pet behavioralist

  • Guest Blogger: Mikkel Becker Discusses Leash Pulling

    It's all too common to see a pet parent being drug down the road while attached to their dog, looking similar to a musher minus the sled. The dog is so enthralled with all the distractions, smells and sights, they forget their person is attached to the other end of the leash. As an animal trainer, pulling on leash is one of the most common behavior problems I work with.

    Pulling into pressure is a natural response for dogs. When their collar is pulled, many dogs innately move against that pressure. This means when the leash becomes taut, the dog is more likely to move against the pressure and pull rather than give into the pressure and let up pulling. Canines also learn through experience that pulling on leash works to get where they want to go faster.

    A dog that pulls on the leash makes the walk very uncomfortable for the person and risks injury to their sensitive neck area. When a dog pulls on leash, the person has less control and may subsequently let the leash slip from their hands or be less able to avoid hazards, like traffic. Tighter leashes add to a dog’s stress level and increase unwanted behaviors like barking and lunging on the leash.

    It's essential to teach dogs to walk on a looser leash, both to make walks more relaxed and safer for person and dog. Preventing pulling and teaching loose leash walking can be done using a few training tactics and the right type of equipment. I want to share with you my top tips for teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash:

    Putting the right equipment on a dog immediately hinders pulling, even without training. It’s important to choose equipment for your canine that will offer control without being physically harmful. There are numerous walking tools on the market, many of which inflict pain on the dog or restrict airflow. These are not ideal walking solutions, because they are physically damaging and rarely stop the problem pulling. They also cause negative associations with their handler and different stimulus’ in the environment, like other dogs or people.

    One of the top tools in my training belt is the ThunderLeash. It's a leash with a built-in mechanism to be turned into a gentle anti-pull device. The system works with pressure, as it tightens to add pressure when the dog pulls, making it more comfortable to walk on a loose leash. The ThunderLeash does not cause pain, but uses the reward of slack as the dog walks nicely on the leash.

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    The system is also adjustable so that the harness never becomes too tight, but also stays tight enough to not slip off. The ThunderLeash is an ideal tool for pet parents in my puppy classes, as the system grows with the dog avoiding the need to otherwise buy multiple sizes as the dog gets bigger. The ThunderLeash also transitions to a standard leash, making it easy to switch from anti-pull harness to regular leash as the situation warrants.

    It’s essential all family members walking the dog are consistent with training. If only one person does the training and others allow the dog to sled dog pull, training is less effective. Consistency is key for lasting change. If for any reason training cannot be done by that individual, the dog should be walked on a gentle anti-pull device, like the ThunderLeash, to prevent reinforcement of the pulling habit.

    Reduced pulling from the use of proper walking equipment makes the training of walking properly on a leash much simpler. To train a dog to walk nicely on leash, the canine should be taught an alternative behavior to pulling. I like to teach a dog to heel. A heel is where the dog walks calmly on a loose leash at their person’s side.

    Train your dog to heel by marking the behavior with a clicker or a verbal “good” whenever their shoulder is in-line with your leg. Deliver treats to the dog right next to your leg. Start in a low distraction environment where the dog is unlikely to pull. If the dog is in front of you, turn so they will be behind you and end up moving next to your leg as you walk forward. As their shoulder aligns with your leg, mark the behavior and reward. Continue to reward the dog on an intermittent basis for staying by your side. For toy crazy dogs, reward heeling with the toss of a ball or other desirable play item.

    Add in turns, changes in speed and stopping. The more interesting you are, the more likely your dog will pay attention. Once your dog is reliably in the heel position, add a word to the behavior by saying “heel” as the dog moves next to you. Vary the amount of steps taken before you treat, both extending the steps taken before the dog receives a reward and keeping short durations thrown in to keep it exciting. Once your dog heels like a pro in a low distraction area, move into more distracting areas, like the driveway.

    Vary the rewards for heeling. Treats or toys should be given during training to keep the behavior strong, but other rewards like getting to sniff a bush or greeting a friendly dog are other environmental rewards for heeling.

    Once a dog learns to heel, you can train them to walk on a loose leash as well. Dogs enjoy having space to explore and sniff, and always being directly at your side is not ideal. The ThunderLeash will prevent pulling while you practice. To teach loose leash walking, if the leash becomes tight, stop and reverse directions by gently turning in the other direction. Only allow forward motion as there is slack. Stay consistent in not allowing forward movement when the leash is tight, and soon your dog will soon learn pulling no longer works, but a loose leash does.

    Training a dog to walk on a loose leash takes work, but is well worth the effort. The more enjoyable walks are for you, the more likely they will happen. The more walks your pet gets, the more satisfied and better able to settle in the home your dog will be. Start the training today! Your dog will thank you for it.

     

    Mikkel Becker is a well-known and respected pet behavior and training expert, and Vetstreet.com contributor.

  • Guest Blogger: Mikkel Becker

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    We’re thrilled to welcome back well-known and respected pet behavior and training expert, and Vetstreet.com contributor, Mikkel Becker on our blog today! She’s talking separation anxiety in our pets… Take it away, Mikkel!

    Countless canines become anxious when left alone. Stress upon separation spans from mild anxiety to an extreme state of panic. Whenever a dog is anxious at separation, it’s important to address the issue immediately, starting with a visit to your veterinarian. Stress upon separation rarely goes away without intervention, but more often, escalates over time. Caretakers of dogs who are anxious when left alone, find that normal tasks, like going to work or going out on a date, are difficult to impossible. The situation can become so severe the dog causes serious harm to themselves or to the home. Even for dogs who internalize stress, the state they are in emotionally is damaging long term to their health and affects their ability to cope with everyday stressors.

    There are numerous indicators of a dog nervous with separation. Signs can include excess salivation, panting, hyper vigilance, whining, barking, acute anorexia, pacing and inability to settle. Anxiety can amplify to the point of self-injury where the dog causes themselves serious harm as they attempt to claw, bite and jump out of exit points. The household also suffers devastation. Doors, crates and windows can be damaged as the dog attempts to flee, while household items like couches can be ravaged from anxious chewing. Dogs become so nervous they may even lose control of bodily functions and have accidents in the home.

    Dogs in this panicked state are literally helpless at their own behavior. Dogs don’t do these destructive behaviors out of spite as a way to teach their person a lesson for leaving them. Instead, their behavior stems from a root emotion of fear. To change the behavior, the root emotion must be changed.

    In my profession as an animal trainer working in conjunction with numerous veterinarians, including my father, Dr. Marty Becker, I help address separation anxiety on a regular basis. Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior problems in dogs, with 20-40% of dogs reported as having the condition.

    Thankfully, with the right combination of training, environmental modification and veterinary intervention, separation anxiety can be decreased or eliminated. Whether a dog is only moderately nervous or in an all-out panic, it’s important to take the necessary steps to help a dog overcome their distress when left alone.

    Keep in mind, before training begins, it’s important to train under the supervision of a veterinarian who can rule out any medical conditions contributing to behavior and properly diagnose separation anxiety if needed.

    As an animal trainer, I want to share with you several of my top tips for addressing separation anxiety. The training is also helpful as a preventive tool against the development of separation anxiety.

     

    1. Use a ThunderShirt. One of my favorite tools in my training arsenal is the ThunderShirt. Regardless of the size or breed of the dog, the ThunderShirt works on about 80% of dogs. Even without any training, the ThunderShirt drastically reduces anxiety with near immediate results. The ThunderShirt works to non-invasively calm dogs in a similar manner to swaddling a baby.

    2. Many dogs dislike being crated, and some of their panic may stem from being shut in an enclosed area. If your dog dislikes the containment aspect of separation, find a more open area of the home to leave your pooch in that’s doggy proofed. The area of the home should have windows, as dogs feel less enclosed when windows are present. If you have a secure fence and your canine is not an escape artist or incessant barker when separated, consider allowing access the outdoors. By opening up the dog’s area, canines are less likely to feel trapped, and may relax as a result.

    3. When you leave and when you come back, keep attention on the dog as minimal as possible. A simple, non-emotional goodbye or greeting will do, rather than hugs, kisses and emotional words. The more calm and nonchalant the greetings, the less worked up the dog will get. When you return, wait five minutes or until the dog calmly settles into a relaxed sit or down, before acknowledging.

    4. Reduce departure cues. Throughout the day, even on weekends, randomly put on your shoes, pick up the keys, turn on the car, open the garage and do other cues that may signal you’re leaving. Often dogs become anxious even upon the perception of these cues, because they signal you’re leaving. However, if you do these cues with the end result being you still stay home, the cue loses its meaning.

    5. Train your dog to enjoy time alone in their own area. Put the dog in a certain area of the home, like an xpen, or tether the dog with a leash and harness next to a comfortable area, like a dog bed. Place food puzzles or long lasting chews in these areas for the dog to nibble on. To begin with, sit a few feet away and get the dog comfortable with just a short distance separation. The training can be made more challenging later by giving the food item and leaving to go into another room or going outside. Return to the dog before they finish eating their food reward. The idea is to have separation happen with associated pleasurable rewards and at a pace the dog can remain relaxed at. Play classical music during separation, proven to calm pets, to further promote relaxation.

    6. Protect your pet. During training, management techniques like sending the dog to doggy daycare or a dog sitter during inevitable long departures is helpful. In some cases, medication from your veterinarian added in combination with training, will provide especially anxious pets with the best chance of recovery.

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