Teaching your dog to “yield to the pressure” of the leash can help you safely and easily end an encounter between your leashed dog and another dog. When it comes to interacting with other dogs, your dog can learn that the leash signals “Not now!”
Though “yielding” sounds a little confrontational – as though we are going head-to-head with our dog until she gives in – it’s not at all like that. It’s not a battle of wills, and if it turns into an exercise that looks like a power struggle of some sort, something is terribly wrong and the elements of the exercise need to be adjusted.
Before they are taught differently, dogs naturally pull against the pressure of a leash, just as they will usually lean toward you, into your pressure, if you push against them as they are standing. Our goal is to teach them to reduce the pressure of the leash the moment they feel it on their collar or harness by moving toward us, yielding to the pressure. This skill is taught gently, starting with the easiest of scenarios.
1. Build an association. The very first step is to help your dog build a positive association between the sensation of their harness being pulled and yummy food. (Yes, I know that this sounds counterintuitive, as if we are going to reward pulling. Stay with me for a moment.)
You’ll do this by standing or sitting calmly in a quiet indoor space with your dog, who’s wearing a collar or harness attached to your leash. Keep the leash short in the beginning.
Slowly, gently pull at the leash for a second or two, stop, and immediately deliver a treat to your dog. There’s no need to mark with a “Yes” or a clicker for this step. You’re simply pairing the two things together – in that order – to create a positive emotional response. Don’t wait for your dog to move or to respond in any way to the gentle pressure. Deliver the treat immediately after adding pressure, no matter what your dog is doing. Pressure = food, guaranteed. (To see a video of this, see bit.ly/WDJ-leashstep1.)
2. Entice your dog to move in order to reduce the pressure. This step involves some movement on your dog’s part. Pull very gently on the leash until your dog moves. The nano-second your dog moves to create slack in the leash, mark with a “Yes!” or a clicker, and deliver a treat. (To see a video of this, see bit.ly/WDJ-leashstep2.)
Keep this easy! Be mindful not to get greedy at this point. Even a single step that reduces the tension in the leash is great; it’s all that’s required. Your dog doesn’t need to come all the way back to you.
Do this several times until you feel your dog is responding more quickly to the pressure. You’ll know that has happened when it almost feels like you can’t practice this step anymore because your dog keeps moving with you! “I can’t seem to create any pressure on the leash anymore, she keeps following me.” Great! That’s because your dog is yielding to the pressure so quickly that you can barely feel it.
If your dog tends to just stand there and resist the gentle pull on the leash, take a step or two in the same direction that you’re pulling. This will often entice your dog to move with you. When she does, mark and treat!
3. Increase the challenge: Add a stimulus and reward the dog for orienting toward you.
Once your dog is consistently responding to pressure on the leash by moving to create slack, you can add a stimulus that your dog is interested in, like a toy or some food.
With your dog on leash and you holding the leash firmly (you can anchor your leash hand against your body), gently toss the toy or treat to a distance beyond the length of the leash.
When your dog moves toward the item and the leash becomes taut, just hang on to it – try not to pull back on the leash. Brace yourself to prevent your arm or body from being pulled out of place – and wait for your dog to orient back toward you. When she does, mark and treat. (Having practiced the “check in” behavior before trying this step will be very helpful!)
Be patient and give your dog time to turn around on her own. You can stand still and wait for her to turn, or if you feel she’s a little too invested in the distraction, gently take a step backward to create a tiny bit of pressure that should entice her to turn toward you.
Try to remain quiet, but if you feel the leash is taut for a little too long, make a kissy sound to attract her attention. When she turns and begins to move toward you, enthusiastically mark and treat.
Remember, it’s not a battle of wills! If it feels that way, set your session up to make it easier for your dog to offer you the behavior you’re looking for. What you want is tons of opportunities to reinforce the right stuff, so make it easy for her to do it!
Also, keep in mind that you want the sensation of the pressure on her collar or harness to be the cue for your dog to reorient toward you. As much as possible, remain quiet and let the pressure speak for you. Use a kissing sound if things get difficult, and then adjust the exercise to make it easier next time.
4. Keep this behavior fresh with practice. Preserve your dog’s reliable response of yielding to pressure on the leash by making sure that you frequently mark and reinforce the behavior whenever you notice it.
While working on this exercise, DON’T:
*Jerk, tug, or “pop” the leash.
*Attempt to teach it while your dog is already pulling excitedly toward something or someone.
While working on this exercise, DO:
*Begin teaching it in a very easy context, when your dog is calm.
*Make it very rewarding for your dog to turn toward you or move in the direction of the pressure
*Consider using a harness instead of a collar. Any kind of pressure on the neck is not good.