leash talk!

My recent opinion piece on retractable leashes provoked more thinking on leashes and dogs.

Why do you use a leash?  I know most people will say one of a few things.

“I use it to walk my dog.”

“It keeps my dog from running away.”

“It’s a law.”

Add your own reasons . . .

But I’ll bet very few dog owners will say that the leash is a way to communicate with their dog.

I had horses for over 35 years. For a long time, I thought of the rein as a method of control.  It wasn’t until I opened up to my mare Lark and listened to her and accepted her as a schoolmaster, not only in riding, but in life lessons as well.  It was then I learned the rein was alive with the chatter of my horse. I just had to soften my hand and body, so I could feel and receive what my horse was communicating to me.  What a miraculous revelation! I celebrated when I came to this realization.

When I got my Labrador Retriever as a puppy, I thought of the leash as a way to keep her safe –from running away.  As soon as I arrived home from the breeder’s, I took 8 week old Hannah out into the yard on a leash hoping she would toilet.  Within a few minutes my friend Wendi arrived to meet Hannah. The first thing she did was to unclip the leash! I panicked, but Wendi said, “Deb, she’s not going to run away. She’s a little puppy and will follow you most everywhere. Take advantage of it now and teach her how to handle freedom. It’s dogs that learn this early who are much less inclined to take off and run.”

What a great lesson to learn; of course, Wendi was right with 40 years of dog training under her belt. I employed it with my second puppy to the same end resolution. It is because of this I can walk my dogs off leash and be confident that they will range appropriately and come to me when I call them.  This gives them the chance to BE dogs and enjoy the freedom to run and explore and sniff, all under my strict supervision in isolated areas away from dog traffic.

But the leash still has a place in the lives of my dogs. I went to obedience classes and worked hard on leash manners.

And one day I had an AHA moment! “Oh my gosh!” I said to myself aloud. “The leash is just like the rein on a horse!” At that point I stopped thinking of the leash only as restraint or control. It became a way to communicate with my dogs.  I can “feel” my dog through the leash because I also use a buckle collar instead of a harness. I believe that the collar, being so close to the head, delivers more communication than a harness.  I can “feel” when my dog is relaxed and happy.  I can “feel” when my dog’s intensity increases.  I can “feel” excitement.  I can “feel” when my dog is totally in hand and paying attention to me.  I can deliver a light closing and release of my hand to get my dog’s attention. My contact, like that on a rein, is light and vibrating; it offers no invitation for pulling.  (It takes two to pull!)

Communication is awareness, and we need to listen to what our dogs are saying to us; their feedback is invaluable. When on leash, the handler with a soft and listening hand develops sensitivity and is able to listen to their dog. Two way communication only makes our relationship with our dogs more enjoyable and results in a happy, confident, and trusting bond.

a new leash on life

Author’s Note: This piece represents my opinion, and mine alone, based on multiple experiences, observations, and regulations issued by therapy dog organizations. Do I have a retractable leash? Yes, I do. I used it a few times and finally put it away when I realized how little control I had over my dog and the outward danger it represented to people around me while I was using it.

I hate retractable leashes!

I was in the vet’s waiting room the other day when a dog appeared out of the examination room without its owner who was still in the room talking to the vet, totally oblivious that the dog had wandered 15 feet away from her on its retractable leash and out of her sight. The dog made a beeline for my dog, and I quickly moved away. Time and time again I have encountered this scenario with oblivious owners who have their dogs on retractable leashes.

Typically, I observe a very casual attitude from many of these owners.

“Oh, don’t worry, my dog is friendly.” Yeah? Do you know if MY dog is friendly??

I see the fumbling with the handle and all the buttons that are supposed to control the dog. The handle is an intermediary between dog and handler – just one problem! There’s no way you can “feel” the dog or quickly address control if needed.

I often associate use of the retractable leash with a lazy trainer, one who hasn’t taken the time to teach their dog to walk mannerly on a proper 6-foot leash.

I have seen the damage that retractable leashes do to handlers who give too much leash and get entangled, sometimes suffering deep lacerations. Other dogs and owners are often at risk when approaching a poorly trained dog on the end of a retractable leash.

A few months ago, I was walking towards my car after a walk with my dog on a regular 6-foot leash when I saw a dog jump out of the car next to mine. It was on a retractable leash. The owner had allowed it full range, and the dog had gone behind the vehicle to approach me and my dog. It was out of sight of the owner who was preoccupied with getting something out of her car. I stopped well out of range and waited.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry,” she said, “My dog is friendly.” I smiled at her and quietly said, “How do you know if MY dog is friendly?” She quickly fumbled with the handle and managed to shorten the leash, so her dog was in hand. I still waited until she left her car and set off on her walk, the dog again given full range 15 feet away from her.

I am involved in therapy dog work, and there are strict leash rules. Retractable leashes are NOT permitted when the dogs are doing therapy work. Governing therapy dog organizations that test, certify, and register therapy dogs ALL require the therapy dog to be on a 4 to 6-foot leash while working. Handlers are reminded that their hand must ALWAYS be on the leash and that 50% of their brain/attention should be focused on the dog at other end of the leash. If this regulation is not obeyed and something happens, it negates the insurance policy the handler carries as a member of the organization.

I have observed therapy dog handlers who drop the leash, unclip the leash, walk away from their dog, or remove their attention from the dog while working. I’ve seen handlers read a book, knit, or socialize with people instead of taking the responsibility of monitoring what happens between their therapy dog and the person they are interacting with.

Again, the trusting attitude arises. “My dog won’t hurt you.”
For those of us who have been around animals for numerous years know that this declaration should NEVER be made.

It’s important to remember that there are many fantastic dogs out there who have been well trained and are owned by responsible people. BUT THEY ARE STILL DOGS. THEY ARE ANIMALS. Animals can be unpredictable, even the most wonderfully calm and accepting dog. They will react with species characteristics; in the case of dogs, observable warnings are usually delivered and if startled or provoked further, a nip/bite. The alert handler will be able to avert this if (s)he has his/her hands on the leash and is paying attention.

Aging dogs with arthritis or failing vision can be more insecure in their surroundings than their younger counterparts. I once observed an aged, beautiful, and very gentle therapy dog suffering from arthritis, lying quietly BEHIND its handler who was not paying one bit of attention to the dog. A child went up to the dog and clumsily laid down beside it. The dog immediately reacted with a yelp and banged the child in the face, scaring her badly. Pain is a strong motivator for atypical behavior, and the dog had to be reported to the organization. The organization had no recourse but to terminate the dog’s visits. If the handler had been employing proper leash technique, reassuring the dog through contact, and focusing her attention on her dog, this situation could well have been averted.

So it’s time to get a different LEASH ON LIFE when working with your dog or enjoying outdoor time in the presence of other dogs and their owners. This leash on life should encourage dog owners to assume the responsibility to train their dogs to appropriate behavior when on a regular leash of proper length.