Monday, February 15, 2010

Reflections on the purpose of a Leash for a Service Dog Team

Leashes are a fact of life for the majority of dogs in this day and age where wide open spaces void of the dangers of cars, dogs who don't speak canine, and people so crowded they often can't find the space the would like to avoid the things they dislike or fear.
Leashes are meant to place finite limits of what a dog can get too, the fact that they can't go alone, how fast they can get there, and provide the ability to catch a dog when needed. When I got my first service dog candidate I, like a lot of people, that my leash was something akin to power steering...I was a neophyte dog trainer, I didn't know better. In other words, I had a leash the dog had to go where I went and do what I wanted. If I told my dog to do something and it did not the leash, and my use of it could make them do what I wanted(as long as the leash stayed connected and the dog did not decide to over power me). As I went along along and gained more experience working with dogs, I learned just how incorrect this attitude towards leashes was and have worked to improve my training abilities and other methods of communicating with my dogs. A leash is a safety device and simply a connection to your dog; however, it is dangerous for it to be the only thing connecting your dog to you. Service dogs must be on leash in most places while working in public, since service dogs are not exempt from animal control laws. Leashes can and do break along with getting yanked free and dropped. Service dog handlers must be confident that if that leash drops or breaks that they will not lose the help that their service dog provides, simply because they are now free.
Basic Skills a Service Candidate Needs (readers please add any you feel I missed):
  • Stop on cue
  • Solid off leash recall (see: Really Reliable Recall)
  • Solid Heel
  • Drop/down on cue both close to you and in place
  • Sit on cue both close to you and in place
  • Wait before crossing any open door or threshold until released (My release words are either Break or Free since they do not occur as often in everyday conversation as words like Okay; therefore they are less likely to lose meaning over time)
Intermediate Skills:
  • Retrieve dropped leash to handler ( I used this behavior with great success as an incompatible behavior for my first SD Bastien to prevent the freedom run. As a very novice trainer I screwed up the recall and discovered along the way the concept of incompatible behaviors and was saved! This concept I really understood and was able to use to fix many of my training gaffs. 
Leashes are a very personal pieces of equipment and should be comfortable to use for both dog and handler. When choosing a leash think of how it will be used and who is using it.
  • Does the person prefer a lighter or heavier leash.
  • Is there a material preference? Cotton, Leather, Nylon, climbing rope, etc.
  • What Leash size and type is appropriate for the size and type of dog attached to it?
  • General Length for public access work is 6' or less. As a manual chair user I tend to prefer 4'-5' max as any longer and the slack tends to get run over unintentionally from time to time.

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