healing through heeling

One of my primary goals is for Oso to be able to control his behavior around things that set him off, namely other dogs, while we’re on a walk. We use an Easy Walk harness, which we arrived at after using a regular nylon collar, traditional style harness, choke collar, and Gentle Leader. The leash clips to the Easy Walk harness in front of his chest unlike most harnesses that attach somewhere on the dog’s back. The attachment point has a little play from side to side, which is good for walking the dog on either side of your body (we keep him on the left unless he’s in a free walk). If he tries to pull, he ends up pulling his own body sideways. He’s never been too much of a puller under normal conditions, but this harness is very useful in limiting his power when he is over-excited. It keeps him from choking himself and doesn’t allow him to generate the kind of pulling power he has with a traditional harness. Ultimately it’s not the equipment used that’s important, the goal is to modify his behavior so physical force doesn’t even enter into the equation. The Easy Walk is just what we have found works best for Oso.

Because Oso responds reactively to dogs and certain other triggers, I prefer to have him in a heel whenever we might run into another dog that’s also on a walk, behind a fence, or off leash in a park. In our neck of the woods, that is almost all the time. Starting from a heeled position, it’s a lot easier for me to direct him through and around obstacles.

The first time we tried to learn “heel” was during the home visit we had with the first trainer we worked with. In fact “heel” is one of the first and only things we worked on in that session, and it was taught completely through the use of leash tugs or “corrections” with a choke collar and lots of verbal “No! Heel!” commands whenever he got out of position. Neither of us wanted to follow through with more of that kind of training, it really put Oso on edge, and us too. This week I have been teaching him using treats, verbal and physical cues. Oso is heavily treat-motivated so initially this has been pretty successful. We have done four practice walks so far and already he’s starting to put himself into a heel at the beginning of the walk. When he gets off track I pat my left hip and give the command again, then offer him a treat at my hip once he’s back in place. This has been good practice for him at taking treats gently as well. Within the first half mile of doing this he was already slowing himself down with just a verbal cue when he would get too far out in front of me. That was so satisfying for me, to not have to pull on the leash or be stern with him to get him to walk where I wanted him. I plan to start using clicker-training to work away from so many treat incentives. Oso is a smart dog and picks up commands quickly. He is also strong willed, an adolescent, and still establishing a relationship with us so he does not always do what he knows we are asking of him. Encouraging him to correct himself is a lot more effective in teaching him than man-handling him into position.

My hope is that it will just become natural for him to walk beside his person when he’s on leash, and to sit or lay down when the person stops walking. This shouldn’t make the walk any less enjoyable for him, it’s just a different set of expectations for him to adjust to. It may seem like a lot to ask a dog to walk right beside you almost all the time, and while he’s learning it is a lot of work for him and for the person walking him, but in the end I believe it will help make walks a lot easier for everyone. If he learns “heel” well, hopefully we can use that to keep him from lunging toward the thing that is causing his reaction, and to keep the moment from escalating too much. Other tools we’re working with are the “look” command, to get him to focus on the person giving the command, and practicing “down-stay” while out on walks if it looks like a problem is coming our way. As time goes on and he has fewer stressful interactions out in the world, hopefully he will learn that it is better to be a calm dog than a hyper-alert, defensive one.