The dog leash

I delight in watching people with their dogs. I’ve been a student of the human/canine relationship for many years but, as I sag into middle age certain elements of that relationship pique my interest. I’ve begun to study dog owners’ and trainers’ use of dog leashes. Following are some of my observations.

First, dogs have different reactions to leashes. For some a leash is the early signal that great fun is about to occur. For others the leash is a dreaded control device to be avoided at all costs. I don’t know any dogs who neither love nor hate their leash. Ambivalence isn’t a canine character trait, perhaps.

Second, people have different associations with leashes. For some it represses their dogs’ enjoyment of life. For others the leash is the ultimate safety device. Leashes can be used as a replacement for a relationship with a dog.  Leashes can, as surely as a printed T-shirt, tell on-lookers all about you and your dog.

Third, leashes can be decorative, utilitarian, gentle, harsh, safe, and dangerous.

Some thoughts on leashes, in no particular order (just getting words onto the page at this point) — a training paper will probably follow when I’ve sorted out this puzzle.

BANNER — doesn’t need no stinkin’ leashes, but is submissive to my wishes when wearing one. She’s 13 years old and has always had a mind of her own, thank you. When Banner was a youngster I took her to herding camp in Vermont. For 2 weeks before the trip I spent time teaching her to potty on command and on lead. When we got to Vermont we spent a few hours in Honey Loring’s back yard with a dozen dogs ripping and tearing about and all the herding camp people sitting on the deck. Breaking away from the play pack, Banner ran to me, put her front feet in my lap, and barked. “What do you want?” I asked. “Timmy’s in the well!” Banner responded.  “Is Timmy in the well?” I asked.  “Yes! Come quickly!” Banner barked. I got up to follow her and she loudly led me to an area designated as the potty zone by a plastic fire hydrant. As I followed her Banner led me to the potty yard, peed, and resumed her play with the other dogs. She had been taught that peeing takes place within the length of a leash from Mom and, rather than coming to me and peeing near me, brought me to the peeing place. It was our relationship that made me follow her but she was using it as deftly as any handler might use a leash.

WIZARD — loves leashes, just loves ’em. Never gets to go anywhere but the vet’s office and an occasional trip to Watertown, but the leash signals the ultimate luxury — going bye-bye with Mom. When a leash is dangled in front of him Wizard puts as much of his body as possible through the loop, jostling with the other dogs to be the lucky dog who gets to go.

RINGER — a dog who would really like to visit the neighbors and do a walk-about, Ringer has to be walked on leash from our training building to the dog yard. All the other dogs run around, smelling where the rabbits slept overnight, then come when called to the yard or building. When Ringer sees the leash he runs full force at me, jumping up in an attempt to put his head through the leash, then pulls continually and makes a bee line from the yard to the building, from the building to the yard. However, if released from the leash even one foot from the door of the building or the gate to the yard, he veers away and takes off — Freedom!  His relationship with the leash might be described as love-hate.

BOGIE and BIRDIE and DASH — when the leash is on we have full compliance and connection, when the leash is off we have exploring and selective deafness. When any of these sweet boys are loaned to students, the leash becomes secondary to the string cheese or weiners in the students’ hand. I have to giggle as students fumble with the leash and treats. “Just take the leash off,” I tell them, “You’ve got treats and he’s not going anywhere but with you.”  Seeing Dash walk to the start of a sequence with a student, in heel and perfectly attentive, the leash tight and controlling, is an abomination. A snug leash on this dog? Are you kidding? Perhaps people are concerned that, if he’s off-lead, he’ll take off for parts unknown. Or perhaps they’ve adopted a relationship with their own dog defined by a controlling, tight leash. Regardless of the leash dependence of the handler, all these sweet boys are biddable and forgiving.  They seem to accept that, for some people, the tight leash is required to feel connected to a dog.

RED — as with most of our dogs, Red sees the leash as the first step in a journey. I get the leash off the rack to help Banner get up and get outside, and Red’s head, neck, body, have to be extracted from it twice in 10 seconds. She loves the leash. Loves it, and sees it as a barrier to communication with dogs. On lead Red demonstrates inappropriate greeting behaviors with dogs. She barks and snarls and lunges. Unlike real aggression, Red’s behavior is largely ignored by other dogs. “She’s just being a butt,” they seem to indicate. If she’s being inappropriate I drop the leash and the behavior turns off like it was on a switch. Red becomes a wiggling dog-lover and appropriately greets others. Leash tight = bad behavior.  Leash loose or off = good dog. She had this behavior when I got her at 11 months from her breeder. She had been returned by her first owner and got to spend a good bit of time fence-fighting with visiting dogs. My theory is that the leash behavior is an extension of fence-fighting.

HAZARD — doesn’t need no stinkin’ leashes. In fact, when we pick up Hazard’s leash she starts circling away and avoiding us, as if the leash has negative associations for her. Hazard experienced some intimidation by big dogs while on a leash and, in my opinion, associates the leash with an inability to escape danger if she feels escape is necessary. I’m starting some obedience (rally) training with Hazard and have established a new leash set specifically for this activity. I’m not going to use any of our English slip leads for obedience training as she avoids all of them. Instead I’m using a lightweight martingale, rewarding Hazard every time she allows me to put it on.

BLUE — loves leashes but doesn’t really need ’em.

KORY — tugs on his leash beyond the point where he’s told to stop. The leash means Go!, means fun, means treats, means training, and is just part of the relationship he has with Bud. Watching this pup follow Bud around, on-or-off-lead, is a real pleasure. They’re pals and I’m certain the leash, for Kory, is going to become a bit of unnecessary material between his neck and Bud’s hand at agility trials. A traveling tug toy, Kory’s leash will probably take a beating for the next few years.

More observations on leashes later ….

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