Flexi-Leash Fury

Flexi-Leash Fury

Visualize for a moment with me, now will you?

I am walking my dog down a familiar suburban sidewalk.  On the horizon I spot an oncoming pedestrian.  Like any alert dog owner, I scan for the silhouette of a dog, just to prepare for any possible meetings, greetings, or altercations.  I see nothing and proceed as normal.

Then, as the figure approaches, I notice something in her hand.  It appears that she’s holding something – about the size of your averaged paperback – by its handle.  Ahh, the all too familiar flexi-leash.  Since her accompanying dog is not readily noticed, I scan once again for her canine companion until I spot him:  a small Scottish Terrier who is a good 20 feet away from his owner, sniffing and marking his way along the neighbourhood lawns.  He is far ahead of her as she marches down the sidewalk towards me completely oblivious and unprepared.

As we get closer, Mr. Scottish Terrier finally notices us approaching and is not okay with our presence.  Barking and lunging ensue.  My usual recourse for interactions such as these is to pull over to the grass with my dog on the inside and calmly keep going, paying no mind to the temper tantrum that is occurring on the sidewalk.  I give the other owner a wide berth, allowing him or her to take as much control over the reacting dog as is possible.  We have worked on this a lot and happily Moses rarely perks an ear to these types of encounters any more.

However, in this particular case, that is not an option.  With his owner as the pivot point, the terrier now has a 20 foot radius to patrol as we pass by, necessitating our move onto the curb among parked cars and close to residential traffic to keep out of the little mongrel’s way.  The terrier proceeds to bark and lunge at the end of his leash, and even gains a few extra feet of leash since his owner is too slow on the brake.  I can hear the flexi-leash click as it either becomes totally extended or the brake mechanism has broken.  With the long distance from his owner to gain momentum, this 20 lb little dog is actually able to nearly pull his average-sized middle-aged female owner over with his efforts to get closer to us.  She tries backing on to someone’s lawn in a weak effort pull him out of our way, since she cannot reel him in without any slack in the line.

Once we pass and are safely back on the sidewalk, it takes everything in my power not to shout back to her “lose the flexi-leash!”

Sure, there really are several problems working in tandem here: a less than stellar dog owner, poorly trained dog, and a crappy, but all too common, piece of equipment.  My target here is the ever-infuriating flexi-leash.

Nothing during the course of an average dog walk irritates me more than encounters similar to the above.  Or seeing any dog at any time being walked on a flexi-leash for that matter.  As a motorist or pedestrian it is far too common a sight to see a dog walking along, or even crossing the street, 20 feet ahead of or behind its owner.  The safety concerns seem obvious, yet stores keep selling these leashes, and people keep buying them.  Yes, I immediately and harshly judge the flexi-leash user.  And not just because incidents like the aforementioned are frequent and put a damper on my own dog walks, but because there are legitimate reasons why the flexi-leash should never be considered a useful tool to the responsible dog owner.

Quite frankly, flexi-leashes are an abomination, and their popularity is based on completely false and irrational myths believed by naïve buyers.  Despite by-laws in many municipalities setting the maximum appropriate leash length at 6 feet/2 metres (e.g. Calgary, Alberta), these little devices are as popular as ever.

The ads will tell you that these retractable leashes give your dog more “freedom” while you maintain control.  This is very simply false.  Any added distance between you and your dog means less control.  Just ask the owner of the Scottish Terrier from the story above; she had no control over her dog whatsoever, and the look on her face at the time suggested to me that she was quite aware of it.  Was it enough to prompt her to ditch the flexi-leash for a sensible 6 foot one?  Well, unfortunately probably not, but there’s no accounting for common sense.

And all too often we see the unbalanced, under-exercised little lap dog yapping away at the end of the flexi-leash.  But how about when it’s the other way around?  Now imagine that a calm, friendly dog is on the end, still 20 feet away from its owner, and going in for a greeting with an unfamiliar dog – and said greeting just happens to turn south for one of a myriad of possible reasons.  The owner of the dog has no immediate recourse to protect their dog from the aggressor when the altercation is going down so far away.  A dog truly intent on harming another can and will do so in a split second.  Now imagine both dogs are on flexi-leashes and neither owner is able to respond quickly enough.  Mon Dieu!

Your dog’s health and safety is your number one responsibility as a dog owner, so how is it that the flexi-leash keeps slipping through the cracks?  The flexi-leash poses a safety risk to your dog, and that’s all there is to it.  Your dog can encounter any number of things during a walk (other dogs, other people, bikes, vehicles, porcupines, skunks, etc.), and when they are 20 or more feet away you are less likely to be able to anticipate it, prevent it, or help them quickly in a serious situation.  Yes, people actually have stood helplessly by while their dog – at the end of a flexi-leash – wandered onto the road and got hit by a car.

In addition to being a hazard to your dog, the flexi-leash also poses hazards to the human user, including tripping and tangling which are obvious risks associated with that much lead.  More serious hazards actually include reported cases of abrasions, rope burn, and even finger amputations (for those who believe a visualization of these hazards is helpful, visit http://www.flexiusa.com/operation/safety-advice.php ).  The flexi-leash comes with a bonafide owner’s manual when purchased, with the least of precautions being that they’re only to be used with obedient, well-mannered dogs.  Experience, of course, shows us that is rarely the case.

Some actually suggest that having a dog on a flexi-leash has made the need for teaching them to “heel” or “come” unnecessary.  Opting to forego some basic obedience because of sheer ignorance, stupidity, or indifference?  Really?

And while we’re at it, no, allowing your dog to zig-zag around does not “give her more exercise” or let her “enjoy” the walk more.  Are you truly so lazy that you are looking for shortcuts and cannot take your dog on a proper daily walk?

Flexi-leashes also do not prevent your dog from pulling, as many claim; they just mask the problem.  Put the same dog on a proper leash, and the owner will complain of pulling – why?  Because the dog always pulls.  When using a flexi-leash, the dog actually learns to pull, since they must pull forward to get more lead.  Additionally, flexi-leashes self-retract when not locked, so there is always tension on the leash.  Because the reel of the leash is the only part that monitors the tension and slack, the owner is oblivious.  But all you have to do is look:  no slack in the line means the leash is tight; tension means the dog is pulling.  Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

And, finally, for those who will inevitably respond that the flexi-leash is a great tool for training your dog at a distance, I pose this question: if your dog isn’t perfectly behaved at the end of a 6 foot leash, how can you expect them to be just as good from 20 feet away?  If you properly practice building up distance when training, making slow, gradual increases in distance will ensure you’ll never need to make use of a long-line or flexi-leash.  Your dog will learn to pay attention and respond from 5, 10, even 50 or more feet way.  From a training perspective, the ever-tight flexi-leash also does not provide any method to send our dogs clear messages or follow-up.  Sure, from a distance we expect our verbal commands to do the work, but if they are spot-on and built up gradually, a flexi-leash should never be required.  Controlling our urge to push our dogs too far too fast will make the seemingly most legitimate use of the flexi-leash obsolete altogether.

The bottom line:  the flexi-leash is an awful contraption that should never be used.  The use of a flexi-leash simply signifies to me an untrained dog accompanied by an uneducated owner.  And fewer things are more infuriating than that.

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Perfecting “Go Pee”

Setting Pace at the Dog Run:
How to Give Fido a Designated Backyard Bathroom Location

Saving your lawn and teaching your dogs to do their “business” in a particular location is extremely easy – in theory.  But as we all know, if there is any sort of grey area or inconsistency, our dogs usually can find it and will exploit it.  Here’s how you can start the process and deal with potential struggles.

First, I recommend beginning in the spring/summer to encourage your own dedication to the process, since no one really wants to accompany their dog for every bathroom break in -20°C weather.  It will also provide many months of habit-forming before snow covers your yard.

Next, pick a bathroom command for your dog.  This command will refer to all bathroom activities.  It will also help to ensure all family members are using the same command and helping with the training.  The process will take a few weeks of dedication and consistency from everyone, but once the habit is learned your lawn is always safe.

And, of course, once you have your designated bathroom location decided upon and set up, make sure you clean all of the dog waste out of the rest of the backyard before starting the training process.  Give your lawn a thorough soaking, focusing on the areas your dog used to go to the bathroom, in order to eliminate the scent from those areas.  It is also recommended to place some of your dog’s waste in the dog run area so the scent is there.  Scent is what triggers a dog to release his or her bladder or bowels, and can be very helpful in the training process (remembering that dogs can only learn through instinct and repetition – and here we will use both).

Once you are ready to begin (and barring any particular medical issues your dog may have which could affect success), the training is a simple matter of accompanying your dog to the designated location – on leash – for every bathroom break for the next two weeks.  There are no exceptions; consistency is important.

Keeping Fido on leash at first is key so he doesn’t wander from the dog run and so you don’t have to catch him and bring him back.  Instead, you will simply walk your dog out to the dog run, give the bathroom command, and wait.  A standard six foot leash is plenty to provide your dog with personal space while ensuring he or she doesn’t stray to the grass.

Like initial house training, once Fido has completed the task perfectly, a little praise (such as a nice, slow chest rub or some go-play time in the yard) can be helpful.

Of course, because we’re trying to teach something new, this means Fido should not get unsupervised play time in the yard during these initial weeks lest do his business elsewhere while no one is watching.  In the event Fido does sneak away and leave his mark outside of the designated dog run area, don’t punish him for it.  Instead, your two weeks starts over and you now know you need to keep a better watch.

Once you’ve completed two weeks of consistent bathroom breaks in the designated area, you can lose the leash and move on to unaccompanied – but still supervised – bathroom breaks.  You will still need to monitor Fido in the backyard, and if you see him begin to wander to or sniff around an unauthorized location (by now you should be very familiar with your dog’s pre-bathroom routine), try a simple verbal interruption such as “hey!” to get his attention.  This alone could be enough to make him aware that he’s in the wrong spot.  If that’s not enough, personally bring him over to the dog run, give him his bathroom command, and wait nearby to make sure he uses it.  If you find yourself repeating this process, you may have to try another week of on-leash bathroom breaks before the habit sticks.

However, if Fido successfully and consistently uses his dog run, and you’ve got confidence that he’s learned this new habit, you can begin to slowly decreased your supervision; for example, from nearby in the yard, to on the deck, to at the doorway, to monitoring from inside, to no supervision at all.  At the final stage, you’ve got to trust that Fido is using his dog run 100% of the time without any help from you.  You can also begin to let your dog have his usual free time in the backyard, but remember to supervise him at first to ensure he keeps on track.  For those who have a dog who is prone to marking his territory, extra supervision will be required to ensure he’s not marking all over the yard, which can spread the scent and slowly lead to him using the whole yard as a bathroom area once again.

Of course, as simple as this sounds, dogs always seem to find the loopholes, and you may face challenges.

Some dogs may not readily take to the idea of going to the bathroom on gravel – or another surface – instead of grass.  As a result, to avoid using the dog run, you may find that your dog “holds it” until it’s time for the daily walk.  There are a couple of ways to get around this while still ensuring your dog gets his necessary exercise regime.

Knowing your dog’s typical bathroom routine can help.  If your dog usually goes to the bathroom near the beginning of the walk, you can try walking around the block and then returning to the dog run for a bathroom break.  Repeat as necessary.  If your dog usually goes to the bathroom near the middle or end of the walk, try breaking the daily one hour walk into two half-hour walks, finishing each with a supervised stop at the dog run.  Don’t forget to use your bathroom command.  If you’ve got to use these techniques, ensure your dog is only spending time in the yard during on-leash bathroom breaks.

If this still doesn’t work, try spacing out your walks (but maintain your typical feeding schedules).  For example, if you walk your dog from 7:00-8:00am on Tuesday, and then again at 9:00pm on Wednesday, your dog has still received an hour long walk each day, but now there is 37 hours between them – odds are your dog is going to need to go to the bathroom at least once during that time.  You just need to make sure you provide ample on-leash bathroom opportunities in the dog run during those 37 hours.

Of course, in the event your dog does do his business during the walk, don’t worry about it and certainly don’t punish him.  We don’t want to train our dogs into thinking there’s only one place in the entire world where they can go to the bathroom – just one specific place within in the confines of the yard.

If you’re worried about your dog opting to go to the bathroom inside the house in favour of the dog run, make sure he/she is supervised while in the house (perhaps by keeping him/her on hands-free/umbilical) and in a crate when unsupervised.

As your dog becomes comfortable and consistent with using his or her assigned bathroom area, ensure that the dog run is cleaned regularly, so your dog never thinks to look for a different, cleaner spot.  While scent is important to encourage dogs to use a specific bathroom area, an area that is too messy will discourage them from using it altogether.  It is also important to thoroughly rinse off the dog run once or twice per year to help control excessive odours.

Finally, as winter comes, ensure your dog still uses the same location even once it is snow-covered.  This will save you from having to re-train him or her every spring.

And of course, once you’ve trained your dog once, you can easily use the same process again to train him or her to go in another new location in the event you’re moving, going out of town, or simply relocating the dog run.

Happy training!

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