Teaching your dog to relax on leash, play nicely with other dogs, settle in one place, relax around distractions, begins with tether training. These simple training principles apply not only to tether training, but also to training any cue.
Start by making it easy, with short duration, no distractions, and build slowly to reward greater difficulty, duration, distractions. Teach all the pieces of behavior separately, and then put them together. When the dog is responding perfectly, you can start to “shrink” your cue(s).
First, I’ll show you the “finished” behavior. In the picture below, my two boat dogs are in an unfamiliar area, surrounded by high distractions. They are very experienced. I no longer need to tether the leash, but I leave the leashes on as a conditioned cue, to help make difficult behavior (people, dogs, birds, boats all moving around them) feel easier. Unhooking the leash is an example of how a trainer might “shrink” a cue. I was practicing having them lay down and wait, and then go to a target (the mat) from a distance.
Initial cues for “tethering” are a leash and (highly recommended but not essential) mat.
- Begin by introducing the leash. Clip it on, feed a treat, and take it off. With puppies, clipping the leash on and off is also a foundation for learning to come when called. Hold up the leash, clip it on, feed her, and take it off. Practice in a small room with no distractions, such as the kitchen. Then, practice in a fenced-in yard. Soon, she will come running when you hold up the leash.
- Introduce the mat. During dinner times, feed the puppy on the mat, and then put it away. This mat should be a special one. Don’t leave it in the crate overnight, but for dinner you could put it inside her crate with the door open. When s/he is released (or gets off the mat), put the mat and food or treat away. When you begin tether training, the puppy or dog should already love to see the leash as well as the mat. As you can see, if you practice feeding on a mat in the crate, it helps condition a relaxed quiet feeling in the crate as well! This comes in very handy when you travel or participate in fun dog events.
- Now, screw a drawer pull to the baseboard in the kitchen, loop a non-chewable leash through it, and lay the mat beside it. The dog should naturally goes to the mat. Clip on the leash, feed (or give a chew). Unclip, and give your release cue (“okay! go play!”). Practice three or four times, and put the gear away. Hopefully the dog is disappointed to see it go!
Over the next week, practice several short sessions each day. Don’t forget to practice your release cue when you end the game. If you want, you can also say “down” as she chooses to lay down (associating the cue with the behavior), and then deliver a food reward in the down position. Watch for nice relaxed behavior. Wait to give her more treats or chewy bone for an instant when she is not resisting the tether in any way. Ideally, focus all your food treats on her while she is in the down position.
Make your reward memorable by prolonging treat delivery. Rather than gulp and forget, try giving a chewy bone, or breaking one treat into many small pieces and feeding them like spaghetti,stringing it out to make it last. She should be in the down position as she is eating.
4. Condition a “keep going signal” (KGS) . This helps you build duration on ANY behavior by inserting “yay!” between other sorts of treats. Give a praise and treat in the down position. Say “yay,” then quickly give another treat. Unclip and say “okay! go play!” You can tell you’re doing great if you have to say go and play more than once. Leave ’em wanting more!
5. Over the course of the next few days, build the amount of time s/he practices on the mat. Clip as you start to make supper. After she lays down (click!), place a treat in her mouth. She should still be down. Say “yay!” as she continues to lay down and give her another treat! You can say yay again, wait two seconds, say yay again, and deliver a treat. The word “yay” is becoming a “conditioned encouragement” signal, that lets her know a reward is coming. You can use it to help you build duration.
6. If she stands up (or makes any mistake!) after you say “yay!” don’t click, nor give her the treat. After mistakes, just say “oopsie!” and wait. Most likely s/he’ll lays back down Say “yay!” enthusiastically again, and give her the bone to chew. Note: A KGS is not a reward marker. Unlike the Reward Marker Signal (RMS), or “click,” and KGS doesn’t guarantee reward, but it lets the animal know they are headed in the right direction. Another phrase for “yay” versus “oopsie” signals are “conditioned encouragement” versus “conditioned discouragement.”
Important! Before she has a chance to get bored or fuss, release her and put all the gear and fun stuff away. Never overwork your puppy. Don’t try to push her to do more than s/he is ready to do. If you know she can’t do it, don’t. S/he should be happy to see the mat and tether come out, and she should never find out that there might be any reason to sneak off when you aren’t looking. You are not feeding her to hold her in place, but instead you are giving her energy for relaxing on the tether. Eventually, you’ll be able to practice leaving the room for just a second, and come back in, and give her a treat.Over time, you could also practice having someone else deliver your dog a treat on the mat, while you are standing on the other side of the room.
Prevent problems! As with crate training, don’t give attention and food to stop a dog from fussing. Generously praise and food/chew/toy reward quiet unfussy behavior. Release your dog before there is any whining/ complaining.
Know your dog. If your dog has previously had bad experiences on leash or tether, make this game brief, easy, highly rewarding. Use roast beef for a treat and practice just for one second, several times per day.
Obviously, don’t tether your dog in the hot sun, or the cold lonely basement, or when she needs to go to the bathroom, or where another dog (or cat!) can harass or hurt her. Practice tether training after a nice walk, or during dinner when she is tired after a long day. Just as true of you, your dog must feel safe and comfortable, or she will not be able to learn.
Trouble shoot: If you goof up and the puppy is barking or misbehaving on the tether, crate or gate her (even if for just a minute) and put away the toys and treats. Don’t get mad for heavens sake. And don’t punish it. Just don’t reward it. Make it easier next time by sitting with her, petting her, settling her down and then release her. You want the dog to learn, when you respond to cues, you hang out off leash. If you’d prefer to take a nap in the crate, wild naughty behavior will surely get you there.
How to use the tether: If a loose puppy is harassing an older dog, tethering is a great way to give puppy-wuppy a “handicap.” Tethering puppy allows the older loose pet to interact and play, and then escape from the little terror! Tethering makes it easy to practice distance behaviors. Tethering makes it easy to capture “down” and sit, and put these on cue with a reinforcement marker signal (RMS) or clicker.
Never leave the dog tied up unsupervised, as they are vulnerable to being stolen, attacked, or strangling. I tether my dog while I walk an agility course or while I help a classmate with her dog. I have my dogs wait (they think of it as being tethered) on the dock while I am climbing off the boat. They are often “tethered” (waiting on a mat) when I am on the beach. In classrooms I use both the tether and mat and crate, and then I shrink those cues according to how the dogs are responding.
While ultimately the next cue or the release (“okay, let’s go!) becomes the reward, I continue to associate waiting on a tether or mat (or an imaginary mat/tether) with having a “nice time,” ie., regularly pet, praise, brush, feed and give chews to your dogs when they are waiting nicely on a mat or tether. As your dog becomes familiar with your evolving verbal cues ( I use “wait,” “mat” “down” “yay” and “oopsie” etc), your dog will be able to really understand and anticipate what is going to happen next. This ability to anticipate helps dogs relax and feel more confident, less frustrated.
Congratulations in reading this far! Please let me know in the comments area if you need any clarifications, or how your training is progressing! Your comments and questions are appreciated!