Columbia Memorial Health (1) Careers

Soft Paws: Proper leash training for dogs


By Charlene Marchand

For Capital Region Independent Media

Maggie is a 7-year-old bulldog mix, pictured with CGHS Adoption Counselor Alysha Thornton. Maggie unfortunately cannot go to a home with other animals, but she is such a sweet girl on her own! She is very affectionate with people, and she always wants pats and belly rubs. Maggie also loves treats, going on long walks, and she could play with her toys for hours! Contributed photo

Soon after beginning dog training sessions with me, my new handlers or “pack leaders” are referring to their leashes as umbilical cords. Armed with melt-in-your-mouth goodies for their dog’s minimum-wage-paying jobs, aprons to hold these bags of treats or “wages,” properly-fitted, appropriate collars attached to nice long, narrow leather leads, my dog handlers look like they’re dressed for a local community play.

Using letters of the alphabet, or special words as the “signal” or the “marker” for a desired behavior, we’re off and walking to a better, more focused relationship with our canine companions. Our goal is to control behavior with words of guidance and direction (commands), looks of comfort and approval (eye contact), let our dogs know when they’ve done it right the second they’ve done it right, and proceed to pay them for a job well done!

We want to simulate off-leash compliance by keeping a loose-lead at all times. Our leashes are for the purpose of keeping our dogs from wandering off when Mother Nature’s “prey-drive-call” kicks in. They are not to be used to check or correct our overeager, as well as reluctant or insecure, student.

A lot of time is spent trying to educate these caring owners that oodles of messages are constantly being sent down that leash or “umbilical cord,” to their four-legged charges below. Messages of anxiety, apprehension, impatience, anger and frustration are always accurately sent from handler (pack leader No. 1) to canine companion (pack member No. 2). As humans, our arms move a lot. Every move has the potential to send an unwarranted correction.

Most of us are totally unaware of the extent of these messages, as well as their immediate impact on the behavior of a beloved dog. Every check (yank), every squeeze, every jerk sends a message, usually the opposite of what the handler is really trying to convey.

If we’re in a veterinarian’s office, at a show, in a class, or walking on a main city street with any sort of internal tension, that tension goes down that leash faster than you can send an email.

The leash is supposed to be a source of reinforcement, direction, security and guidance. We often fail to see the connection between our dog’s behavior and the rapid arm movements of that leash-holding hand. Reactivity, or aggressive and defensive behaviors on-leash, can be directly related to the tightening of the leash.

Much veterinary clinic apprehension and “aggression” is related to the improper use of that umbilical cord in your hand. Canine sparring, much of which only takes place when on a leash, has exactly the same root cause and effect – restraint, correction and tension.

But don’t misunderstand or misinterpret what I’m saying. Equipment is not the dog’s enemy. We can and must be versatile with appropriate choices for control and safety. As with so many areas, things are not always what they seem.

Feel free to call us with any questions at 518-828-6044 or visit our website at Our food bank is open to any from the public in need of pet food or for those wishing to donate food from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. We are currently in need of dry cat food to make sure that no cat goes hungry on our watch!

Charlene Marchand is the chairperson of the Columbia-Greene Humane Society/SPCA Board of Directors. She may be contacted at

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