Monday, July 12, 2010

Loose Leash Walking: A Theoretical Approach

I knowingly violate one of the main tenets of Cesar Millan's theory. I do not have Zuko walk next to me or behind me. Part of this is a conscious decision, part of it is the evolution of a theory.

First off - having Zuko next to me or behind me means I can't always see what he's up to. As many Shiba owners will know, this is VERY important. If he is in front of me, I can always keep my eye on him.

Me being awesome at the park on Twitpic
My typical view of Zuko

The second thing is part of the evolution as a first-time Shiba owner. Shiba's are fast and curious little monsters.. errr... I mean dogs. Zuko trots much faster than I can walk. He also is very curious and wants to sniff every single blade of grass in the park. So - the way things go is like this:
  1. I use a flexi-lead.
  2. Zuko trots ahead of me and commences massive sniffing. 
  3. As I draw even with him, he darts ahead of me again. 
  4. And commences more massive sniffing. 
  5. Repeat 2-4 until you are exhausted. 
Of course, we live in San Francisco in a busy area with lots of cars, bikes, buses, scooters and you name it. So I also have commands like "walk" and "keep going" for times when the flexi-leash is shortened and his job is to walk with me and not obsessively sniff everything in sight. This includes not sniffing every dog we pass. 

I do believe in what I call an active walk. I'm basically ordering Zuko around the whole time. "Stop" and "wait" at every curb. "OK" when I let the flexi run out or when I've decided he is allowed to sniff another dog and "keep going" when I want him to ignore the dog.  "Let's go" when he is tired and gets into super-Shiba-obsessive-sniffing-mode and "this way" when he decides to take a path other than the one I want to travel.

On top of the world! on Twitpic
Good dog!

How well does it all work? Well... I think right now I'd give Zuko a "B" on his walking. He knows when I say "let's go" he needs to get a move on and about 90% of the time he does - but sometimes he gets a nasty leash pull because he is determined to sniff dog poop for an hour. I don't hesitate - he has a few seconds to respond or I pull the leash and repeat the command. Rarely do I actually have to drag him away. Unless....


... There are other dogs. He loves dogs. Loves, loves, loves them. This is great in a Shiba, but also a real pain in the arse when you are trying to get a power walk done so you can make that 8am conference call for work. I am constantly working on this one - in theory, he should only be allowed to sniff another dog only if I allow it. However,  when other owners have their dogs off leash in an on-leash park, this just fails. It is a huge frustration because it not only sabotages my training with him but also gives Zuko the opportunity to get growly with dogs. So many of these running-free dogs will come bounding up to Zuko with some fairly dominant body postures - and all Shiba owners know a Shiba just does not stand for that. So what to do?

Zuko will often stare down these dogs before they even get to him (this goes back to the idea that having him in front of me means I can see what he is doing). He's clearly sending signals ahead of the confrontation, so I will step in between him and the other dog to break his line of sight and shorten the flexi-leash. If the dog makes it to us, I keep moving with Zuko, using the "keep going" command and "leave it". If it gets ugly, I usually end up dragging Zuko away and / or getting between him and the other dog. Unfortunately, the other dog's owner rarely shows any effort to restrain, train or command their dog. Half the time I can't even see the damn owner anywhere.


One training method I hear that is successful for many owners is to treat the dog as you walk - whenever your dog comes back willing, walks next to you, looks at you, etc - give them food. Problem: food aggression in busy parks in San Francisco. We've had a few problems where another dog (who is off-leash, of course) decides to fight Zuko for the treat. For recall, I have no other option but to use food and I do - but then I usually have a pack of dogs following me everywhere until the other owners figure it out and call off their dogs. On the walks, I stick to repetition, repetition, repetition to get Zuko into the right habits.

Finally, we have a fun little game we play on walks. I give the command "wait", shorten the leash, then say "ready". The "ready" command alerts him there are birds nearby. He finds them and as soon as he sees them I give the "OK" command and relax the flexi - and he's off!! I run with him as he chases the birds but to this day he still hasn't caught one. ;-) I really don't know what I would do if he DID catch one!

So - what works for other Shiba owners?


  1. we've trained taro to walk at our side. he's not always good at it, but he knows what we expect. we have a command for walking out in front, which he is allowed to do in certain areas. the fact that we've been prepping him for therapy work makes a good walk a must. i think more than anything, though, is that it's helped us to be Alphas at home. not every dog needs to heel or have a more traditional walking position, but it's been super important for our fiesty lil guy.

    the chase game with the birds--we totally do this. we only do it on our 6 foot lead, so we have to keep up. but it's fun to do and watch.

  2. Kai - So funny! You do the bird thing too. Has Taro caught anything? :-)

    Zuko will heel, if he has to, or if I have cheese. I like the idea of a command specific to walking ahead. On the busy city streets it is so much easier to have him in front of me instead of underfoot, so I use his nature to my advantage.

    Love to hear about therapy dog work - are you doing Good Canine Citizen training?

  3. Oh we know exactly how you feel with everything you've mentioned. Most of the time I have to drag yuki away because she'll try to fight the dog (lately she hasn't with the usual dogs, which is GREAT! That reminds me I need to update that on our blog). We also use "wait", "let's go", "this way" and most of the time shell actually just wait at the curb until I say "ok". And we walk her in the front as well. I guess I believe the whatever-works-for-you-and-your-dog method :)

  4. Yeah! A comment from "Walking Yuki" fam! :-) I would agree one size will not fit all dogs when it comes to training. Sorta like people (ha-ha)!

  5. We got Misaki just recently as a 6-year-old retired show dog - she walks on lead like a dream. We give here a few feet of looseness on the Flexi and she walks very well. She's usually out front for all the reasons you mention - I agree with that evolution to the theory.

    Misaki always has to walk on the left, no matter what side of the street she is on. She must have whomever is holding the lead to the right, otherwise she walks sideways and continually looks back with an exasperated look on her face. Don't her people understand anything?! :)

    She's not big on dogs, but she does love people. She would stop and let herself be worshipped by everyone we pass if we let her.

    As for rant on other people not leashing your dogs, I know how you feel. Misaki got freaked out by a couple dogs - even on leash - on a trail a while back. Our old dog, Ruby the Akita, didn't like dogs either, and her being an Akita that can be be problematic when the other dog is off leash. People just don't get it at all. I offered up my own rant a while back if you are interested on the subject:

    I'm even more sensitive to it now, with Misaki being so much smaller than Ruby.

  6. @Jason: Thanks for the comment - you are so lucky to have a nicely trained show dog! Except for that Princess complex... LOL! I'll check out your post.

  7. hey Zuko's mom.

    taro has never caught anything. but he's come darn close many, many times.

    we aren't doing k-9 good citizen. we've completed through advanced at our local petsmart. our trainer there has co-founded a therapy/companion animal group in a phoenix suburb and we go as a group twice a month (there are always at least 5 dogs on a trip, although who comes each time varies). we're planning on doing delta certification when we have the time to spare.