Teaching Distance With Your Commands
“Before I take this recall exercise into true distraction proofing, I like to practice for a number of days with the dog on a long line. Depending on the particulars of a handler/dog relationship, I usually suggest a length of line from twenty- five to fifty feet. Again, handling adeptness, training environment conditions, and the dog’s personality will determine what length of line is best suited for any given situation.
Along with practicing come on a long line, I will also be reinforcing stay (both in the sit and down postures) from a greater distance and introducing down at a distance. With all these ideas, once I’ve connected the line to the collar and uncoiled its length on the ground, I only work with the amount of line I need at the time, ignoring the rest. As the dog’s proficiency in each exercise improves, I gradually increase my distance from my student, eventually working out to the end of the long line. Begin as close to the dog as needed and then work out.
This long line practice puts real distance between the dog and the handler for the first time in the context of formal command response. For the dog, this means the first opportunity to test his perceived autonomous options and to blow off his handler’s formal commands. In this stage of training, we actually want our students to test the water over and over again. We want our students to exercise what appears to them to be their independent option of refusing our commands. With enough failed attempts on the dog’s part, his independence doesn’t seem so real anymore and thoughts of putting his spin on our command really don’t come to the surface much.
In order to foster this feeling of autonomy in your dog, you must handle the long line smartly. Think of stealthy management when utilizing a long line or your leash for that matter. The less the dog thinks about the leash or long line, the less it matters to him, on or off. So if we’re careful and manage the long line with the same loose concern, the same minimal hand movements as we’ve practiced with the leash, we’re actually laying the foundation for off- leash control. With this in mind, I typically uncoil my ten-meter line before I clip it to my dog’s collar and simply let him drag it around. Sometimes I will hold on to the end of the line if I am dealing with a new, challenging student.
When the dog walks on the line or when the line gets wrapped up around a bush or a chair leg or when the line is dragged through mud or water, think “So what?!” is long-line work is the indispensable bridge between hands-on and hands-off control over your dog.
Keep in mind that the more a dog wears his long line or leash (loose in hand or dragging around) the more it becomes a part of his body, a tail on the front end. Once a dog is completely accustomed to dragging around a long line, his behavior normalizes. So the behavior we’re shaping with the long line is eventually the same behavior we will get with the long line off.
There are a few things to consider when preparing for long-line practice. First of all, there is no way around the fact that the longer the leash or line is, the more awkward it will be to deal with. So always accomplish as much as you can with your shorter training leash in order to minimize the amount of work you’ll have to do on the clumsy longer line. That’s why with the recall exercise, I suggest a lot of practice with the backward motion and direction change during the close-in shorter leash work. This simulates distance and travel for the dog while still affording the handler the convenience of a shorter training leash for control.
Secondly, corrections are much more difficult to deliver with a long line. Excess slack will accumulate between the dog and the handler. The line will become wrapped around the dog’s legs, people’s legs, bushes, and furniture. Also, given the various amounts of elasticity in the long lines we use, despite our best efforts, the line correction will be somewhat spongy or anemic compared to our leash correction. These difficulties plague all handlers, even professionals, when working with the long line. I will give you a few tips that will be helpful in managing these challenges.
Tip one: Make a habit of throwing excess slack between the handler and the dog behind you when you pick up the long line to use. Let the excess fall on the ground. Only hold a single strand of line in your hand, no loops or bundles.
Tip two: Casually follow the line as your dog drags it around, and, as stealthily as you can, take care of tangles and wraps before they become problematic. Use your foot to move the long line out from under the door. While your dog is engrossed in a smell, unwrap the line from around the bush. As your buddy trots along, smoothly grab the line and unwind his leg though the dog will usually take care of that himself. The long line between the dog’s legs or under the belly is fine. The long line wrapped around the legs or neck is not fine.
To be most effective in long-line work, the key is stealth. We don’t want the dog thinking any more about this line than he absolutely has to, even when we are untangling, dealing with slack, or preparing for corrections. We need our dog to feel as off leash as possible, so allow the line to drag and only refer to it when you absolutely have to.
Tip three: When a long line check is needed, step on the line first before you pick it up. This stops the dog in his tracks and allows the handler to gain a secure grip instantly.
If the line in use is slight in diameter, it may be necessary to wrap it around your hand or wear a glove to ensure a good grip or prevent chafing. Assuming you have picked up the leash, thrown the excess slack behind you on the ground, and secured a grip, you are now ready for the line check (correction).
Depending greatly on the size, strength, and energy level of the dog in training, the line tug could be administered with one hand, two hands, or two hands and a backward step. The goal is always the same. We want a crisp, attention-grabbing jolt that halts undesirable behavior. If the long line happens to be wrapped around one of your dog’s limbs at the moment he needs a correction, you must take the time to quickly unwrap and then follow through with the intended correction. If the line is simply between the legs or underneath the dog, lower the line or the angle of the tug so as not to raise the dog off the ground, but follow through with the correction. Don’t worry about adjusting the line in this case.
I will tell you again, long-line work is awkward but so necessary! Do as much as you can on the regular training leash. There is no need to hurry to the long line. And maybe, after doing thorough foundation work, you might find that your ace canine student doesn’t need much work in this area after all.
Now comes the fun part: recall practice in, around, and over distractions. This is always where the rubber meets the road, so don’t hold back when setting up these proofing exercises. As always, build the intensity of the distractions gradually, but don’t fool around. Make sure you can call your dog over an open box of pizza. See to it that your partner has no trouble coming around another handler and dog to get to your front and sit. And if he does run into a snag and is unable to leave the treed squirrel or the kids playing ball, don’t hesitate to use that leash or long line. That is what they are for. Remember when using the long line (hands on or hands off), we expect the same immediate and complete follow-through from the come command that we did back when we were standing directly in front of the dog with the short leash in hand. With all of our training, what we expect from our four-legged friend with leash in hand, we will eventually expect with the leash off!
In closing, be mindful of the clock when training your friend. Fifteen to thirty minutes should be enough time to work on everything from handling manners through hands-off recall on a long line. We never want to train beyond our dog’s capacity to concentrate.
Enjoy working with your dog and he’ll enjoy working with you. He is a family member after all, not a soldier. Also, make natural dog time a regular part of his life. All of our canine friends need some time just to be animals. Running, barking, jumping, chewing, and smelling are all essential activities for a healthy dog. And a healthy, happy, controlled dog is a joy to live with!”
– Ten Natural Steps to Training The Family Dog
Written by Matthew Duffy
A few more pointers to help you in your endeavor to teach control at a distance. Since the whole goal is to be as stealthy with the long leash as possible, if I have the longline in my hand I like to hide the fact that I’m holding onto it by putting that hand in my pocket or keeping it close to my leg. When putting on the longline on your dog’s collar try to distract your pup as you quietly put on the longline. Remember our goal is to not have our canine know that we have the upper hand.
There’s a funny story that I like to tell my clients of the time I was walking my dog. Nine years ago I was just a client myself, at the time I was getting near to finishing up the full program. Our last lesson was about learning how to use the longline and few weeks later I was glad that I had that lesson. One day nine years ago I was walking my dog Basher. He was doing perfect, walking on a loose leash on my left side, minding his own business around distractions, I couldn’t ask for more. Unfortunately I had put on his training collar incorrectly and during the walk it fell off. There he was wearing nothing but his fur. In shock I looked at my dog and he looked at me. I remember thinking to myself “shoot,” I expected him to do what he used to do, run off into the nearby woods initiating a two hour chase me game. That didn’t happen, instead he sat down and waited patiently for me to put the collar back on. I enthusiastically rewarded him then we continued on our walk.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the longline, without it you can’t teach your dog not to take advantage of a situation. The benefits of knowing how to achieve control at a distance goes beyond just having a dependable come/recall. With enough time and consistent training the longline exercises can eventually lead to off-leash training. The joy of having a well mannered dog without the assistance of a leash is indescribable. So remember keep at it, the more time you spend with the longline means an easier transition to off-leash.
– Josh Decker, Dog Trainer