Dog training blog week 3: Trying to teach a big dog how to walk without pulling on the leash

Meaghan St. Pierre is a Senior Special Projects Producer at Local 4. She is blogging about her experience with taking her dog to training classes. Here's her previous blog post.

Walking into class, pulling out our mat and getting set up in our spot on the floor with treats and our frozen Kong, our trainers greeted Archer, Liam and me. 

Lowell, one of our trainers, commented that Archer looked bigger since he saw him the week prior.

Angela and the other trainer agreed. 

I laughed it off and said “please don’t say that,” but inside I cringed because I don’t want our golden retriever to get any bigger. He is a beautiful golden weighing in at 62 pounds.  He is a lot for me to handle, but don’t worry -- I’ve started taking my strength class and it’s working to help me keep up with him. 

Nearly everyone who sees Archer comments on his size. Perhaps that is normal with this type of dog, however, it stands out to me since I’m a little sensitive to it.  

I love this dog -- but he is much bigger than I was initially prepared for, and if you see me walking down the street with Archer, you quickly realize he is hard for me to handle at times. 

Learning how to manage a large dog the correct way is one of the main reasons I signed up for the basic manners class at the Humane Society of Huron Valley.  Angela Schmorrow and Lowell Zuckerman of Harmony Dog Training are teaching the class. 

This week’s class focused on loose-leash walking. Can I really teach my BIG dog how to walk without pulling on the leash?

The training involves clicking and treating while walking. We begin by taking three steps back, when Archer follows, I click and reward.  As we walk, I reward Archer every time he comes near me and walks at my side.  

The goal is to have the leash slack and loose as we walk and teach Archer he will not be rewarded when he pulls on the leash. 

Reward for eye contact too. Lowell said to make sure Archer is looking at me when I’m trying to get him to do the behavior I want and reward him for doing so. 

While doing this training, Angela and Lowell recommended rewarding often, whenever the dog lets the leash be loose enough to form a “J,” or heel position or puts slack in the leash.

I know what you might be thinking.  Or at least what I was thinking during the class … all the rewarding and treating while doing these loose-leash training walks will mean my big dog will only get bigger. 

Thankfully, Lowell had advice for that, almost as if he must have been reading my mind. He said if pet owners are worried about their dogs gaining weight with all the treats, make the walk a meal.  For example, take your dog on a walk and let the treats be his or her breakfast. 

Homework this week is working on loose-leash walking and there is a little extra incentive to do so.

There will be a bit of a competition at the next class.

As I have said before, some of my walks with Archer have been spoiled with him planting his paws firmly down and refusing to walk, biting the leash and playing tug-of-war with it. 

Our training walks this week have shown some improvements.  He is definitely learning to walk with more slack on the leash but still wants to pull at times and continues to jump after and bark at vehicles. 

I’m also learning how to incorporate other training techniques to help. During one walk he decided to sit in a neighbor’s yard and just chill after hearing a dog bark in the distance. I used the Touch command to get him up from a sitting position back into a walk.

Another time he jumped all over a neighbor and started biting his leash. I stopped the walk and returned home. 

Archer is definitely trainable and I realize we have to keep practicing the commands to make them habits. For example, more often than not, he comes to me when I give the Touch command.

I also learned neighborhood walks can be stressful on dogs.  Angela reminded us our dogs get barked at by other dogs, there are loud noises like motorcycles or lawn equipment and they can return home more stressed after the walk.  

She encouraged us to take walks from a dog’s perspective. She suggested going to a meadow or open area, and maybe it’s only a half mile but you spend 40 minutes exploring it, letting your dog sniff around and they get a good work out. 

Angela also talked about how dog-to-dog greetings can be a challenge while on a leash. She said “polite dog greetings should take an arced, indirect, side approach. Head-on, direct approaches where dogs meet chest to chest with heads held up create a very confrontational situation in dog body language and unfortunately sidewalks and leashes sometimes set us up for exactly this type of greeting.”

Advice for handling these dog-to-dog greetings include giving some lateral distance, possibly letting a brief sniff of the back side if both dogs and their owners are OK with doing so.

If you do proceed with sniffing, follow the “two-second” rule and try to keep the sniffing from lasting longer than a handshake between people. 

Now that we are getting the hang of the loose-leash walks, I will be getting some additional advice to teach Archer to stop jumping and barking at cars as they pass.  

In those moments, he can really tug at the leash and lurch me forward. I need that to stop. It’s also the reason my husband and I rarely let our son hold the leash on a walk. 

Angela and Lowell also showed us the beginnings of a new command teaching our dogs to go to a mat and lie down. If we can master this one, it will give us a place to send Archer when we’re eating dinner or someone comes to the door.  

At this point we are simply rewarding for standing on the mat, sitting on mat, laying on mat and so on. We are not naming the command until they understand it first. 

In the meantime, my big dog and me will continue improving our walks and keeping them from being spoiled.

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