Release Cues, Choice, and Environmental Indicators

Release cues can be different things to different people. I’m not aware of any official definition or description, but I do know what they mean to me and to Eloise. I share my explanation and approach with clients, and we discuss whether it works for them or if it needs adjustment.

An important part of the description for me is that it gives the dog choice. I describe it to clients as meaning “go be a dog”. In other words, do whatever you would like to do: sniff in the bushes, roll in the grass, pee, chase a butterfly, run around like a crazy thing or anything else you’d like. There are implied limits which have been developed separately. I work hard to remove all reinforcement from these behaviors and offer strong reinforcement for incompatible behaviors. Digging in the vegetable garden is an example. When I release Eloise, running over to dig in the garden is something I hope she chooses to avoid because we’ve worked hard on passing the garden without digging, and allowing digging as much as she wants in other places.

One can also use management strategies to put limits on what the dog is released to do. If you have a fenced yard, and you release the dog into that yard, behaviors are constrained by the physical limitations of the fence. That’s ok. Hopefully the yard is big enough for fun and contains opportunities for enriching activities such as rolling in the grass. I want the release to allow the dog to find something enjoyable. That’s where the choice comes in. If I release into a small, concrete kennel with nothing to do, that isn’t a lot of fun, and so the release word will not be reinforced.

I train the release cue as the opposite of a wait cue. Using a door as a management aid, I open it only a crack and click/treat if the dog stays seated. We then progress, millimeter by millimeter, with the dog learning that if she just sits there as the door open and closes, she gets handed treats (be sure the dog has had opportunity to relieve herself beforehand so you aren’t fighting that urge to go out). Once the dog is secure in her waiting behavior, I open the door fully and this time I give the release cue and use my own enthusiastic body language to encourage the dog to go outside with me.  At that point I walk off, allowing the dog to do what she likes.

For my dogs, doors opening becomes a cue to wait until released and that includes barn doors, car doors, garage doors, etc. I consider it a necessary safety feature for a dog to always wait for permission before blasting through a door into an unknown environment (such as cars or other dogs). This also includes going IN. This becomes valuable in what we Vermonters call mud season, when the walking surface of our world becomes liquid and that liquid gets transferred onto dog paws. Nothing ruins a day like opening your car door to get something and having your dog enthusiastically leap in leaving paw prints and belly smears all over the seat of your car. Here is a video of Eloise waiting to be released into the carHere is Eloise waiting to be released from the car.

At times I have found myself caught off guard when Eloise chooses to do something other than what I expected. Probably 350 days of the year, when I say “break!” (her release word) and I open a door, she responds by going through the door. But there are days, especially this time of year when an open door lets a frigid blast of air in, that Eloise chooses to do something other than go through that door. At the very least she backs up a step and looks at me as if to say, “thank you but I think I’ll wait a while”. I have to remind myself that her release cue means she can do what she wants! Knowing that she has a bladder of steel and we have a dog door into a safe kennel for her to use when she decides she really has to go, I have to respect her decision not to go out with me.

More recently, Eloise’s choice showed how strong environmental indicators are. She has learned that the last thing I do before I leave the barn in the morning is close the stall doors on the south side of the barn. Because one of my horses is very adept at opening the exterior stall doors, I close the interior stall doors for added security. That has become her indicator that I am finally ready to leave the barn and either go for a walk or go in  the house for breakfast. If the barn kennel door is open, I find her dancing behind me as I close the doors. She is ready! If the kennel door is closed, I find her dancing behind it, waiting for her release cue when I open the door. I go in and out of the kennel a lot during chores because it also houses feed and tools. She stays in on her warm bed until she hears those doors close.

I have been introducing Wilder puppy to the release cue. He is more curious and is out in the barn a lot if I leave the door open. That is fine because if the dogs need to be safe, I close the door. Door open means they are free to come and go. The other day I was practicing with him and when I said “break!”, Eloise did not budge off her bed. She knew chores were not over and given the choice, she was going to stay right on that warm bed! But once the stall doors had been closed, then she chose to leave the kennel. Even when it meant being swarmed by the little monster.

Always a good reminder that the animals tell us what cues mean. If it’s not what we think, then we have to adjust our training or our expectations.


Collar or Harness?

Eloise and Wilder on rope and off
Eloise, on the right, has earned the right to be collar and leash free. Wilder, on the left, is still learning and so wears a safety net of equipment.



And which one? Or neither?

There are many types of equipment that people use on their dogs. Harnesses seem to be popular these days and many people think they should use a harness instead of a collar because of the risk to a dog’s trachea from the pressure which may be applied when there is tension on the collar. This is certainly a concern worth taking into consideration but it isn’t the only concern, and harnesses come with their own issues. One which I see more often than not is that people try to leave a harness on an unsupervised dog who promptly chews it off.

As someone who also trains horses, I am all too familiar with the promises that this equipment will solve all your problems. The implication is that you don’t need to spend time on training, you just buy this thing.  No one wants to admit that they aren’t training and it seems that someone who knows all the available options for equipment is now considered a trainer when, in fact, they aren’t training anything, they are simply tying the animal down so they have no choice.

Choice in training is what positive reinforcement trainers strive for.

This similarity in the dog world has translated into a booming market for “no-pull” harnesses. These are advertised as tools which will stop your dog from pulling on you when you take her for a walk. Various brands function in different ways. Front-clip styles  are designed to redirect your dog from being able to drag you forward. Others have pieces which tighten on various parts of the dogs body causing discomfort if they pull.

Some designers of these harnesses make an effort to educate the purchaser about how to use the harness as a training tool, rather than simply a controlling piece of equipment for the lifetime of the dog. But not everyone reads the package or insert, or follows it or stays with it long enough to be effective.

I do believe those no-pull harnesses have a purpose, but I tell everyone that it should be a temporary solution and not every dog needs one. Because of the way these harnesses work, they can cause slow but long term damage to a dog’s body, as they pull her out of her natural position. Even harnesses which don’t claim to be no-pull can be irritating to a dog.  I have met a couple dogs this year whose people said they just calmed down when the harness was put on.  This could be the thunder shirt effect but seeing the body language of these dogs, I think it is more likely that they are just uncomfortable in them, even though they’d each worn the harness for years.

It is far preferable for dog handlers to prioritize training the dog to walk happily with them, using positive reinforcement methods. A handler who provides sufficient exercise (not necessary to take them on long hikes or chase balls for hours, even though they may like to do both of those), and other enrichment activities such as sniffing and learning, creates a bond with a dog. That bond is what keeps the dog with you, so that you don’t need the physical restraint. Leashes and harnesses or collars become a backup safety net, not the primary connection.

The times I find myself recommending a no-pull harness are when someone has gotten a full grown dog from a rescue, shelter or elsewhere and the dog has no leash training. If the dog is large and has the physical capability to risk the handler’s safety or to pull themselves free and be on the run, that requires equipment as a temporary management tool to keep everyone safe. When these dogs have just entered a new home, there is no bond to function as backup.  Equipment is the only option here but the handlers should immediately begin working with positive reinforcement to build that bond and training history. If people have the experience, they can do it on their own. If not, they should consult a positive reinforcement trainer (preferably before the dog arrives!) for assistance. [Dogs who come from unknown backgrounds do not exhibit their normal personalities in the stressful environments of a shelter and a dog who appears calm may be very different when moved again to a new home. Have your support system ready!]

This fall we had a new dog join our household. At approximately seven months old, he was close to full grown and had no leash training. But as a Jack Russell Terrier, he was small enough that he could not pull me over! I chose to use the same approach with him that I used with our other Jack, who arrived at over a year with no leash training. It was an experiment with Eloise seven years ago but I was really happy with the way it worked and have recommended it to anyone with a dog who does not have the risk of an untrained large size dog.

The backbone of the plan is that dogs learn environmental cues really quickly. Visual or contact cues from us or from equipment we use is an easy way to begin communicating expectations to a dog. I use both a collar and harness for different purposes.

The harnesses I use are not no-pull harnesses, but rather harnesses with wide fabric

Wilder, temporarily tied to a barn door, shows off the wide fabric of the underside of this harness.

specifically so that the dog IS comfortable pulling on it. Why in the world would I want a dog to be comfortable pulling? Because I want them comfortable in exploring their world. The harness goes on when we are going out to play, sniff, climb, dig, hunt and have dog fun. I attach a long rope to the harness so the dog or puppy has a large radius around me to play in. They can run or chase a ball; climb a snowbank or wade in water, all while I still have a physical connection. Inevitably they go around a tree or get the rope stuck in a bush or tall grass. I want the dog to learn persistence and learn that if they get a little stuck, they can just pull or push a little harder to get free. That way, heaven forbid, if the dog does get away and stuck somewhere, they don’t just sit down and give up.

At the same time, we begin working on loose leash walking on a collar. This begins in the house and with my pockets full of awesome treats. The dog has absolutely no desire to leave me in this situation so there is no pulling on the collar/trachea. Instead, the dog learns that when the collar and leash go on, those are CUES that we are going to walk politely right next to each other for treats. Over time, I can graduate to other rooms, the garage, the barn, the driveway, all for short distances and time periods. I make sure that the puppy/dog has had opportunities to eliminate before these outdoor collar-training sessions so that full focus is on me (I might do a long harness-excursion and then pop the collar on for a couple minutes just before going back inside).

Wilder stuck on rope
with the rope stuck on a piece of frozen ground, I encourage Wilder to drive toward me to release himself.

From here, a lot depends on your future needs for your lifestyle. Do you want to take your dog into town on a leash? Do you want to take your dog hiking with you? Do you take your dog to walking trails where there are people, children, bicycles and other dogs? Whatever your plans are for your dog, you will need to slowly introduce those distractions into your dog’s leash manners. If the leash is on, and you have trained your dog to focus on you in those situations, then a collar, in my opinion, is fine to use (please be sure there is a clip you can quickly undo to release a dog who may have gotten it caught on something which is a strangulation risk). You can train your dog a cue that allows them to stop to pee on a bush or sniff in the grass, but they should be ready to come right back to you, ignoring all other dogs, people and other distractions as long as he is on that leash.

Wilder on rope down roadIf your life is more like mine: a rural existence with large spaces away from busy roads and no other people or dogs, maybe you can do off-leash walks. I know off-leash is verboten with some trainers, and I can understand that in some environments. But in our area, most people have their dogs off leash far more than on leash. Taught a rock solid recall while still living on the long rope, the training must include lots of practice being called away from distractions unique to each dog. Hounds need lots of practice being called off scents.  Terriers need practice being called off small critters. Herding breeds need lots of practice being called away from livestock or anything which moves (like vehicles!) With solid training for these situations (which should only occur infrequently), I think off leash walks with dogs are idyllic for all.

I even take it one step further and my terriers do not wear collars if there is not a leash or rope attached to it. This is because they love to go down holes after small animals and it is too easy for a collar to get caught on a root when they try to come back out. Stuck there, where no one can see them, it’s a horrible end. Microchips allow us a way to identify a dog even if they don’t have a collar on. Certainly the intention is to have your dog in sight at all times, but for those just-in-case scenarios, I feel it is safer to be without a collar than with.

Whatever you choose, the important thing is to educate yourself about the pros and cons of your choices, and that you leave choice in the life of your dog.