Around this time last year, I coined a term, and a system I called Conversational Leash Work™. The idea behind this approach to leash handling is to utilize the leash to have an entire conversation with the dog, to guide her through her choices and give feedback about those choices both good and bad in a non-confrontational manner.
Since then, I have seen many people use the term Conversational Leash Work™ in reference to handling that does not exactly fit the principals of my system. The average professional that I have seen state that they are doing Conversational Leash Work™ is actually doing nothing more than traditional leash pressure work.
There is nothing new about Leash pressure work, or the idea of conditioning a dog to give-in to leash pressure rather than oppose it. This system allows the dog to learn to accept the leash as negative reinforcement, and teach her that she has the ability to control whether that pressure is “on” or “off”.
Typical leash pressure work goes like this:
1) The handler puts a slight pressure on the leash in a certain direction and waits. (The dog typically shows a bit of initial resistance)
2) The dog eventually gives in to the pressure and moves into the leash, thus making the pressure go away.
3) The handler praises the dog and (optional) marks the behavior and gives a reward of a treat or toy.
The treat/toy reward of step 3 is optional because the release of pressure is the initial reinforcement. There is no need for further reward for the system to work.
What is happening here with the leash is essentially a lecture. The handler speaks (adds pressure). The dog listens and takes notes (moves into pressure. The handler then praises the audience for being such good listeners and moves on to the next bit of the lecture.
Conversational Leash Work™ takes the leash handling one step further.
1) The handler puts a slight pressure on the leash in a certain direction and waits. (The dog typically shows a bit of resistance)
2) The handler feels through the leash that the dog makes a shift in mindset from resistance to cooperation. (The dog doesn’t actually have to move an inch; the shift can be felt in the dog’s muscle tension.
3) The handler actively releases the pressure from the leash, showing the dog that he is listening to her.
4) The dog typically completes the rest of the action on her own, with no tension of the leash.
One of the key elements here is what I call the Active Release. And it’s not just how you do it, but the timing of when you do it is very crucial.
In this system, the leash become a way of speaking and listening. The handler is releasing the pressure as way of giving feedback. The dog is learning that her behavior can elicit a direct response from the handler. She is still indirectly controlling whether or not she feels the pressure from the leash. However, that control is now part of a team effort, or partnership with the human.
An entire conversation is now taking place through the leash alone. The handler speaks (pressure). The dog responds (shift of mindset). The handler responds to the dog (active release). The dog continues to respond back (completes action/movement). Then the praise and reward can come for a job well done (the dog and human are both rewarded through mutual affection).
This subtle change in technique creates a dramatic shift in the outcome of the work. Where traditional leash pressure work is simply a tool to help shape obedience cues, Conversational Leash Work™ becomes a powerful aid in establishing a relationship of mutual respect, trust and cooperation.
So far I have only seen one other professional who fully grasps this work, and that is my good friend Chad Mackin of Pack To Basics.
In my philosophy of Dogmanship it is important to remember that we are the humans, we have asked the dog to live in an artificial human world, which they don’t understand. We are here to lead the dog through that world. This is not a choice, but an obligation. If we want her to learn to listen to us, we must first listen to her. If we want her to respect us, we must first show her respect.
One last thing to note. The Conversational Leash Work™ that I have created is not simply a technique, but rather a series of exercises that works the dog through various levels of complex communication. To learn more, consider hosting or attending one of my seminars.
The following video is from last year and has been previously posted. It shows an intro to Conversational Leash Work™ with a dog that has never met me before.