What Happens when the leash comes off?
Every agility run starts with one very important act; taking the leash off of your dog.
Now I know some of you are thinking, “taking the leash off? What’s so difficult about that? My dog won’t leave me.” But for some it can be an incredibly nerve wracking experience! Imagine you reach to slip the leash over the dog’s head hoping that this won’t be one of the times that they decide to indulge in their freedom by running around the ring like they haven’t had a single day of training in their life! Or maybe they just wander off…seemingly disinterested that you’ve paid “X” number of dollars to compete in the first place.
If you’ve ever had an incident like this, I’m guessing you know exactly what I’m talking about. And I know that it can be an incredibly frustrating experience to deal with. Some of us don’t even recognize that it’s a problem in the first place. We allow our dogs to sniff or wander, especially in practice because we know our dog will come back when we ask them too. If this is the case you need to ask yourself a very important question…Are you getting the results you want in the ring?
Obviously if your dog is taking off doing high speed laps of the agility ring without you, or sniffing the ground like someone has laid a track of hot dogs down there, you are likely to agree that something should be done! But what if your dog is refusing to sit, or starts to leave but comes back immediately? These are all problems that can usually be traced back to an issue with the leash coming off.
One of the main reasons this happens is because many times we unknowingly teach our dogs to leave us when the leash comes off. Think about if you are on a hike or taking your dog out to a park somewhere. When you unclip the leash what happens? Do they turn and stare at you waiting for some command that should be obeyed or a game to start? It`s possible. Or do they take off frolicking down the path without a care in the world? Yep, that one is far more likely. And voila! You have a dog that is now nicely trained to run away when they feel that sense of freedom!
Is it any wonder that you get the same behaviour when you step into the agility ring?
So how do we teach our dogs to give us that intense focus that we are really looking for when the leash comes off?
Simple! We make it into a game that the dog actually wants to play. No popping on the collar or telling them “watch me” over and over again. No more pushing them into a sit while they stare at the first jump, or judge, or whatever else they seem to be focused on at that particular moment.
Why will your dog direct their focus to you when you even begin to remove the leash? Because you’re going to train them that an exciting game is about to happen…and that game requires their full attention to start! When the leash comes off…its game on!
I first realized this concept when I taught it to my sheltie Dice completely by accident. She was always nervous around the ring and the start line was an especially stressful place for her. I started taking her leash off right before I’d go in the ring since she was very dramatic if it happened to pull her hair a bit as I slipped it over her head. I would hold her by the collar and quickly flip the leash over her head right before clapping and getting her to bark and chase my hands. Why? Because I was trying to take her mind off of hating the leash coming off, as well as distract her from the stresses of the ring. Over time I started to notice something though…she was actually starting to get excited when I’d put my hand on the leash to bring it over her head. A simple manner of conditioning had taken place, but it was still pretty cool! Here my dog was staying perfectly calm until the leash came off…then she was a barking lunatic!
Since this accidental discovery, I now teach this leash game to all of my dogs. Here’s how you play:
- Get the dog into an excited state. I typically use toys or meal-time to create added excitement
- Use your voice and body language to create anticipation while you reach for the dog’s leash
- Wait until you see some form of excitement from the dog…I usually look for muscles to tense or them to stare at me
- Take the leash off quickly and immediately move away from the dog encouraging them to chase your or do some quick tricks like spinning
- Reward the dog then put the leash back on and play again.
I only repeat this a few times in a session because I don’t want it to become boring for my dog. Even the most exciting games can become boring with too much repetition.
Soon you’ll start seeing the dog start getting more excited and focused as you reach to take the leash off! How awesome is that?
Remember that it is important to spend a little time training this game, and not just go into a trial and expect miracles.
Try this game out for yourself!
Jess Martin of Agile Dog Training