Every dog owner has a lead of some kind. They are useful tools but unfortunately, they are often used incorrectly. I like to encourage the notion that the lead is simply a ‘safety line’. It’s there to stop your dog from getting into trouble, to keep them close to you and away from other people or animals who may not appreciate their company. The lead is not for getting your dog’s attention, or for pulling your dog to heel, or for dragging them away from something. If you want to be able to control your dog off-lead, pushing and pulling them in the right direction while they are on-lead will not help at all.
Paying attention is an area in which this often arises. An owner will say their dog’s name, and when they do not get a response, will pull on the lead (thus pulling on the dog’s neck or chest, depending on whether they have a collar or harness). This may sometimes work (the dog may turn to look at the owner) but often it does not, resulting in more pulling and frustration from the owner. If this same dog is loose, there is very little chance of the owner being able to gain their attention. So what should you do instead?
Teaching ‘look’ is a fantastic way to gain a dog’s attention. This is a very basic thing for dogs to learn and it can be integrated into your daily routine in many different ways, so it becomes a normal part of life. Begin by standing or sitting with your dog, and simply rewarding them for eye contact. Treats that can be broken up very small are ideal for this! Initially, you do not need to say anything, just allow the dog to grasp the concept of meeting your eyes: once the dog understands this, you can add your chosen word (‘look’ is my go-to, but you can choose anything as long as it is short, snappy and consistent).
Gradually, ‘look’ can be introduced into less artificial circumstances. Keep it easy initially and work on this in low distraction environments. Always set the dog up to succeed – don’t ask them to look if they are likely to fail – and always reward their success. Over time you can build up the distraction level and phase out the rewards, but this is a process that should not be rushed.
It is also worth considering that dogs perceive prolonged eye contact to be threatening. You should not expect your dog to hold your gaze, nor should you deliberately stare into your dog’s eyes – the eye contact we are looking for here is an acknowledgement of you and serves to encourage the dog to pay attention.
This is just one example of an alternative to using the lead to deliver instruction – next time you’re out with your dog, take a look at how often you rely on your lead for this and work towards making a positive change.