There Is No Shortcut to Good Dog

Maisie and I are going back to school. We’ve been slacking off a bit these past few months, what with my rekindled love of running and her learning that yes, she can have fun with other dogs at the dog park. All of that running around and playing and we got a little lazy practicing how to walk on a leash properly. We started spending less and less time in “walk” mode, more and more time in “run” mode.

I’m learning that this vacation from school is not a good thing, for Maisie or for me. She’s pulling more on the leash again, reacting to every darn squirrel, dog, leaf, cat, tree branch, rock — well, you get the picture. And when she pulls and is reactive, I react to her. It is not a pretty picture, her barking like a maniac and straining at her leash while I try, completely ineffectually, to get her to stop.

After I decided on an impulse to start running with Maisie, I did a little research on running with a dog. Because, of course, isn’t that what we do now? The wonders of the internet give us instant access to anything and everything we could possibly want to know. And apparently I needed a Google search to confirm that running with my dog pulling like mad was probably not the wisest thing for anyone’s shoulder, never mind that of a musician. I also learned that the dog should run at your pace, not its own, that a run with your dog is not license for the dog to take off at warp speed.

Testing out the new hands-free Slackline Leash from Ruffwear. Good thing I have a strong core.

In my Google search I also learned about the concept of a hands-free leash. It seems like a good idea: we can run together, I can swing my arms merrily by my side, like a proper runner, and Maisie will stay with me and not take off on a wild tear after every animal she might see on the trail. I choose one from the company Ruffwear, because they have a fantastic name and an even better website and the dogs on it are all amazing, outdoor dogs. There is a video called “My dog is my…” that highlights people and their relationships with their dogs and then there are more videos about Avalanche rescue dogs in their Ruffwear gear and by the time I have spent the better part of an hour looking at every facet of their website, not only do I want to purchase everything they sell — whether I need it or not — I am also getting really, really weepy about how much I love dogs.

Their stuff looks bomb-proof and their reviews are great, but it’s not cheap and so rather than buy all sorts of stuff I don’t need, I just buy their hands-free adjustable leash and while I’m at it, why not, I buy a matching harness, which to me looks like a cross between badass backpacker attire and a front-facing thong for dogs. When I read that there are two leash attachments, one of which is a chest loop for training or “additional control”, I am sold. We choose orange because they are out of stock in blue and because it seems to match her coloring nicely. I place the order and start fantasizing about calm walks with a non-pulling, sweet, picture-perfect dog. I fantasize about being in my own “My dog is my…” video.

Harness or dog thong? You decide.

But of course, Maisie and Reality have other plans. The harness arrives, and yes, it is incredibly well made. It is highly customizable, but not quite perfectly customizable for my little Maisie, who, like her mama, seems to have some strange body proportions. We get her harness fitting as best we can, adjust the leash, and head out in a misty cold rain, a Seattle-like evening in an Iowa December. She is somewhat perplexed by this new leash set up and I can tell that it actually does keep her from pulling. I start laughing the kind of maniacal, sinister laugh you might expect to hear from a villain towards his captive when I realize my good fortune.

Until she finds a work around, which takes all of about two minutes. She makes a little banana shape with her head and body, drops her shoulder, and then lets the front loop of the harness work its way around towards the right side of her neck. It looks horribly awkward and the harness is now twisted nearly completely sideways, but she seems to prefer this fit and posture to actually hanging back on the leash. I start wondering about chiropractic adjustments for my dog.

I try a few things — tightening (to no avail) the straps in front, threading the leash under her right leg, giving little discouraging snaps to the leash when she gets too far ahead — but none of it is really working and we have a long walk planned, so I just unhook it and attach it to the top loop. In an instant she realizes she’s free(ish) again and she’s off. And I am back to the frustration of leash pulling. I begin to reconsider whether my distrust and disdain for a retractable leash is misplaced.

But I know in my heart that no matter what I try — retractable leashes, front facing no-pull harnesses, gentle-leaders, and my favorite but least effective tool, yelling “no pulling!” — the one thing that actually works is hands-on, real time training. What works is teaching Maisie to understand the concept of a leash using patience and diligence and consistency. While she may have found a work around for that blasted harness, I have not found a work around for proper training. And so we are back to the proverbial drawing board. Sorry, Will, for not being as diligent as you probably would have liked us — okay me — to be.

A brief moment of respite before she takes off again.

The beautiful thing is that, like Maisie, I can be trained too. I do not know why the concept of actual practice is such a difficult one me (and so many others) to get, especially when it comes to our dogs. It seems we humans are always looking for that shortcut to whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish (Four Hour Work Week, anyone?). But I am a musician, have been one since I began piano lessons at age four (and actually probably earlier than that, as I was given a tiny set of bongo drums and a toy zither as a toddler). I have played the violin, my primary instrument, for over 40 years. And if I’ve learned anything in this lifetime of playing music, it’s that if you want to be good, you have to show up. You have to practice. Every. Single. Day. Use it or lose it, there is no getting around that fact.

Honestly, is it any wonder that little Miss Maisie, who has been with us less than a year, less than probably a third of her life, struggles to walk on a leash? How can it be a surprise that she’s not terribly good at something it’s a pretty surefire bet she did not learn to do prior to coming to live with us? Especially, when her mama seemed to think a few months of half-assed practice would do the trick.

And so, I’ve given myself the proverbial come-to-Jesus talk and I am remembering that even though it seems like so much work, in reality it is a very short distance from focused practice sessions with Maisie to seeing results again. With a little bit of effective responses to her leash pulling, it is becoming easier to walk on the leash with her again. On most of our walks now, we cover far less territory (or take far longer to cover the same territory) since we are stopping and turning around a lot more.

She is such a good little dog, eager to please, and I can see her confusion. Why are we stopping? If I sit and look at you, can we keep walking? Why aren’t we running? Isn’t that why you bought that fancy new leash? If I’m good, can I have another treat? Oh look, there’s a squirrel! But I also see progress. I see her walking more calmly and I see her drop her crazy barking with a “leave it” and a turn in the other direction. On rare occasions I even see her quaking and shaking and fairly busting out of her skin at the sight of a distraction, but not lunging and not barking. That alone is worth the wearing down of a stretch of sidewalk, going back and forth on it, again and again and again, until she figures it out.

Oh my goodness, is that a slack leash? How ever did that happen?

I still love our fancy new leash, but I haven’t been using it to run with her. I fear it just creates incredibly mixed messages: stop pulling, stop pulling, walk by my side, keep it under control — okay, NOW! Now you can run like a wild woman, pull on that leash for all it’s worth. That kind of inconsistency is just not fair to her little canine mind.

So for now, I am running without her but it really is not as much fun. I am hoping that someday we will be able to incorporate running together in our daily routine. After all, she is the whole reason I am running again. Besides, I run decidedly faster when my must-have-been-a-sled-dog-in-her-former-life pup is leading the way.

* * * * *

Well, dear readers, how do you fare in the dog training department, or for that matter, training any animal? Is it worth the time and effort or is it easier to let a dog just be a dog? What are the things in your life worth showing up for, every single day? I always love to hear from you, so feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

2 Replies to “There Is No Shortcut to Good Dog”

  1. What a cute harness! You should try to get Ruffwear to sponsor your blog. Even if they just send you products for free that you then review here, that’d be a sweet deal. 🙂 Happy working-up-to-running with Maisie-Moo!


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