The lead is not a steering wheel

Most dogs think their humans are jerks. Literally so, and I agree. Travelling on holiday for the last few weeks has given me an opportunity to observe many dogs and owners together. In many instances I see beautiful loose lead walking, dogs sitting calmly at their owner’s feet in cafes, others tied up outside a store patiently and quietly waiting for their person to come back, dogs being patted and loved greatly.

But there’s one thing bugging me and it has been for a while. It’s this idea that as humans we get to command dogs and that they have to do our bidding without any choice or option to exercise their own mind.

Sometimes this becomes physical. How I’ve seen it manifest many times is the source of the greatest exasperation for me – lead jerking.

The dog wants to sniff a lamp post while the owner is walking, it’s jerked back. The dog wants to stop and look at an oncoming dog in a bit more detail, it’s jerked along. The dog wants to explore the surroundings to the extent of the lead while the owner is standing still, it’s jerked back.

In one instance a man who was walking two dogs suddenly changed the direction he’d been taking but didn’t say anything to them like a “this way”, so they kept going and he gave their leads an almighty jerk. In that second I noticed both dogs look up at him in total surprise – they weren’t expecting the hard pull and it was a total “what the” look on their faces. Imagine how that would feel if suddenly you were almost pulled off your feet for apparently no good reason and no communication…

The lead is not a steering wheel. Not that steering wheels should be jerked either. It’s a tether between people and their dogs. You don’t use it to turn the neck or move their body.

The alternatives are to let them sniff a little when out walking– after all their noses are their most complex input organ with which they learn about their world. Teach a ‘touch’ to turn the head or neck away from something you don’t want them to focus on. A ‘let’s go’ or ‘this way’ helps them know when you’re on the move or changing direction.

Apart from degrading the relationship between dog and owner – they become mistrustful of walking alongside you, as they don’t know when they are going to get jerked – it’s also physically dangerous. I don’t know many dog owners who want to pay for vet bills yet jerking can cause whiplash and more extensive spinal cord injuries, while damaging the soft tissue of the throat and esophagus.

If we teach our dogs that ‘sit’ is a nice way to say please, then ‘this way’ with a gentle and soft tug of the lead in the direction we’re going should be a nice way we ask our dogs to turn with us.

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