end behavior to look like”. And when we focus on where we’re going instead of enjoying the ride, it can sometimes feel like it’s taking foreeeeeever.
So, as a dog trainer and a dog owner, I urge you to take the occasional look at where you’ve come from. Use retrospective thinking as a constructive tool. We all can see forward, and think about where we want to be ("I want Cujo to be able to walk by other dogs on leash without flipping out on the same side of the street") but we rarely think about where we’ve come from ("Wow, I can’t believe we saw six dogs on our walk and Cujo didn’t bark and lunge once! That’s never would have happened six months ago!") Especially in today’s world, filled with Google for immediate answers, Amazon prime for immediate deliveries, and smart phones for immediate contact, it’s easy to forget that some things take time, and this is especially true with teaching new behaviors.
So be forgiving of yourself and your dog, and when it’s tempting to move faster and you feel disappointed or frustrated, look at how far you’ve come, and be proud of all you’ve accomplished with your dog.