31 May 2011

Inappropriate Pull on Lead vs Necessary Pull in Harness

Recently in conversation via email with my Dad, I had an opportunity to explain some concepts with him in a good light. The topic though made me realize that when I discuss Thane's pull in harness on lists, tweets, or in blog entries that there may be others who have a misconception of this. I thought this would be a great place to explain some of what Dad and I discussed.

Ideally all dogs but most especially all service dogs should be taught to walk on a loose lead (LLW). That does not mean that all owner trained teams do as there are those unfortunately who bypass foundation training and jump right to task training, never to return to those fundamental essential tasks for their dogs.

My Dad was just being curious and even included in his question his *ignorance* about service dog training and task training but at the same time called me an expert. Of course reading that I cracked up. I definitely do not see myself as an expert, but in his eyes, in realms of training my dogs, he sees what I am able to do and is awed. Quite a contrast to his acceptance of my disabilities as seen in my entry, Independent Travel When Acceptance and Disabilities Collide.

When one gets a dog, unless it comes from a service, hearing, or guide dog program, chances are the dog will pull on the lead. Your new dog will need to be trained to walk nicely using loose leash walking techniques. This is often easier said than done.

Training Thane to walk on leash just about killed my shoulder and as for my hair, I am surprised I did not go bald trying to accomplish it all. We eventually got it. Though we don't practice LLW in public in terms of the pet or non-guide dog position, I do not allow Thane to extend so his leash is taut UNLESS we need to use leash guiding for a narrow area or area that is too steep that could put too much pressure on Thane from the harness girth strap as a result of the tension on the harness handle.

As I was explaining to my Dad, when I discuss Thane's pull, what I am referring to is the tension one feels in the harness handle. At least as a wheelchair guide team, there must be some pull felt in the harness handle. If this does not take place, I would not be able to tell the movements for obstacle clearance that Thane must take. With an ambulatory team, some clearances are done by the guide gently pushing into the handler for obstacle avoidance. This type of movement could be dangerous for a guide dog partnered with a handler in a wheelchair.

There will always be some pull in the guide handle felt by the handler. The pull can be from mild to hard. It can also differ based on length and angle of the harness handle. Everyone I imagine has different definitions for what constitutes a mild, moderate, or hard pull in harness.

My previous service dog was probably half way between mild and moderate where mild would have been too little pull for a wheelchair guide team. We also though used a flexible handle as opposed to the rigid handle I use with Thane as a result of the progression of my blindness that requires me to have much more precise guidance. I imagine that had I use this handle with Met, he would probably have been a moderate pull.

Thane most definitely was a hard harness pull for some time and fluctuated with intervals of hard even after things would settle into the moderate pull range. A lot of this, I see in hindsite, was caused by my own reactions and mood. If I was overly enthusiastic about the outing- boy oh boy! If I was not in the mood to be going, out came the goof ball. In working with Thane, I had to learn not only how to train and respond to him, but how to balance my own emotions.

Another trigger for differing pulls is linked to another of my disabilities. I recently discovered that in the use of my tilt which alters the angle of the harness handle, it also makes a difference in the harness pull. Now that I understand this concept which was discovered during my bout of skin problems when I could not use the tilt for any work in harness until yesterday and then only slight, my approach will definitely change. If I really need more tilt and its triggering a harder pull, use of a longer handle can often reduce the pull I feel in the handle.

The point though of all of this is that pull in harness is to be considered a good and necessary thing. Guide dog schools try and pair their dogs to the pace and strength needs of their candidates. For me, I do understand that Thane is a bit much dog when it comes to pull in harness for me. This all said, some changes with his diet this month have proven most beneficial and calming for him so I am most hopeful that the pull I have been experiencing for the most part the last couple weeks, may in fact be who he has become as a moderate harness pull guide.

If that is not the case, I have in my mind come to an acceptance somewhat for who he is- I mean its awfully hard to judge when his reaction time and harness pull saved our bacon.

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