Why did I write this blog?
Through my work volunteering in an online help group for pet parents, I often notice patterns and trends in the development of how people keep dogs, what their joys are, and what their struggles are. These observations have turned into blog posts before, covering both simple helpful topics like how to get your dog to just not bark when you enjoy yourself in your garden and more thoughtful pieces such as life without crates. Today it’s time to cover a recent development that appears to win its way into pet homes – a development that has me concerned.
Tethering, or the umbilical cord method as it’s called from time to time. It sounds harmless, no? And of course, there can be good reasons to teach your dog to accept being tethered – it’s not an evil concept but as with everything else, it should be trained before utilised in daily life and it most certainly should be a concept we should use with caution. As we should with all restrictive methods. In this blog, I’m going to take a look at where I see this method recommended and why it concerns me, and I’m going to go over how you train your dog to be tethered in case you need it. If you want to go straight to the practical stuff, you can click here: take me to the guide!
Tethering; what is it, and why do people recommend it?
Tethering is the concept of leashing your dog to yourself or a stationary object. Simple as that. The most common things I have seen tethering recommended for by the general population are house training, general manners training, an aid to supervise the dog, and calmness training. However, I have also seen it recommended as an aid in mat training and to prevent begging by big names in the dog world which is probably why it seems to grow more popular amongst average people.
Usually, these recommendations spring from a desire to help struggling pet parents, but I do believe that this method leaves a lot to be desired, and here’s why:
Tethering in itself does not treat the underlying causes for behaviours, nor does it actively teach better behaviours. This is a concern because most people will see the recommendation in relation to questions on how to solve a current issue they may have with their dogs. And while the tether may prevent the problem for a while, it may pop up again as soon as the tether is gone, if the underlying needs that caused the problem in the first place have not been met in the meantime.
Tethering is frustrating. It is. For both the human and the dog. Especially if it is not accompanied by guidance towards a more desirable behaviour, or preceded by training to accept being restricted by the tether. Most guides, including those from trainers, I have seen may include a means of distraction while being tethered such as a chew, but offers no guidance as to what to do if this distraction fails to work, or instructions on how to gently introduce the dog to the tether. Mostly, tethering advice is constructed to train the dog in the situation, and not train it for the situation and build a proper foundation. This approach runs a risk of creating a confrontational situation as the human frustration level is likely to rise at the same speed as the dogs, and it creates a situation where the dog can be limited in its ability to learn.
Tethering, and other means of drastically reducing freedom, can inhibit learning and cause the dog to only generalise the desired behaviour to the tether. This can be a minor issue in house training, but a massive issue when it comes to mat work or calmness training, as the dog only learns to relax on the tether, but not in the environment it’s supposed to exist in for the rest of its life.
Tethering to objects can promote the exavt undesirable behaviours we aim to prevent due to increased frustrations levels. Tether your dog to prevent chewing your cables and you may end up with chewed up baseboards instead. Or he may simply chew the tether and walk away.
Tethering to a person is stressful for the human and the dog. The dog is forced to move when the human does, the human is forced to navigate with a dog around their legs all the time, which for most people is simply plain annoying, not to speak of the risk of accidentally stepping on the dog several times during the day. You deserve to be able to move around freely. So does your dog.
So is tethering all evil? God no. It has some uses, but I cannot recommend it as a training tool or long-term management solution for anything. It is a short-term management tool. Tethering can be necessary for camping, dog sports, working dogs, unfenced yards, emergencies, and other situations where the tether will enable the dog to safely take part in family activities. But these are also reasons why the tether should be trained – if the dog is not comfortable with a tether, these activities will be stressful and not very enjoyable for either party.
So how do I teach it?
I’m glad you asked because I made a guide for you! But first some ground rules:
Always tether in a harness. This will reduce the risk of neck injuries if the dog reaches the end of the tether. Get a harness with a safety strap if your dog is an escape artist, or consider other ways to manage your dog.
For unfenced yards, a high rope with a running line that is not long enough for the dog to get tangled is recommended.
Do not tether your dog unsupervised for long periods of time. Ideally, do not tether unsupervised at all, but accidents happen. Keep in mind that outside, unsupervised tethering is illegal in some places.
Always make sure the tether is safe, and avoid tethering unless there’s an unavoidable reason to do it.
Teaching the tether
Below is a short guide on how to teach your dogs to be tethered to a stationary point of attachment. Be mindful of not rushing the job to decrease frustration and boost learning. If you’re looking for tips on how to teach your dog to be tethered to yourself, any guide on loose leash walking that don’t rely on corrections and frustration will do, as the foundations are the same.
Get your dog used to a drag line. Aside from the recommended yard tether, most tethers will include a leash that runs on the ground from time to time. Attach a light leash to your dog and engage in a low arousal activity that requires some movement, such as sniffing out food from the grass. Make sure the leash can’t get caught on anything. When your dog engages in the activity with no hesitation, you’re ready to move on to the next step.
Teach the dog to give into leash pressure. Hold onto the leash lightly and apply just enough pressure for the dog to notice it. Pressure should only be applied for a fraction of a second and be ultralight. Release, reward, and repeat. As your dog begins to expect a reward for the pressure, hold on for a second and wait for the dog to move to get the reward. Reward the moment your dog shifts attention towards the reward. The goal is to create an automatic response to hitting the end of the leash. Keep up these pressure exercises until you see an automated response to the leash tightening.
Transfer steps one and two to a stationary tether. Tie the dog to your tether of choice. Make sure there’s plenty of room to move about. Let the dog sniff around for snacks and make sure they’re not outside of range. When your dog hits the end of the leash, wait for a second to see if the behaviour from step two transfers, then reward instantly. If it doesn’t transfer, encourage your dog to turn back into the tether range and reward. I prefer rewarding onto the ground for this, as it enables me to be a short distance from the dog.
Repeat these sessions until your dog safely roams the tether range.
Help your dog understand that when you step out of the tether range it is not the end of the world. This is where things get difficult. Most dogs want to follow their humans, and that is perfectly natural. But often when tethered, it is a choice we make because we cannot be right next to the dog for one reason or another. So the dog needs to be comfortable in the restriction. This concept is taught similarly to invisible boundaries, so if you want a brush up on that, you can click here. Step out of the range and toss a treat into the range for your dog. Walk around just outside the range and reward your dog for staying within the tether range. Slowly increase the distance and time you’re out of range to build up the behaviour. If he fights against the tether to come with you, you’re moving too fast.
This step is optional but highly recommended. Play food bowling with your dog when you reward him for giving into leash pressure. Food bowling is a great transitioning step from rewarding the dog directly, to rewarding him on the tether and it builds a fun association to the tether while not being a high energy activity. If you don’t know what food bowling is, check out this video!
Transfer the skill to other situations. If you have taught this at home, you will likely have to repeat steps three and four at different locations to generalise the behaviour, so please take some time to do this, before officially taking the show on the road.
Questions? Thoughts? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.