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Listen With Your Eyes

When I was a child I spent my days watching the animals around me: the farm animals, the family pets, the wild animals that skirted through our property. My sole purpose was to learn their ways, to understand them and in a way, learn how to be like them. I used to practice walking through the woods as quietly as possible and not snap a twig, to be silent like my cat, Snowball.

All that practice was rewarded by Snowball showing me his “dining room”, a gorgeous opening in the woods flooded with fern, the fern creating a canopy under which Snowball ate his catches. The ground was littered with bird down and larger feathers, layered on top of a thick bed of pine needles. That moment is very special to me. There was no question Snowball was sharing his world with me. He had led the way, looking back over his shoulder at me as we made our way through the trees. We knew that we understood each other.

My dog, Chico, and I also had good communication. I could tell by the way he came to me whether he meant “I’m hungry” or “I have to go to the bathroom” or “Hurry up, I’m gonna puke!” When we were out for a walk, I could tell if there was something of interest nearby because Chico would switch from walking to dawdling, from looking ahead to using subtle peripheral vision.

Animals do not speak human language but they do speak and to study them is to find that we’re all on the same page. They don’t like being abused. They become very frustrated when they feel they’re not being heard. They have their own pace, their own speed of learning.

I was reading an on-line pet forum one day. Someone had asked how to get a dog to stop pulling on leash. Another person wrote in and said, “Okay, I know this sounds cruel, but yank on the leash as hard as you can. It works.”

Pain, fear and distrust. These are tools I will not use to train a dog.

If I were not observing and respecting Chico’s body language communications, ie: dawdling means something interesting is near, if instead I yanked on his leash and made him keep walking, serving only my own purpose, we would have been completely at odds with each other. Dogs are dogs; their interests are different than ours. If we can’t respect that and fulfill the simplest of daily pleasures, why even own a dog?

Why do dogs pull on leash? Sometimes it’s because they want to get to something. Sometimes it’s because they’re just giddy with excitement and glad to be alive. And sometimes it’s because they’re trying to communicate to the human on the other end of the leash that the human is being an insensitive jerk. Sometimes pulling is the only way they can express to the owner “Knock it off!”

Yanking on the leash is a negative reinforcement. Some dogs will submit; some will become even more difficult; some will have you spending the rest of your days chasing them just to get them on leash in the first place. It is not the way to train or handle a dog.

The leash is an excellent tool for communication and education. Used properly, with clear guidance and support, your dog will respond beautifully. Used properly, your dog will understand that there is a learning process taking place; will be attentive and respond and in time and with practice, your movements will be as one.

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