The Ping-Pong Dog: Developing your Training “Chops”

My student’s dog lunges to the end of the leash, gagging a bit as his collar presses against his windpipe. His owner stops and waits, and within a second her dog moves back towards his owner’s side. The owner takes a step, clicks her dog for walking attentively alongside her, hands her dog a treat, and sighs in frustration as her dog immediately lunges out to the end of the leash again.

Sound familiar? This is a common scenario in training, especially with duration behaviors such as stay and loose-leash walking. Your dog clearly understands what behavior you want, but bails as soon as he’s received his reward. Not only does the click end the behavior, but your dog now seems to deliberately ping-pong out to the end of the leash as soon as the reward is delivered.

Photo by Nathan Rupert

Photo by Nathan Rupert

This is a frustrating problem, especially for a novice trainer who just wants her dog to walk nicely. It’s frustrating to have to stop and regroup every few steps of every walk, and meanwhile your dog doesn’t seem to be learning anything. If you have a large or strong dog, this just adds insult to injury since it can be physically difficult to stop moving forward when your dog pulls.

It’s at this point that inadequate trainers often switch to a “balanced” approach, incorrectly believing that the only way to get their point across to their dog is to correct the dog for pulling. They may begin administering leash corrections when the dog lunges forward, or may switch to a device that makes pulling physically uncomfortable such as a pinch or slip collar. Sometimes, this is the point at which a trainer will begin using negative rather than positive reinforcement, delivering low-level electric shocks to the dog any time the dog moves out of position.

All of this can be quite effective, if risky. It’s also completely unnecessary…. not to mention a bit unfair, as dogs do exactly what we train them to do. If your dog leaves after your reward, your dog is giving you valuable information about a hole in your training program. Bob Bailey is fond of saying that “the rat is always right,” which means that the animal you are training will always do exactly what you have taught him or her – nothing more, nothing less.

I’ll be the first to say that aversive techniques work. They wouldn’t still be around if they didn’t. And unlike some trainers, I don’t think every dog on a prong or remote collar is miserable or abused (although I certainly see enough issues with them that I don’t permit them in my training facilities). I also believe that we can do better, and I really struggle with the idea that the dog should pay for his owner’s lack of ability. If your skills are so poor as to make reward-based training a burden, do you really trust yourself to deliver fair corrections with good timing and the correct amount of intensity every time? All training requires a certain amount of skill, and if your skills are poor in one area of training it is likely that they could use some work in other areas as well. Don’t make your dog pay the price for your poor training.

So, how did you inadvertently teach your dog to become a canine ping-pong ball, and more importantly, how can you get him to stop?

In the next few weeks, we’re going to discuss just this question. There’s a reason why I can take your dog’s leash and have him heeling by my side, head up and attention locked on my every move, within just a few moments of taking his leash. It’s not magic, and you can do it too. Professional trainers have good timing, they’re good at setting criteria, and they reward frequently enough to keep the dog in the game. They also have good observation skills. These things are simple, and the good news is that you can develop all of these skills with a bit of practice. We’ll discuss each of these in more detail over the following weeks.

In the meantime, does this problem sound familiar? Where have you discovered holes in your dog’s training, and what did you do to patch those holes? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

18 responses to “The Ping-Pong Dog: Developing your Training “Chops”

  1. I am really looking forward to the next posts on this topic! I have just gone thru this with my young dog, a female labrador. She is now 11 months old, and is finally getting the hang of walking nicely on a leash. But it’s been a struggle. I am convinced that positive reinforcement is the answer, so I refused the temptation to use other means to achieve what I wanted. But it was hard! My puppy is very smart, and learns really fast. She had this ping-pong thing down after our first walk! What I did was to vary my criteria every so often. When stopping and waiting didn’t work I changed the criteria to come in and touch my hand target in order to get the treat. After a few weeks this became perfunctory, and I changed the criteria to sitting and looking at me before we could continue, etc. I am a beginner in training dogs, but my last dog was a retired guide dog. He never pulled on the leash, so I knew it was possible to achieve, and I knew what I was working towards. I just didn’t really know how to get there. I can’t wait to read the next few post! Hopefully I can use them when training my dog to pass areas where the cats hang out. She forgets all her manners when she gets a whiff of cat…

  2. With each of my goldens I have used a check chain and when walking I would quickly turn around, on the spot without warning and go in the opposite direction, whenever they started pulling. After a few times doing this, the message would get through. Then, after walking with a loose lead, I would give them pats and encouragement. If I used rewards then it seemed their focus would stay on the rewards, which would spoil the walk. My preferred restraint is a harness, but as I have got older I find I have more control with a check chain. I have had dogs slip out of ordinary collars. Joy

  3. It looks like magic when you see someone like Caesar Milan train dogs. Sometimes I think our “skill” is dependant on the dog and how determined they are to do things there way. I did obedience with my border collie and she picked up heel and come like magic. My cross breed is so different, none of the methods I had learnt worked on her. We did the turn around bit over and over, but as soon as I moved she would pull. My husband walks her now, he is a more authoritarian figure, something I am not, even when I try to be!

  4. very interesting subject I have a small terrier who pulls and chokes and a Aussie who wants to lead but if I correct him will come back. So interested to see info

  5. I’m in the same boat as many of the others here. My 20 month old Jack Russell Terrier is a Ping Pong Dog when on a leash. Although she does 36 other “tricks,” walking without pulling is one with which we continue to struggle. Can’t wait to read your next posts. Please start writing now! :-)

  6. Can’t wait for some more advice! My younger dog heels naturally, trotting nicely right behind me on whatever side I put her leash. I don’t even have to hold it, opting to clip her leash to my belt loops or messenger bag. My older dog, however, is always at the end of the leash. Not pulling hard, but just enough to be really obnoxious, and certainly not paying attention to the direction I’m headed. I don’t mind her being in front, I just mind the lack of attention and the constant but ever-so-slight tugs on my hand. We’ve made some significant progress, but there’s still a long way to go, and I’m always interested in slight modifications to her training which might be the breakthrough we need. It seems that no matter what I’ve tried, there is no reward greater than running off to the end of the leash, which is infinitely frustrating to me (and to good-dog, who has to bear with us while we regroup and try again).

  7. I love that you are blogging about this Sara. It’s something I have to teach pretty much every person I work with. I hear, “Well of course he behaves for you…” from my clients when the dog stops ping-ponging after a couple of minutes with me handling the leash. Then I have to patiently explain that I have NO special powers, and go on to teach exactly what you will be discussing in the future. SO MANY people struggle with this concept. YAY YOU, for writing about it.

  8. Awesome post, I look forward to reading more. My part-husky dog’s natural inclination is to be in front and pulling. Since I’ve started canicross with him, thus letting him fulfill his “will to pull” his pulling on our regular walks have seen a great improvement. He is able to differentiate the type of walk and what I expect from him based on what gear we use.

  9. Jaymie Derden

    Yes PLEASE! I am so anxious to read this series. My 17 month old labradoodle pulls like a freight train and weighs 84 pounds, so handling him is so hard. We’ve tried so many things including prong collars, gentle leader and harness. My biggest challenge is that when he is outside, he really isn’t interested in treats. The best way I’ve found to get him to focus is to hold his favorite ball — then he never takes his eyes off of me.

    • I’ve yet to find something that my girl finds more rewarding than whatever happens to be 6 inches beyond her reach. We could work this to our advantage if she were interested in getting to anything in particular, but she’s not. It’s ANYTHING. In any direction. The darting to the end of the leash seems to be its own reward, even if it means she has to stop, back up, sit down, turn around, whatever. She’ll dart to the end of the leash, then instantly dart back to my side and sit, staring up at me, ready to do it all over again as soon as I start to move. *SIGH*

  10. I had this problem with my Aussie Shepherd. I stopped the food rewards for getting back into a heel position. His reward now, is he gets to move forward (and praise). If he did start to pull, I would stop and not move off til he was back beside me, he soon learnt that for him to get to where he wants to go he musn’t pull. Nowadays he needs occasional reminders but on the whole is a joy to walk :)

  11. Why not teach touch and focus and the position you want them, next to your leg, first?

  12. I see this with clients a lot. I think it is because most are so stingy with the rewards, combined with the fact that they find it difficult to notice GOOD behavior. So if the dog IS in heel position, they want to see how far they can delay rewarding. Yes, this is the ultimate goal, but the dogs aren’t stupid, they quickly figure out that pulling gets their owners attention so they then NOTICE when the dog goes to heel position. Similar with dogs that jump – I have to continually stress that they need to notice and ACKNOWLEDGE when the dog approaches to greet them WITHOUT jumping! But the dogs are right, many don’t NOTICE … so the dog jumps, then sits politely for the treat!

  13. I can teach a dog to heel “by my side,head up and attention locked on me” but what kind of walk is that? Not very relaxing or much fun. I have taught my dogs, who walk ahead of me, to give to any pressure on the leash by either slowing down a little or if the pressure continues (usually because I’m standing still) they’ll look back at me. I also use verbal guidance-mostly “this way”, “wait” or “lets go” It does take time though, especially with adult dogs who have already developed the habit of pulling. Any ideas to speed this up would be very welcome.

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  15. I so agree with everything you’ve said in this post. It’s almost word for word what I tell my students when teaching loose lead walking. As soon as they process the information and start applying my instruction of “High rate of reinforcement, timing and position of treat delivery” their heelwork improves dramatically. Thank you.

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