Why You Need an Agility Leash Routine

australian shepherd looks up at owner holding leash
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Taking off and putting on your dog’s leash seems like a pretty basic skill. It’s probably one of the first things our puppy or dog learns when they come to live with us. But this seemingly simple activity became a struggle for my dog in the agility ring. Find out why this skill is so crucial and how to develop an agility leash routine that works for you and your dog.

Why Is Leash Off and On So Important in Agility?

One of the first things you do when you enter the ring is remove your dog’s leash and/or collar. And the last thing you do is put the leash back on before exiting. How your dog feels about the leashing going off and on bookends your performance. 

Taking off the leash helps set the tone for the rest of your time in the ring. Leash removal can be an opportunity for connection and clarity, or a potentially stressful, confusing moment. And leashing back up can either be a part of your team’s flow or a point of conflict before you finish. This is why this seemingly minor task can be so important.

When I noticed that my dog Ruby was showing signs of stress around the leash, I decided that had to change. For me, it was unacceptable to begin and end our runs with something that created yucky feelings for my dog. I want my dog to be enthusiastic and participatory in every piece of our agility routine.

What Does “Leash Stress” Look Like?

Not all dogs might be stressed about the leashing coming off and going on, but mine certainly was.

I first became aware of her stress by reviewing videos from past classes and trials.. So what did I see that tipped me off?

For my dog, I saw some pretty classic stress and avoidance signals. Here’s a video showing just a couple examples of her behavior during leash on and off moments in the ring.

When it was time to remove the leash, Ruby exhibited some very common stress indicators: sniffing the ground, licking her lips, looking and moving away. I don’t want to see uncomfortable or confused body language from my dog in the ring. I want her to be happy, focused and confident.

And when it was time to put the leash back, you can see she was even more uncomfortable. Pulling away from me, hesitant to come over, looking away and licking her lips. This is really not a good way to end a run. 

For other dogs, the signs might be similar to Ruby or totally different. Look for any of the common stress signs such as yawning, scratching an itch, lip licking, turning or backing away, avoiding coming towards you, or sneezing. And remember, stress signals can be subtle.

Why Every Handler Should Train a Leash Protocol

A leash protocol is a routine that is trained for both leash removal and leashing up. 

If your dog is showing signs of stress around leash events in the ring, I believe it’s absolutely necessary to build a leash protocol. 

However, even if your dog isn’t showing signs of stress, I still think there is great value in developing a routine. 

Many teams can get away without actually training the leash removal. But why not solidify your dog’s understanding of the procedure and inject more clarity into your setup routine? Instead of just going along with the leash removal, wouldn’t it be cool if your dog actually enjoyed it? Having a trained protocol can be a confidence boost for you both as you step to the line.

Where things can really get dicey without training is when it’s time to put the leash back on. If you don’t have a trained protocol for this, your dog might be avoiding you out of stress, like my dog was in the video clips. Or he may be gunning for the exit where he knows the reward is located. Or she might play catch me if you can, dodging away from you or going back onto the course. After a great run, it really doesn’t feel good to have a conflict with your dog over putting the leash back on.

A leash protocol eliminates stress, confusion or frustration for you and your dog and sets you up for success with clarity and teamwork.

Creating A Leash Protocol That Works for You and Your Dog

There is no one-size fits all method when it comes to a leash protocol for agility. Think about your specific team and what might suit you best. Consider what you want your dog to actually do when you take off and put back on the leash.

Take your dog’s energy level and personality into account. Something more active might be good for a dog that does well with some reving up. Or something more stationary and focused may suit a dog that can go over the top.

Leash Removal Ideas

If you have a small or medium sized dog, maybe have them put their paws up on your leg. That way you don’t have to bend down so far or hover over them, which might be stressful. The paws up could be fun for your dog too.

Perhaps you’d like your dog to maintain eye contact with you in a standing position, as you take off their leash.

Maybe your dog can wiggle their head out of a martingale slip lead on a cue.

Or your dog does a sustained nose target to your leg while you unclip their collar or leash.

Leashing Up Ideas

Your dog could jump in your arms at then end of the run and you leash them up while holding them.

Perhaps your dog can run to the leash and bring it back to you. This is great for dogs that enjoy retrieving and tugging on their leash.

Maybe your dog comes to your side and you run to the leash together. 

Or your dog does a few hand touches as you move together to get the leash.

I’m a big fan of your dog putting their own leash back on. For this reason, I like to use a martingale slip lead, where the collar and leash are one piece. This allows the owner to hold the collar open wide and the dog can stick their head through.

If you’re competing in a venue that allows collars, you can also just reclip the leash to their collar. Put some thought into how your dog can participate in that process. Maybe they rest their head in your hand while you clip the leash on. Or they push their collar into your hand to make it easy to clip.

Remember, we want this process to be something you and your dog do together, not something that is done to them.

My Leash Protocol

My current leash protocol is as follows: as soon as we enter the ring, I ask for a hand touch, just to get some movement and energy going. Then I reach to the top of her neck and expand her martingale slip collar so it’s nice and loose and Ruby wiggles and backs out of the collar. Once our run is over, Ruby comes by me, I say “let’s get your leash” and we run to the leash. If it’s on the ground, she will run over to it and prance around until I catch up. If it’s not within her sight, such as on a chair or on a stand, she will run with me to find it. Then I pick it up and hold the collar open as wide as it can go, and present it to her, which is her cue. She sticks her head through the collar. My hands don’t move towards her, she moves towards me and into the collar. Then we exit the ring.

Changing the Leash Picture

Because Ruby had such a history of stress when it came to the leash, I decided to change the leash picture from the standard clip on leash I had been using. That way she wouldn’t be predicting anything related to the leash as stressful. My plan was for her to learn how to put on and remove her own collar/leash. This led me to get a martingale slip lead.

Before I even showed her the martingale leash, I bought a huge nylon collar. I took my time shaping her to stick her whole head into the big collar, all on her own. My hands stayed still and she was rewarded for coming towards me and the collar. Once she was shoving her head all the way into the collar, I was unbuckling the collar, instead of pulling it over her head. That way I could separate those two behaviors.

When we did move onto removal, I started first by just touching the top of the collar and rewarding. Then built up to sticking a couple fingers under the collar. At this point, she naturally shifted her weight backwards, just a bit, which I heavily rewarded. We grew that behavior until she was moving backwards and wiggling all the way out of the collar. Again, my hands stay still and she does all the moving.

Then I started combining the leash on and off behaviors. So she would stick her head through. I would reward her from my hand . Then I’d hold the collar and she’d back out. I would toss a treat. And we’d repeat that a few times. You can see that game here:

Finally, I introduced the martingale slip lead and started all over with the process. The good thing was that since she was already familiar with the steps from the nylon collar, the slip lead was much faster.  

Adding in Context

Once those behaviors were fluent, I added in some context so that the leash on and off can hold up in an agility environment. 

For taking the leash off, I set up some ring gates at home to practice the removal in a slightly more formal way. This let me insert the leash removal into the flow of our ring entry routine. 

Then to add some context for leashing up, I first trained Ruby to seek out and move towards her leash with me when I say “let’s get your leash.” This started super easy, with the leash on the ground 2 feet away and then built up to much longer distances.  

From there, we added in putting on the leash once we ran over to it.

Then I added in some work between the leash coming off and the leash going back on. So, enter the ring gates. Leash comes off. Do some easy tricks a small distance from the leash. Give my “let’s run to the leash together” cue and leash back up.

I also layered in my delayed reinforcement training, so that I didn’t have to have rewards on my body. This makes the context more realistic to an agility trial, when we can’t have reinforcers on our body. You can see an example of that here:

At this point I brought these little games to an actual agility ring. Since Ruby already knew how to play, this was all easy and fun for her. She knew exactly what was going on. First I stuck with easy tricks during the work portion, and then did very short agility sequences.

Increasing Distractions Surrounding the Leash Protocol

Taking your time to work up to full courses is the smart way to do this, in my experience. My dog is usually much “higher” mentally after completing a fast, twenty-one obstacle course than doing a jump and a tunnel. Helping our dogs understand the leash protocol as we gradually increase the level of arousal will make the leash behaviors much stronger. 

This is also true of the leash off routine. I wouldn’t go from teaching this in my living room to expecting my dog to maintain criteria at a busy trial.

Consider how to add in distractions gradually, so that your dog is successful every time. The presence of people, other dogs, noise, a judge, a ring crew, etc. can all be layered in strategically.

It’s also really important to add in delayed reinforcement here. At a trial, your reward will be placed somewhere outside the ring. Our dogs need to understand how to leash up knowing that their reward is available shortly.  We don’t want our dogs blasting out of the gate or hopping the fence to get to it before we leash them up. If you need some help in that area, I wrote a post all about my experience teaching a delayed reinforcement routine.

Keep the Leash Protocol Sharp

From time to time, I will still play some leash off and on games at home and in the agility ring. And I’ll also periodically reward her for the leash removal and leashing back up while training in class or on my own. It’s good to put some money in the bank for those behaviors.

I’d love to know your own experience with leash routines! How does your dog feel about the leash coming off and going back on? Do you have a leash protocol for agility?

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