By Dr. Sophia Yin
My girlfriend and I just got a 12 week old Schnauzer puppy and we have one problem, she does not want to follow us around the house. We try to walk around the house with her on a short leash, but as soon as the leash is taut she digs in and won’t move, we then feel the need to ignore her, and once she relaxes we bait her with treats to come, but the behavior still persists. Thoughts? Thanks so much!
A leash is the perfect tool for keeping a puppy near enough so you can supervise her. That way you can proactively prevent potty accidents behind your back, shredding of your shoes and slippers, and pouncing on pretend prey items—such as houseplants and your 15 year old sedentary cat. However, it can be a little tricky getting some puppies to walk on leash, because some puppies get scared as soon as they feel even a slight tug.
Most likely, some people who have had puppies are thinking, “What the hey! I had no problem at all. When I was a kid 20 years ago, training our family puppy was a cinch!”
Before you assume that your historical success means you came from a family of puppy-training superstars, consider that, for some of you, the actual story behind your fantastic results may have been something more like this scene out of my childhood:
About an eon ago when my parents got the family a Boxer puppy, we trained it the way we had been taught with our last dog. We attached a leash to his choke chain—which was the standard collar of the day—and just tugged. The puppy screamed like he was about to die while pedestrians peered into our alley as they passed by, surely wondering if we were puppy abusers. But knowing only one method of training, I vaguely remember telling my friend, who was with us, . “Oh yeah, that’s normal.” Within a few minutes, the puppy somehow figured out that that if he walked forward the tugging would stop. And shortly thereafter he was able to walk on a leash instead of balking and screaming.
If you’re reading this description in horror, rest assured, I’m horrified when I recall the methods I used when I didn’t know any better too! The take-home message is important. And that is, that even with medieval methods of puppy training, this puppy somehow learned to walk on leash, not because of the method, but in spite if it! If he had been even a mildly sensitive puppy—you know the kind that grows up caring what people think instead of the type that hurls himself at sliding glass doors to get to the toy outside in spite of your shouts to come to you—he could have easily learned to be fearful of the leash!
What method should you use to train?
My general rule of thumb is that we should use methods that focus on rewarding the correct behavior, starting with steps the dog can easily perform and quickly moving on to steps that are closer and closer to our goal behavior; rather than methods that rely on sheer luck that the type of dog you selected can endure it mentally unscathed. And if we choose methods that are as crude as dental care in the 16th century, we should realize that some dogs learn no matter what we do to mess them up.
Now, in the case of Bowser, the balking Schnauzer, who has learned to be afraid of the tug: let’s go back to the beginning and take 5-10 minutes to retrain the walking, step by step. First note, that unlike the methods I used many decades ago, the methods of today do not rely on corrective devices such as choke chains. Instead, they rely on combining rewards for desired behavior and removal of rewards for unwanted behavior.
Step 1: Practice off leash in a puppy-safe, potty safe area and reward little Bowser for sitting. Give one treat for sitting and additional treats for remaining seated. Once you have her undivided attention, then you run the other way to incite a chase. And stop after 5-7 steps, before she catches up. When she gets to you, she sits and gets a reward. Now she has the idea that it’s fun to follow you. (To see this in action watch this video from Creating the Perfect Puppy: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right and Stay on Track).
Step 2: Next, repeat the same process with a lightweight leash attached to her flat collar so she gets used to the feel of the leash. Of course, make sure that she can’t get it snagged on anything or you’ll be adding an extra day or two to your training!
Step 3: After you’ve practiced that a couple of times you’re ready to hold the leash. In fact, you can often skip that leash dragging stage. Little Bowser’s already used to following you when you sprint or head the other way. So, you can walk but with quick little steps so it looks like you are sprinting to get her to follow after you. Make sure that you keep the leash in a loose arc the entire time.
Step 3 alternative: Alternatively you can go for variation two. Walk to the end of the leash, but without letting the leash tighten. We want to avoid any pressure at first since pressure might scare her. When you get to the end, remain with your body facing forward while looking back at your puppy or face your body slightly sideways so you can see her more easily. Then lure her to you with a treat. Do this 3-6 times in a row or more until you can rapidly walk away and when you stop and lure she readily catches up to you when she sees the treat. (To see photo illustration, read section 5.6 in Perfect Puppy in 7 Days)
Next, repeat the process but don’t show her the treat until after she catches up to you. Once she follows you 3-6 times, she will most likely start to walk with you as you begin to walk away.
What if she still balks when she feels pressure even if she can follow you on leash?
If you have a puppy who follows nicely by this stage but still balks once she feels pressure on the leash, you can move to Stage 2 of training where you train her that pressure on the leash is ok.
Put a tiny bit of pressure on her leash while waving a really tasty treat so she thinks more about the treat than about how the pressure might scare her. If you’re careful about staying below the pressure that triggers a fear response, then she’ll soon just automatically follow you. Repeat as with Stage 1 of training.
Use the collar grab protocol:
(Refer to section 6.1 in Perfect Puppy in 7 Days for photos of this)
If you think you have the most difficult puppy in the world, first off, know that probably 30 of your friends would disagree. They think THEY have the most difficult one. All of you can go on to the next Stage 3 of training: a variation of the technique for training dogs to love collar grabs. The reason a love of collar grabs is essential for puppies is that later on in life you’ll want to be able to grab your dog’s collar in an emergency without worrying that he will freak out and bite.
Here’s the gist of this method: With leash and collar on and you right next to your puppy, pull very gently, not enough to move your puppy. Then within a split second of starting the tiny tug, place a yummy treat into your puppy’s face. The goal is to train the bitty Bowser that the slight pressure on the collar equals a big yummy treat. When you’ve done that maybe 3-5 times and you’re sure she’s just thinking “food” every time her collar gets slightly tugged, you can increase the tug. The trick to this method is that you need to stay below the level that causes her to show signs of anxiety or fear. We want her to develop a positive association so stay at the level where she is always just thinking “Cool! Treat!” when she feels the tug. If you approach this systematically, you can progress quickly—within just one to a handful of short sessions in the standard puppy with this type of issue.
Another alternative: Leave-it at the end of the leash. Yet another alternative that trains puppies that the leash pressure is not scary is the leave-it exercise which should be taught after your puppy knows to sit and focus on you well (see section 5.6 in Perfect Puppy in 7 Days for full photo illustrated instructions or watch Creating the Perfect Puppy DVD). A two sentence run down here is that you toss a treat past the end of the leash and when Bowser goes to the end to get the treat, because you stand completely still and do NOT pull her back, she just realizes that the pressure she feels around her neck means she should do something else … something that will cause the pressure to decrease. If you’ve worked on the exercise I call say please by sitting, then she’ll quickly come back and sit and look at you since she’s been rewarded for that in the past already. Then she can get a sequence of treats.
So there you go. A plethora of methods for fixing the Balking Bowser, and for ensuring that any puppy learns to walk willingly on a leash. For more specific instruction on the entire process, watch Creating the Perfect Puppy: How to Start Off Right and Stay on Track or read Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right (chapter 5-6).