#2. That's Not How You Use a Leash
You're out on the town, walking your best friend, when a cat sprints across the road with a raw steak strapped to its back. Your dog pulls to go after it and, eager to stop his bad behavior, you pull back. Congratulations: You've just provoked a war between that dog and the socket of your arm, and nothing more. To us, yanking on a dog's leash sends the message "stop doing that," but then we're confused as to why 10 straight years of this doesn't make the dog any better at using a leash.
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"Leash studies" is the doctorate of the canine world.
I've watched hundreds of people do this with their dogs, and every single time I see the dog's eyes fill with a sense of exasperation. "Ah, shit, we're doing this again." When you yank on the leash, you aren't training your dog to focus or stop tugging. You're teaching him that leashes suck and make his neck hurt.
So first off, always keep the leash the same length -- they have those retractable ones, but if you vary the length, the dog will just get confused. You leave the dog with 4 feet one day and 3 the next, so he will go for that extra foot he had yesterday. In other words, he just gets used to pulling, all the time.
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And hey, some dogs are into bondage.
So then you pull back, and he pulls harder the other direction. He isn't being a dick -- pulling on a dog's leash triggers his opposition reflex, basically training him to do the exact opposite of what you want. If someone pushes you, you're going to push back, if only so you can remain standing.
I once saw a lady standing outside with her dog, this beautiful German shepherd, while our training class was on break. The dog started barking at some passing dog or cat or invisible ghost demon, and the lady shouted at him to shut up. He didn't, because very few German shepherds speak fluent English. So this lady grabbed her side of the leash in both hands and yanked so damn hard that the dog's front legs lifted off the ground. He stopped barking, but not because her throttling had taught him the error of his ways. Try this experiment at home: The next time someone talks to you, choke the shit out of them for like five seconds. Did they shut up? Of course they did. That's what happens when you treat someone's trachea like a stress ball.
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Above: not your golden retriever, ideally.
But that's a knee-jerk reaction with dog owners -- you've got this leash in your hand, so it becomes a catch-all tool to control, move, and punish the animal. But the goal is to get to a place where you don't have to do that. You love your dog, you don't want to have to choke the poor thing every time it gets excited about something. The alternative, again, takes patience, and a pocket full of treats.
Remember, you have an enormous advantage here, you being the human and the dog being the dog, which is that the dog has an incredibly short attention span. If he starts barking or pulling like the German shepherd up there, distract him. Turn him around and walk him the other way -- once he breaks eye contact, he loses his meager doggy ability to focus attention on the thing that had enthralled him seconds ago.
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Yet another striking similarity between dogs and amphetamine addicts.
Then make him pay attention to you. Give him a command, tell him to sit, whatever -- dogs can't multitask. If he's paying attention to you, he's not paying attention to that food/dog/squirrel/naked man whose frostbitten dong looks like a sausage link/whatever.
If you want to make the behavior stop in the long term, you have to patiently, over time, train the dog that paying attention to you = good, under all circumstances. Throw him a treat just for randomly making eye contact. Boom -- your dog now wants to pay attention to you more. Soon you won't have to ask for it; your dog will just check in to see if you want something. And the next time you're walking him, if he pulls -- even if it's in the direction you want to go -- stop. Don't yank back, just stay where you are and hold firm. When he stops pulling, walk to where he wants to go and give him treats and praise for not tugging on the leash.
The spoils of victory are yours, Mr. Tibbles.
Again, it takes patience -- it can take a long time for this training to sink in, especially if your dog isn't a puppy. But come on. Is a few weeks of being diligent really so terrible that you'd rather just choke an animal that loves you instead?
But that brings us to the larger point ...
#1. You're Giving Up on Training Too Quickly -- Patience Is Everything
The reason dog owners are so tempted to give up on breaking habits or teaching new ones is that it seems to take them so long to get it, often regressing or forgetting their training totally at random. Here's where it again helps to understand how a dog's brain works.
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"Princess Stinkyface just can't seem to enter a ballroom without losing her tiara."
Let's say you've just spent two hours teaching your dog how to stay. Congratulations! You've taught your pet to perform a trick in exactly one room of the house. See, dogs may have kickass associative memories, but they can't generalize for shit. It makes sense when you consider how much less often your dog gets out of the house than you do.
In your mind, he knows how to stay because you two totally locked that shit down in the living room last week. There were treats, face licks, ear scratches, and general celebration. Maybe you guys even shared a beer. It was touching. But your dog remembers things a little differently. To him, that trick is inextricably tied to that room. So when you're out at the park the next day and he's bombarded with asses to sniff and small animals to murder, you shouting "stay" won't have much of an impact. There were no delicious squirrels running around the living room. Clearly you don't want him to let those cheeky bastards go unmurdered.
And if you do, then you aren't the human he fell in love with.
If you want a dog that can stay when you need him to stay, you have to train him in a bunch of different places. It shouldn't take very long each successive time -- the dog already knows how to sit, so you're just reinforcing that it's a thing you do at home and in this new place. Taking your dog to the beach? Start your walk by going through a few basic commands and handing out treats. Training your dog to carry cash to strippers? Make sure you practice your routine at the club before your favorite dancer gets on stage. Also? Kudos to you for finding a strip club that allows pets.
It takes time, and repetition, and consistency. Think of it like potty training for a baby. Yeah, it takes a while. But once you get it right, there's a whole lot of shit you never have to deal with again.
Mischa Oldman trains the hell out of some dogs. Robert Evans writes the hell out of some articles, and you can reach him here to share your story.
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