I meet potential new clients almost every day. They range from new dog owners who just want to get a good start, to people who are dealing with dangerous behavior issues. They may have puppies or senior dogs. They may own toy breeds, or giant breeds, most are somewhere in between. I meet clients of all ages, races and economic backgrounds. You would expect that there is very little commonality beyond the fact that they need help with their dog.
But there is one particular trait that is shockingly common. In fact, it’s so common that it took me some time to notice it. We don’t notice the expected.
Within minute of entering the training room, as the dog is tugging on the leash to investigate his new surroundings almost every potential client asks “Can I just let him go?” or a variation of the idea. This is the near universal solution to the dog wanting to explore a new environment the owners believe is relatively safe: give him the freedom to explore unrestricted by human interference. This, dear readers, is part of the problem dog owners face every where.
There is a certain sense to it from the client’s point of view.
The dog is in a safe secure space, why not allow them to do what they enjoy doing? Why not let them be dogs?
The problem is they are teaching the dog that new environments mean it’s time to disconnect with their owners and ignore them entirely. Moreover, it teaches them that once they’ve checked out, the owner will grant them more freedom. There is absolutely no value for the dog in maintaining the social connection at that point. The most rewarding path for the dog becomes, disconnect from the owners and lean into the leash.
The Value of Social Connectedness:
Ultimately, the dog’s behavior should be grounded in social connectedness. The dog should be behaving according to the cultural environment we’ve created. I tell my clients that their dog shouldn’t be “checking their cell phone.” I ask them if they’ve ever been talking to someone and that person casually pulls out their cell phone and begins answering text messages, or scrolling Facebook, or reading emails or whatever. I ask if they were happy with that behavior? I ask if they felt like that person was still “with them” in a social sense. I ask if that’s acceptable social behavior from people. They all agree, it’s pretty rude. So then why do we not only accept it from our dogs, but expect it and offer to help them do it?
“Can I just let him go?”
Consider this: If your dog is 20 yards away and his head is shoulder deep into a rabbit hole and you call him (assuming he understands the recall) and he doesn’t even flinch, has he been disobedient?
Before you answer, consider the requirement of obedience or disobedience. We can neither obey or disobey an instruction we are not aware of. If the dog doesn’t hear the command, or know it was given, he cannot obey and he cannot disobey. He can only do what comes naturally to him. The dog who isn’t aware of us, is not capable of being obedient. He is not capable of being guided. We must get his awareness before we can get compliance.
So no, the dog in the rabbit hole has not disobeyed, he’s likely not even aware that you’re saying anything. His focus is elsewhere. The training isn’t breaking down with the ignored command. It broke down when he checked out.
The truth is, a good portion of the outdoor problems people have with their dogs are rooted in the dog’s lack of connection to their owners. The dog sees a squirrel, other dog, stranger, bicycle, whatever the distraction and he’s no longer part of the team. He’s forgotten about the human at the other end of the leash. He’s charging with not regard for anything except the object of his interest. He would charge in front of a bus if he were allowed. Or perhaps the dog is sniffing a particularly interesting patch of clover, and no matter how the owner tugs, the dog won’t get his nose up. He’s aware of the leash pressure vaguely, but he’s not aware that it has any social implications. It’s just an annoyance. Or maybe the dog is just so excited he can’t decide what to go look at first. He’s casting back and forth at the end of leash trying to find the next most exciting thing. Or he’s just inclined to move as fast as he can. He puts his head down, leans into the leash and just goes. None of these behaviors is social at all. He is entirely uninterested in you or your wishes. It’s not “disrespect” so much as obliviousness. The dog has never been taught the walk is a something he does with you. It’s just something you facilitate. You become the gate keeper rather than the companion.
Asking “Can I just let him go?” is just a symptom of that problem.
Rules vs. Standards
One common way to avoid this on walks is to create rules regarding how to walk on a leash. Dogs are required to stay next to or behind the handler, maybe they aren’t allowed to investigate anything, or maybe they are even taught to keep their eyes focused on their handler at all times. This is probably better than letting the dog check out entirely, but I think for most dogs, it’s a bit more restrictive than necessary and it’s somewhat self-limiting.
Rules tell the dog specifically how to behave is specific situations. Standards tell the dog how to behave in general.
People often tell me they want their dog to heel when they are on walks. I usually ask them if they want their dog to heel, or just to walk nicely and not pull. They look surprised, “You can do that without having them heel?”
Yes. Yes we can.
It’s actually easier, and more useful than a formal heel command. It also creates more enjoyable walks as well. I want the dog to be able to sniff the grass, and explore his world. I want the dog to be able to do these thing with me. Just like taking a walk with friend. I don’t ask my friend to stare at my face, I don’t restrict his movements. If he sees something interesting, I don’t expect him to ignore it. I just expect him to maintain a social connection while he looks at what interests him. He should be aware that we are on a walk together. If he were to suddenly and without warning just walk away without a so much as a glance to me I would be insulted. Rightly so. That person is not meeting the normal standards of social huge.
In life we are constantly met with new and unexpected situations and it would be impossible to create rule for each of them. But if we understand general expectations (standards) we can usually navigate those situations without difficulty.
Dogs should be taught both rules and standards. They each have their own place. But by far, teaching the dog standards is the more valuable of the two when it comes to getting the average dog owner a dog they enjoy living with. And the first standard should be, “We are in this thing together, as partners and as friends.”
There is a false dichotomy which suggests that we really have two options with the dog, either allow them to make bad choices, or limit their freedom to the extent that they no longer have any real choices. But there is another way.
Your dog can be in front of you and still be “with” you. Your dog can sniff the ground and still be with you. Rather than teach him to never do the things he’s biologically driven to do, teach him how to do those things within the proper context. Call him back to you regularly, use the leash to guide him. Offer high value rewards for compliance, play or food. Create a habit of checking in and engagement rather than focus on fixed positions and limitations of choice.
Teach the dog to make good choices. Allow them freedom mixed with guidance and see how good partnership feels and more importantly, how well it works!