Harnesses — they’re not just for sled dogs

I can’t believe how long it’s been since my last post! Somewhere there’s a lost draft of an end-of-the-year-roundup, but let’s not dwell on the past.  😉

Life has been crazy busy with ups and downs, but training with Ziva has been the one constant through all of the challenges. It’s still always tough for me to not compare her with other dogs we know or see on the street, because she is still reactive to other dogs and she still quickly loses her focus on me when we are walking. However, she is so much better than she used to be. And, I still struggle with being self-conscious of how she behaves when we are out in public, but I am getting better at that, too. One thing that helps us (me) is a new harness that she wears when we are in challenging environments.

Ziva sits by a sign that reads We’ve gone through a whole bunch of harnesses to find one that fits her well. Being 50 percent German Shepherd, she has a big chest, but a tiny belly. (Lucky girl, right?) Most of the harnesses we’ve tried slide around her body too much. There is a Kurgo model that is very adjustable, but it is a nightmare to get on her — it involves lifting her foot up, and also fitting a small opening over head. Both of these things get her soooo worked up, it’s like wrestling a wild mustang. So we have used it when we go on hikes, but it is so much of a hassle for all of us that we never use it on everyday walks.

Ziva running on the beach

photo credit: Kim Johnston

When we went to the beach last fall, I thought a harness would be best there, too, because I wanted let her play in the water on a long leash. I couldn’t imagine trying to get the Kurgo one on and off her multiple times every day, and I also thought it would be too hot in the Carolina sun. So eventually I found a nice, sturdy mesh one from Canada Pooch, that was pretty easy to put on her, seemed to be comfortable for her — and was easy to wash out at the end of every day, and dried out in the for the next day’s adventure.  (Shout out to our local pet store, Mutt Mart, who had a variety of sizes in stock. If you are in the Baltimore area, stop by and give them a look.)

But here’s the thing about Ziva and a harness. She suffers from sled-dog syndrome. The instant I switch the leash from collar to harness, she bolts ahead. When we were at the beach, that meant she basically dragged me down the beach. I admit I kind of gave in to that and assumed that’s how it had to be. Looking back now, I should have tried harder to keep her on the flat collar, and just switched to the harness when we were ready to go in the water. (We hope to go back to that same beach again in 2018, so believe me — I have to plans to do better next time. It’s a learning process.) I guess I thought I could get her to walk on the harness, but it just didn’t happen. I don’t know if it will ever happen. I’m hoping to get some help from our trainer about how we might make it less of a sled pull, because for example when we go for a walk in the woods I like to give Ziva a little bit of freedom to sniff. But it ends up with her pulling me up or down a trail. Depending on the muddiness this is sometimes more manageable than others.

Ziva wearing her new In Training harnessSo, here’s what we’re trying out now when we go out into public: Julius K9 harness with “In Training” patches, a flat collar, and a prong collar. So what’s the point of a harness if the leash is on the prong? Well, maybe it’s more for me than for her. We still do a lot of remedial work when we are walking in public. And all that walking back and forth, stopping, behavioral downs, bridging — it can look kinda of funny to someone who has never been through it. When Ziva is wearing this harness, and I’m just standing there on the sidewalk next to her in a behavioral down, we get smiles and nods. When she’s not wearing it, we get suspicious looks and avoidance. Or, the opposite, like the time when Ziva was really struggling to calm down at a shopping center, a woman came right up to her and reached out to pet her as she kept trying to get out of her behavioral down. I had to ask her not to pet her. (In my experience, kids are so much better about asking to pet my dog — while adults just march right up and say “so cuuuuuute!”

This harness has a lot of different velcro patches available, so I’m hoping this is something we can use for a very long time. For example, I do plan to get back to more structured Nose Work, because Ziva still really loves that activity. There are patches for that! There are also side bags that fit the harness, and I’m more comfortable with her wearing this harness attached to the seatbelt that having it on her collar in case of an accident when we’re driving somewhere. We’re all going a little stir crazy with the winter weather and I’m hoping to get out on some good long hikes soon.  If she gets used to wearing a harness every time we go out, maybe some day she will stop pulling. Well, with a lot of training. 🙂

So. What’s your experience with harnesses? What’s your advice?

Continuing “behavioral down” … and more

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the holy trinity for us has been behavioral down, conditioned relaxation, and bridging. Doing these three things has had an amazing effect on Ziva and her ability to control her energy. It has taken months of work, and some setbacks along the way, but we are so far from where we started. She is still such a happy joyful dog, and still very energetic. But she is able to calm herself in most situations, to a more manageable level. She’s still not able to ignore other dogs without assistance, but she’s getting there.

We do behavioral down before every walk. For the past few months, Ziva has been doing pretty well at settling down quickly.  But I have noticed that in last week or so, she has been getting really ramped up when I put the leash on her, and it’s taking longer to get her to settle down. I’m not really sure what’s causing the backslip. The weather? The hot dogs? Who knows! But this is the way it goes — a few steps forward, a few steps back again.

So here’s what we do: We practice, practice, practice.  Yesterday, I took a video of Ziva doing behavioral down on the front porch, which we haven’t had to do for a long time, but clearly we needed a refresher. We always do behavioral down before we leave the house, usually in the hallway by the front door. For a long time, this has been enough to get her into the right frame of mind to have a successful walk. But when we first started this method, we did behavioral down in the hallway, on the front porch, and again at the bottom of the steps.  In this video, Ziva had struggled to get calm in the hallway, but finally did settle. But once we stepped onto the porch, she was wound right up again. So I just stopped and did behavioral down right there. In the beginning of the video, she is lying down but still very alert. If your dog is sitting like a sphinx, she’s not relaxed she’s still very alert. Eventually Ziva put her head down, and on the scale of 1-10 I would guess she was at a 3/4. I got her up at this point because I didn’t think we were going to have much more time before neighbors/children/dogs/squirrels etc. etc. came by and she got herself up again. In a perfect world, I should have  stayed there until she reached a 1. Let me know what you think:

This is probably a good time to talk about the collar. I’ve been putting off broaching this topic because it is a hot button one — everyone has an opinion. Here’s our story:

We are using a “pinch collar,” which you can see clearly in the video. This was recommended by our trainer, and we were not allowed to use it on walks until we had been trained in its use, which took several weeks. We use it on walks as Ziva learns to walk on a leash, and for specific training such as “sit” and “down.” Ziva does not wear it around the house, and doesn’t wear it when she is with other dogs.

What is a “pinch collar”? It is a metal collar with with short prongs that put pressure on the dog’s neck when the leash is pulled. Sounds horrible, right? Of course, because that’s only half the story. The other half is that we are learning to use the leash as a communication tool, so that it is never tight and the prongs are never more than a reminder pressure. When we are walking and Ziva starts to get ahead of me, I don’t “pop” the leash as other trainers have recommended with other collars. Instead, I very lightly give the leash tug and turn to the right. I give Ziva a big “Yes! What a good girl!!” and a treat. It is a very conscious process, and the collar should just put enough pressure to get Ziva’s attention, never to cause actual pain. It’s the difference between a tap on the shoulder, and grabbing an arm. I’m tapping.

It would be nice if Ziva would just listen to me, but she won’t. It reminds me of when I was at the mall recently. It was pretty crowded, and as I strolled past the Baby Gap store, I heard a little squeal and then saw a toddler making his way out the door and into the crowd of people walking along. I glanced around at the people near him, and no one seemed to belong to him, so I quick glanced back at the store from which he appeared, and out came a very tired looking mom, whose shoulders visibly slumped when she saw how far he had gotten. I caught her eye and smiled, because he was right next to me now and I wanted to let her know he was ok. She started to make her way toward us through the mass of people, and I wanted to stop the little guy, but not startle or scare him. So I just tapped him on the shoulder and said “Hey there little man. Where are you going?” It was enough to make him stop and look up at me, which gave his mom time to reach us. Now, I could have called out to him, and his mom could have called out to him, but he wouldn’t have stopped.  He needed a physical correction, but nothing forceful or certainly not painful, just a tap on the shoulder. That’s what we’re aiming for with Ziva.

Every collar or harness has its pros and cons. The pinch collar must be worn up under the chin, so that it won’t put pressure on the trachea which could cause injury. (You can see in the video, Ziva is wearing it properly. ) No-pull harnesses are very popular, and are great for some dogs, but have also been shown to cause shoulder damage to other dogs. “Halti” and other head harnesses can cause neck injuries to some dogs. “Choke” collars, which I have used with previous dogs, usually slide down the neck and end up putting pressure on the trachea when pulled.

So. Find a trainer who is experienced with the collar you choose, and get trained yourself. The bottom line is that whatever you choose should be pain-free and effective for your dog. Onward and upward.