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Recently there has been a real push to use flat body harnesses in training loose leash walking. Many people wonder why since harnesses are typically considered to cause pulling.
1. First, the harness itself does not cause pulling, it is the two of you pulling against each other that does.
Wearing a leash is unnatural for dogs as it is for humans. A dog must learn that is more rewarding to stay near a person and move with him than exploring on his own. That takes patience and careful attention to the distraction level on the person's part and liberal use of reinforcers (food, toys, attention, real life reinforcers etc.) It's worth taking the time to train it without using a leash first.
A well fit flat harness allows the dog to move normally and freely. It is used only as a device to keep the dog safe, like a seat belt, rather than as a training tool. If a dog does stop short, the pressure of the straps is spread over a wide area (rather than concentrated on a narrow strip on the neck) and all areas have either muscle or bone that protect the organs so injury is much less likely.
Unfortunately, all 'no-pull' harnesses can injure the dog in different ways depending on their design. Those that are not long enough chaff the dog's skin typically behind the front legs, others tighten around the chest with leash pressure, still others sit across the shoulders to limit proper motion or tighten across the chest to change the dog's gait. All of these can cause health issues on a dog and are punitive in nature. Dr. Chris Zinc, an expert in dog sport mechanics, has done research on this. "In a limited gait analysis study, Dr. Zink observed that dogs wearing no-pull, front clip harnesses bore less weight on their front legs than they normally would – even when the harness wasn’t attached to a leash! In addition, the dogs bore less weight on the leg that was on the far side of where the person walked, even when there was no leash attached; when the dog had a leash attached, it was more significant. This suggests to her that the dog was reacting to the presence of the harness against the leg by pushing harder against it. In all cases, the gait of the front limbs was altered whenever the harness was on." Whole Dog Journal July, 2013
The best harnesses allow the dog to move freely. They have a Y joint that should fit over the breast bone. They have a chest ring or back ring or ideally, both. This gives you the option of clipping the leash to either or both locations at the same time to provide the dog with more information. Two that I have had success with are the Balance harness and the Perfect Fit Harness. The Perfect Fit is a padded version that fits long bodies and protects short-haired dogs or dogs with thin skin. (I am not affiliated with nor do I sell either harness.)
2. May Cause Unwanted Health Effects
The second and main reason for not using a collar (flat collar, rolled collar, choke chain, limited slip, prong, Martindale etc) is that they may cause many unwanted health effects on a dog.
The neck area where a collar sits on a dog is a very important region of the body. There are glands, lymph nodes, blood vessels, nerves, trachea, and more. All of them are exposed and not outwardly protected by bone, muscle or fat. Any pressure on the neck whether from sudden sharp jerks or even gentle ongoing pulling can negatively impact these areas. Other unwanted impacts include misaligned spine (from being pulled to one side) and long-term structural issues. Andres Hallgren of Sweden in a study found that 252 dogs had misaligned spines, and 65% of those had behavior problems. In addition, 78% of the dogs labeled hyperactive or aggressive had spine issues. The dogs in the study were volunteered by their owners and considered well cared for (not abused dogs). Source: Paul Owens "The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training")
Have a look at the brochure showing the biology of a dog's neck created by Els Vidts FreeDogz.com. Potential Collar Damage brochure It shows the potential health impacts on a dog from being pulled on a collar. Els is a student of Turid Rugaas.
Where Did the Idea for Using Collars Come From?
If we look historically at why dogs wear collars, it probably seemed like the best way to control them. A thin rope tied around the neck was a quick and easy. Unfortunately, that was looking at the tool from the human side of the leash and didn't consider the best interests of the health of the dog. It's time to ask questions and change our choices in the present! Collars today, now that we know better, should be used only for tags.
I personally have had three dogs that we know were adversely affected by wearing flat collars attached to a leash. One ended up with spondylosis in his neck which caused a very painful pinched nerve (took 30 days to heal and stop his screaming in pain when he moved his neck awake or asleep despite pain medication). He also had trouble manipulating his tongue to eat and we ended up euthanizing him since he lost so much weight. He was 13yo and otherwise in prime health. My current dog Jessie adopted as a 7mo pup coughed and gagged when any small amount of pressure was applied to her neck (trachea damage). We immediately switched to a flat walking harness. Once in a while, she still gags when the harness is not sitting correctly and she gets pulled. Her early damage was permanent. The third had a collar attached to a long line while the owners rode their horse. Her spine was out of alignment. I have also had several clients who have had collar-induced health issues. These are not isolated events and combined, do suggest we should re-examine if collars are the best choice for dogs when walking on a leash.
Note: the harnesses talked about here are not service dog harnesses. They are flat walking harnesses for everyday use. They may be worn underneath a service dog vest or alone. Stiff mobility and bracing harnesses and other related harnesses need to be fitted correctly to prevent unwanted wear and tear on your service dog's body. Height of handle, stiffness of the harness and other features are important to minimize structural stress on your service dog.
If you would like to learn how to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash, have a look at my classes listed in the catalogue. My harnesses classes are for dogs who dislike wearing them (even to the point of shutting down) or who pull hard in times of high excitement. Registration and classes start the first wednesday of each month.
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One of the fastest growing areas of service dogs are those being trained for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxiety or Panic Attacks. They are typically called Psychiatric service dogs. Most people associate PTSD with veterans, but it happens to a wide variety of people of a wide age range. People who have been raped, people who have been traumatized by their families as children, people who have lived with people with addictions (alcoholic, prescription or street drugs, gamblers, sex addicts etc.), people who have seen atrocious things done to other people or animals. Sadly PTSD affects a wide range of people from those with low education income to highly educated high income. No part of society is exempt.
My most recent video is dedicated to anyone who has suffered a traumatic event that affects their life and would like to train a service dog for others or their own dog to either alert them to an oncoming anxiety attack, or interrupt one as it is happening or interrupt them when they are doing harm to themselves as a result of the pain they are feeling.
Note: Before starting the process of training your own service dog for PTSD or anxiety, first make sure you have a dog that is suitable for these types of tasks. The dog must have a solid temperament, have excellent physical health, and be emotionally resilient. Both confidence and sensitivity are important characteristics as well. Ideally, start with an adult dog 18 months or older that has been raised in an emotionally stable (functional) environment so the dog has that normal baseline to draw from when interacting with you. Choose a dog that has an exercise level that matches yours. Allow your dog to be a dog before starting to train the tasks. 18 months would be the ideal age to start training.
You, the owner-trainer and handler, must be stable in your condition. If your condition is not stable, there is a real risk you will negatively and permanently affect your dog's ability to learn to help you and function in public since all of his needs may not be met. You need a team of many people to help you access resources, take care of and train your dog to become a functional helper. Talk to your health care professionals and a local trainer to see if they think you have the necessary skills, boundaries and abilities to train your own dog. It is not a project to start on a whim.
Your dog needs to be a dog first, family member second and service dog third.
If you meet these requirements, check out our self-paced online anxiety task class as well as our foundation another classes.
Registration and classes start the first Wednesday of each month. https://www.servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/course-catalogue
Toys and games can be a very useful tools to help train a service dog. Different kinds of toys can be used for different functions.
There are two kinds of toys: active toys are objects that allow interaction between you and your dog. Tug toys, balls, toys with squeakers fit this definition. Passive toys that your dog can play calmly with by herself like a food-filled rubber toy that doesn't roll around, chew bones or stuffed toys can be useful when conditioning calmer behaviours like a settle or stay on your mat.
Active Toys and Games
Active toys and games can be used to motivate a dog for behaviors that require a higher energy level (like tugging doors open) and for alternating with behaviors that are stationary after they have been trained. They are useful to release stress and give the dog a break when taken outdoors between periods of work. It helps when indoors if the toy can be controlled by you. So a ball on a rope or a brings attached to the dogs harness is ideal. The toy will not be able to mover so the dog won't go chasing down a slippery hallway to get it in public. In general, during the training phase for behaviours and tasks, active toys are best used at home or in the training rooms and outdoors. Once the dog dog has the desired enthusiasm and can do the behaviour or task, then you can train them in public without the use of toys.
Passive toys can be used to teach the dog to entertain herself (add duration) while in a settle. They can help calm a dog down or self-soothe after an active behaviour or task such as finding a helper, actively detecting a scent or walking quickly for a long distance. The activity of chewing and licking helps most dogs calm down.
It is important that you carefully choose which games to pair with which behaviors and situations. For example, rough or rousing toy play, tossing treats or hide and seek is not appropriate in a retail store (unless you are training your dog to find a person as a task).
Pairing Active Games with Calm Games
How you use the active toys and games is important. When pairing active toys and games with calm activities make sure the active games come first. Always end on a calm activity. This ensures classical conditioning is working in your favour to teach the dog to calm down after activity. This order prevents inadvertently conditioning your dog to be hyped when doing the calm behavior. The anticipation of toy or game after a settled behaviour for example, causes the dog to be ready to play during the calm period. This can cause whining, muscle tightness and other undesired behaviours while waiting for the play to happen.
You can use the choice of toy you use to help your dog understand that some environments require calm behavior while others can be playful. Outdoors use active toys and play, and indoors, especially in quiet places, use passive toys. If your dog is resting under your chair at work, or settling for long periods at school, taking frequent breaks to do active play outside is a great use of it.
Some people only use play at home if their dog is easily aroused during active games. Others avoid uses toys while the dog is vested and at work.
Active toy play and games is also great for building a bond with a dog that loves activity.
What Are the Standard Behaviors and Cues for a Service Dog?
I find it fascinating that I often get asked this question and many similar to it. People assume there are standard verbal cues and hand signals for behaviors that service dogs and assistance dogs do. I also find it interesting that they believe there is a standard approach to training.
There is No Standardization!
Most people are shocked to find that there is no standardization at all. Each organization, school or business has their own way of training and their own behaviors they teach and signals they commonly use. They may also use a specific set for a specific kind of service dog. It's what is familiar to them and what has worked in the past. Given that they often deal in larger numbers of dogs and have several staff, it is more efficient to have a common set of behaviors and cues all dogs are taught. Since owner-trained dogs breeds vary widely, there will even be differences in how different sized dogs carry out a behavior. A small dog might jump on the handler's head while they are sleeping if their blood sugar drops too low where a larger dog might nose nudge their neck to wake them up for example.
While there are some basic cues that all service dogs need, they are not all the same since the dog and handlers needs are all different. For example a person with mobility issues may prefer to use verbal cue "Here" to recall their service dog since they may have limited control of their hands for hand signals. For someone who has trouble speaking, extending a hand for a nose target can recall or reposition the dog. Each team has their own special abilities and focus.
Examples of Cues
A cue to a dog is just an event that triggers a known behavior. It can be something in the environment (a door open button), a body cue (person turning their head in a certain direction), hand signal (a lifted hand) or a spoken word. What that word or signal might be is up to what will work for the person the dog. Any cue can be taught to mean any behavior. Bringing a toy can be an alert for a diabetic low. A fist can be sit. Even lifting a symbol drawn on a laminated page can cue a dog to lay down.
If you are training your own service dog, you can choose what makes sense to you and is non-disruptive to the public when the dog is working. If you are training an assistance dog for someone else, you can help them to choose cues and behaviors that make sense to them.
Using Atypical Cues
Some people actually choose non-typical verbal cues or use a different language to prevent other people from distracting their dog. This may not work though as dogs usually respond to tone and take a guess when they don't understand the cue itself. It is better just to proof for extreme distractions.
The only caveat to keep in mind when choosing behaviors and cues, is that at some point your dog may need to be handled by other people if you are incapacitated (emergency personnel, family or friends). This puts your dog at risk if she doesn't understand or do what an "average" person handling a dog expects. The dog needs to either be trained to do behaviors by default (someone holding the leash means the dog walks on a loose leash or the person sitting down cues the dog to lay down and wait) or common verbal and hand cues need to be used at least for really common behaviors. Given the wide variety of training approaches out there, and if your dog 'refuses' to do a given cue (or command), and what the potential human reaction might be, it is wise to keep that in mind.
Wondering what behaviors are the foundation for service dog? Find out in my new class "Foundation Skills Level 1-3" (for both dog and human).
If you want to learn how to train a service dog like a professional, these classes will give you a great foundation!
Donna Hill B.Sc. B.Ed.
Founder/ Head Instructor
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Teaching Your Service Dog to Heel
There is much confusion in the service dog world about what is heeling is and isn't. Before we can start talking about teaching a dog to heel we need to know exactly what you are asking him to do.
dog stays in a specific position next to your body, within a few inches, usually with eyes looking at you. The handler is usually upright and staring ahead holding their body in a somewhat rigid position. This skill takes much concentration and as is very hard for a dog to maintain for even short periods. Heeling is typically seen in competition, military or other hierarchical based situations. Even the high level dogs are only asked to do it for 5 minutes at a time. Service dogs only need heeling when negotiating tight spaces, high distractions or crossing streets. Teaching this takes incredible concentration on both ends of the leash. A typical cue for heeling is "heel".
Here is a golden retriever showing how to do off leash competition heeling. You can see how much effort this would be for a dog to maintain for long periods. Thank you to Ada Simms and Lexi from Reward That Puppy Dog Training Inc. for the demo video.
Loose Leash Walking:
the dog walks with a 6 foot or shorter leash, keeps slack in the leash (hangs down in a U or the clip hangs down) but is allowed to sniff and change position. Dogs may look at the hander or use their peripheral vision and other senses to keep track of the handler's position. Most handlers are comfortable with their dogs 3-4 feet away in any direction. While in indoor retail in crowds or narrow busy sidewalk type locations, service dogs are required to stay within 2 feet of the handler but do not need to be that close in general. Loose leash walking should be a 'default' behavior. 'Default' means that the dog does it when he is not told to do any other behavior. He can rely on the equipment, the handler's body position and context to know what behavior to do. It takes much training to get to this stage.
Here is another golden learning to loose leash walk in public with her handler. She doesn't have to look at the handler, just stay in close distance and keep the leash loose.
A Challenging Behavior
The challenge for both heeling and loose leash walking is that it requires the dog to have a high level of impulse control (to resist distractions and stay in position) and that they must hold that position for a long time. And it requires the same of the human.
Being attached by a line is not natural for a dog or a human. We are free ranging individuals. Even formal dancing for short periods is difficult for many people. Both partners have to learn how to work together to keep it a comfortable experience for both. The teaching process requires short frequent training periods with high level of reinforcement in many different carefully chosen environments to help both partners succeed. If done well, can really build the bond between the two team members.
Do Corrections Work?
Corrections such as collar pops only work in the short term. If you have to keep using them, they aren't working. Head collars don't teach the dog anything except to give in to the head collar. Take it off and the dog moves away from the handler. Both of these approaches are aversive for a dog. To build and enhance a strong relationship with a service dog, we need to teach the dog the behavior we want, not punish him for what we don't. Time has to be spent specifically focussing on teaching your dog the desired position no matter what is going on around you, how good a scent or who may be approaching you. That needs to be taught specifically and incrementally, not just as a byproduct of doing other training.
How to Help Your Dog be Successful
The dogs that are successful loose leash walkers are the ones who understand the position you want them to be in first. Most dogs do best with learning to walk leash free first. Most importantly, the handler learns to let the dog learn to control herself, rather than direct the dog all the time. For some people this can be a hard habit to change.
Another aspect is if your dog is off leash, you are more likely to be aware of where your dog is in relation to you rather than rely on the leash pressure to tell you that. This awareness (including eye contact, physical proximity as well as changes in tension on the leash) is a big part of the connection between you and the dog when you are working. Many people are disconnected from their dog partner and oblivious to what is going on for him. He is half of the team and needs to be given full attention during training and then that will be faded to half your attention once he is fully trained. When you are dancing with your partner, you need to be aware of where your partner is no matter if he is dog or human. The leash is added after the dog knows the desired position and you have developed a feel for where he is. Dogs that can work off leash are much more reliable on leash.
Do a search on Youtube and Vimeo and most videos will start you off, and show great early success, but not show the steps later in the process. It can be a long one and different approaches are needed for different dogs and different situations they are in. Creativity is needed.
LLW is a Prerequisite as a Service Dog
Since loose leash walking is a necessary prerequisite for all service dogs.
and if he cannot walk on a loose leash walk with distractions, he is not ready to start public access.
If you want to follow a step by step procedure to teach your dog to loose leash walk successfully, check to see if my Loose Leash Walking classes are being offered online this month. Check the SDTI catalogue page to see when registration is open next.
If your dog generally does well except with high level distractions or has fears etc, you will want to look at our Harnesses and Vests class. Or for large dogs that lunge or yoyo or if you have little arm strength or stability our Head Halters class that will teach you how to safely introduce your dog to a head halter and how train with it with the goal of your dog walking without it down the road.
Donna Hill B.Sc. B.Ed.
Service Dog Training Institute