Yesterday morning, I took Chimera with me when I drove to the grocery store, and before shopping we took a short walk in that neighborhood to practice leash walking. We also went for a walk in our own neighborhood this morning. I did my best to apply a combination of the principles I'd learned from Kay Laurence and my mentor, Alison.
I focused on finding a walking pace that set us up for success -- actually walking together rather than me deciding on a pace and then spending a lot of time and energy forcing my dog to walk at the same pace, whether or not it's comfortable for him. Unfortunately, for us that means that I SPEED-walk while Cai trots. He doesn't have a "stroll" speed. I've always been someone who liked to walk quickly and with purpose, but now I have to stretch my stride even more. It's worth it, though -- immediately we settled into a rhythm which could cover a few yards at a time of pleasant walking together without any "corrections" needed.
As soon as Cai started to speed up and go in front of me, I would let all the extra leash out from my hand (it's about five feet long) and turn around to go in the opposite direction. I did my best to bend my knees and hold my hand low to create another cue for him (a visual one) that I was leaving him, and I didn't actually walk away until he had turned back toward me and was prepared to catch up. (A compromise between what Kay and Alison suggested.) Alison had said that the dogs usually quickly learn to turn around when they feel the leash slacken and see/hear the owner leaving, however I found that once Cai was moving toward something he wanted to check out, I was gone from his awareness. I used a no-reward marker as well, trying to really get his attention that we were going to head in the other direction. At the end of the second walk, I did find that he was reorienting more quickly once he was at the end of the leash, so perhaps with some more practice he'll learn to reorient before he reaches it.
I realized that I was teaching Cai not so much to be at my side (as traditional training and giving treats for being in the right position focus on), but teaching him to walk at a particular pace. My timing was much better if I gave the NRM and turned around not when he left my side, but when his pace sped up. Staying at my side was partially a side benefit. The end result is pretty much the same -- a pleasant walk with no pulling from either the dog or the human. This is a great example of Kay's wonderful quote, "Don't apply positive reinforcement on top of traditional thinking." (One of my two very favorite mantras from Kay, the other being, "You may be using positive methods, but is the dog actually left with a positive experience?")
Alison also emphasized that rather than trying to teach the dog to be on your left side, the client should strive to always be on their dog's right side. It changes the focus from forcing the dog to be in a particular place, to changing the client's behavior and expectations. As the client makes it habit to walk next to their dog, that becomes the norm for leash walking, and so the dog will expect to be at their owner's side. Beautiful. Chimera and I did switch sides occassionally, but I found that focusing on placing myself at his side let me relax, because I was no longer so pressured to watch for his "mistake" in moving away from me. During the second walk, we ended up frequently falling into a nice rhythm with Cai comfortably trotting very close to my leg, sometimes closer than he had been during all the time I'd spent rewarding him for being in position. I would let him move laterally away from me as long as he continued at the same pace, and of course everytime he slowed down or stopped to sniff something I would as well. The walk was for his enjoyment. Only when he sped up would I "correct" him as described above.
(Side note: I describe myself to clients and fellow trainers as using "positive methods only" because it connotes my training philosphy and they get what I'm saying, however in my own brain I'm quite aware that I use corrections and, in the technical sense, positive punishment. It's usually in the form of body blocking, interrupting/blocking with my hands, or the word "no", which is a conditioned punisher associated with a history of interruptions and redirections. I actually prefer to say that I follow the phrase LIMA -- "least invasive, minimally aversive" -- as much as I can.)
Back to this morning's walk. When we turned a corner and were met with new sounds, sights, and smells, rather than trying to continue the walk with Chimera being super distracted, I would stop and let him take it all in. That might mean standing around for upwards of five minutes, but again, the walk is for the dog's enjoyment, and it would ultimately set us up for success. We did have to end the walk early because while Cai was looking around, a cat ran by and then all the neighborhood yard dogs started barking, which set off Cai. Our total distance was about half a block. But apparently it satisfied him, because after we came home he was happy to nap while I ate breakfast.
The thing that I had the most trouble with was trying to be "fun" while Cai is at my side. I HATE being told that you have to be "fun" and "interesting" to get your dog to pay attention to you. It is of course true that the more fun you are, the more willing your dog will be. However it puts SO much pressure on the owner, and it feels like you've failed every single time your dog loses focus and checks out the environment. Talk about aversive! I did do a few turns and direction changes here and there, and it helped Cai perk up and watch me, but mostly I felt lost. I can do lots of turns and pace changes and side changes while we're heeling and make that fun and interesting, but when we're out for a walk, I don't want him heeling. The point isn't for him to be constantly watching me. The point is for him to move with me without uncomfortable pulling on the leash. I think we have to find a new way to get clients to engage with their dogs without demanding that they be "fun".