Communicating with the Leash: Restraints, Pops and Pulls

"No pulling, stop, stop, easy girl, sit, sit, sit!" - average dog owner whose dog just won't listen. 
 
On any given day it's not uncommon to see people being towed along behind a dog straining at the end of a tight leash. Wait, let me rephrase that, it's actually very common. No wait, let's be totally honest, it's an epidemic.
 
Everybody knows that when they get a dog they also need to get a leash, right? After that, knowledge diminishes rapidly and opinions vary greatly. Most people have no idea how to actually use the leash as a communication device so they just white knuckle it, hoping their dog will soon "grow out of their pulling phase." Others may do a little research only to find a bunch of controversy over the use of force telling them not to use the leash because it's mean, cruel or inhumane. While it's true that some training styles are more gentle than others, it's also true that ALL effective dog trainers use leash pressure to some extent. They don’t all use the leash in the same way or to the same degree but they all use it.
 
A leash has three basic uses: Restraints, Pops and Pulls.
 
Restraints: There are four common reasons for leash restraint.
  1. Default - Restraint is the most common use of the leash because most people hold their dog on a tight leash. Not as a training strategy, they just don’t know any better.
  2. Tether - Tethering the leash to something solid can be handy for things like doorbell exercises. Warning: Don't tether a dog unattended, they can get injured or become aggressive.
  3. Building Drive - Restraint is powerful for building drive in dogs. For example: restraining the dog as the owner runs away and then letting go of the leash upon the owner’s recall will build that dog's drive. Restraint builds drive towards whatever the dog is pulling towards. Unfortunately, this often leads to leash aggression when restrained from other dogs. The power of restraint can be an advantage or a problem, the key is awareness.
  4. Ethics - Many trainers are ethically opposed to communicating with the leash insisting dogs only be trained with positive reinforcement. They do, however, use the leash, primarily as a restraint. For example: If the dog pulls on the leash, the human stops and waits for the dog to stop pulling. The problem with this technique is many dogs will throw their full body weight into the leash and strangle themselves before they finally stop pulling - making it a far-less gentle technique than originally intended. I have observed and questioned hundreds of clients and I have concluded that the most common place this technique feels more gentle is in the mind of the handler. They feel less guilty because "the dog is doing the choking to themselves." But, how much force is actually hitting the end of the leash? How much learning is taking place? If we take an objective view, wouldn't it be kinder to give a quick leash communication rather than letting the dog strangle themselves?
Pops: A "pop" is a short burst of leash pressure. The amount of pressure is adjustable but it must be fast, a micro second. Pops are one of the hardest leash skills to learn but are beneficial when you need a quick communication that the dog doesn't have time to resist. For example: When teaching a dog to stop pulling on the leash, if you use restraints or pulls, most dogs will pull against it. With a pop there is no time for resistance because the pop comes and goes in a flash.
 
Leash pops catch a lot of grief for being cruel but they don't have to be. The key is to start with conditioning exercises. Show the dog a treat or toy and move backwards. As the dog is coming towards you to get the reward, add some gentle pops to the leash. Make sure you use just enough pressure that the dog can feel it but not so much that it causes resistance. If you get resistance during the conditioning phase you are using too much pressure. This should not be scary or painful, the dog should be showing enthusiasm.
 
Pulls: A "pull" is slower than a pop but is not static like a restraint. Pulls are less controversial than pops because they are not sharp so people innately don’t feel as bad about them. The controversy stems from trainers that use strangle and dangle techniques. Otherwise, even “positive” trainers will use pulls to some extent.
 
A pull can help guide a dog from one position or place to another. Let's take the 'sit' command for example: I start teaching 'sit' by luring with a treat. Once the dog understands 'sit' with a treat I will add a very light upward pressure on the leash while still luring with the treat to create a positive association. As soon as the dog drops into a 'sit' I remove the pressure then praise and treat. This conditions the dog to go with pressure rather than fight it. It is not scary or painful, simply a clear communication that builds trust and reliability.
 
Key Takeaways and Clarifications
 
This article is about communicating with the leash on an introductory level. How much pressure to apply can be debated but leash pressure itself is all but impossible to avoid. The secret to getting the greatest results with the least amount of force is using positive reinforcement to condition the dog to leash pressure. This means using the leash when you DON’T need it.
 
“Why would I use leash pressure if I don’t need it?”
 
If you wait until you need leash pressure, you will likely be trying to police an over stimulated, stressful, situation. Putting pressure on an unconditioned, stressed dog will likely stress them even more. On the other hand, if the dog has been conditioned, leash pressure can be helpful. The dog may be unwilling or unable to listen to you saying “sit" but if they understand leash pressure you can simply pull up on the leash to bring them into the 'sit'. Rather than stress the dog, the leash pressure can actually calm the dog and bring him into focus. This knowledge is the missing link in a lot of the modern dog training programs.
 
I hope I have brought some clarity and understanding to the leash, its misunderstandings and the benefits of its three proper uses. 
 
Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant
 
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