Loose Leash Walking

Leash Your Dogs!

The skill of “walking on a loose leash” is not a terribly complicated skill, but it’s a challenging one for dog owners.  Google “no pull dog” and you'll find a huge variety of “solutions" and equipment from the reasonably humane to the downright barbaric.

“Walking politely on a loose leash” isn’t as simple as it sounds, and it’s clearly a universal problem for many dog owners.  If you break it down, it actually involves a few different behaviours:

1.  “Polite” by definition is “having or showing behaviour that is respectful and considerate of others”. For dogs this might look like:

  • not jumping on any humans they meet;
  • not grabbing the leash;
  • not barking at dogs or humans they see;
  • not barking at the unknown; and
  • not playing or trying to play with dogs they meet or pass by.

2.  “Loose leash” itself needs further definition by each individual owner. Do you mean:

  • loose always;
  • loose unless you’re excited and/or need to pee/poop;
  • loose and by my left side;
  • loose and by the side I tell you but that might change;
  • loose and in heel position; or
  • loose but you can add tension when you need or want something like to sniff or pee or change direction?

In order for your dog to be truly successful “walking politely on a loose leash”, we need to be clear on what we’re expecting and to train for that.  It isn’t simply “keep the leash loose”.

The equipment you use to walk your dog plays a part in the final leash walking behaviour too.  If you use a flexi lead (extendable leash), your dog needs to add tension in order to get the leash to work.  That’s a non-starter right there – you will never be successful teaching your dog not to pull when pulling is the only thing that they can do to successfully use their equipment.

If you use equipment designed to stop your dog from pulling entirely like a face halter (halti) or more punitive equipment that makes it uncomfortable or painful to pull, you aren’t training loose leash you are simply creating a situation in which pulling is less likely to occur.  No actual training, or at least not the training you intend, is taking place.  Again – a non-starter in terms of actual training for a loose leash.  You can’t claim that your dog has been taught to walk on a loose leash if they have no choice – remove the equipment, change the behaviour.

The “polite” part of the equation needs to be addressed too.  All of the things mentioned above fall under the category of early socialization and continued socialization.  If dogs are uncomfortable with, fearful of, or overly aroused by other things in their environment like you, their equipment, other humans, other dogs, or even the unknown, then you need to address these things too in order to be successful with any training for “loose leash”.

If you’ve ever had a dog who pulls on leash, it seems like every other dog you pass by walks like a dream and you are the only one struggling with your dog!  How do they do it?  The fact is that there are those dogs who are just naturally confident, very friendly and have a high threshold for arousal, frustration and fear.  These dogs are pretty laid back and teaching them to walk on a loose leash isn’t terribly difficult. 

As trainers, we are seeing less and less of these kinds of dogs and more and more of the challenging dogs.  On top of that, we are seeing more and more dogs being brought into homes than ever before.  There are a lot of dogs out there all of a sudden!

So, what can you do?  Let’s start with looking at puppies and early training.

Puppies and leash walking – It’s all about the early socialization.

The number one thing to remember about raising a puppy is that you don’t need to focus on physical exercise in the early days, you need to focus on socialization.  All the points listed above in the “polite” definition are things to focus on at an early age in an effort to prevent or minimize any of those behaviours as your dog matures. 

One other aspect of socialization is to help your puppy be comfortable wearing the equipment he or she will need to wear on leashed walks throughout their lifetime:

  • collars
  • harnesses
  • leashes and tethers
  • coats, boots, etc.

The more comfortable your puppy is wearing his equipment, the less this becomes an issue out on a leashed walk.  I meet far too many dogs who hate having their equipment put on and yet every day somebody puts it on them, anyway, and takes them out for a walk.  This does not help make walking on leash a positive experience for your dog nor does it help your overall relationship with your dog.

To ensure you know how to properly socialize your puppy, find a trainer who has experience teaching puppies, has a good group class or private options and has a good support network to help you all the way through the social maturity of your dog.  Far too many trainers and training companies seem to assign the most junior trainers to teaching puppy classes.  In my opinion, this is an area where experience is of the utmost importance. 

Helping a client raise a puppy is all about preventing future behaviour issues, recognizing possible issues early and coaching people appropriately and creatively through this critical period. Look for these trainers if you get a puppy – credentialed education listed, current and ongoing continuing education listed, a good number of years of experience in the business and good testimonials and references from other clients.

A basic leash walking exercise for a puppy.

The best way to teach leash walking for puppies, is to start without the leash in a safely contained area. This “following” exercise has you marking and rewarding your puppy in the position of a loose heel so puppy gets lots of repetition and reinforcement in the position of loose leash walking before the leash becomes part of the picture.

With your puppy loose in a small, contained area:

  • Begin walking around the area with your puppy;
  • Mark with a verbal “Yes!” as soon as puppy catches up and reaches your side;
  • Immediately offer your treat right in front of his nose, feeding it right beside your leg; then
  • Carry on walking and repeat as soon as puppy finishes his treat and catches up to you.

This is a great beginning exercise for puppies.  You can (and should!) do it right in your living room.  It’s very simple and easy for your puppy to quickly understand and be successful at. 

As puppy gets the idea that being at your side is what gets the treats, you can begin marking and treating puppy for staying at your side at each step while you walk around the area:

  • Take a step, mark, then treat at your side and repeat

Keep your sessions very short – one minute or less – before taking a break for some water, play or potty.  Repeat this simple exercise several times each day.  Make sure you do this exercise on both the right and the left, in different sessions, so your puppy is comfortable walking on either side of you.

You can do this same exercise when your puppy is on leash too, but as much as possible do these sessions in the same types of areas with little or no outside distractions going on so there is no chance of tension on the leash coming into play.

Change leash tension into a cue to return.

Of course, puppies are still going to get excited and rush forward and put tension on the leash when you’re in different environments with them.  Be as proactive as possible and teach your puppy that tension is actually a cue to return to you – not a cue to put their whole body into pulling forward.

Our response to tension on the leash is important and it needs to be consistent.  As soon as you feel tension, you need to stop moving, ask your puppy to come back and mark and treat as soon as they do. It can’t be about getting there; it can only be about helping your puppy learn how you want them to walk with you in the future.

Try this simple exercise to teach your puppy about leash tension.  With your puppy in his harness and leash and treats in your hand:

  • Put a treat in front of your puppy’s nose, apply a light pressure to their leash/harness in your direction and lure him towards you;
  • Mark and treat as soon as puppy starts to follow the treat;
  • After about 5 repetitions, without putting a treat in front of puppy’s nose, add slight tension and see if your puppy immediately responds by coming toward you. If he does - Yay! Mark and treat generously!  If he doesn’t, repeat the luring steps 2 or 3 more times and try again without the lure.

Practice in different areas around your house and yard/deck before venturing into new locations.  Always go back to the luring step when your puppy is too distracted to respond.

Anytime tension happens, call your puppy back to you in exchange for a treat and reset the exercise.  Ensure the treats you have match the environment.

Wearing equipment is no big deal.

As mentioned above in this article, learning to be comfortable wearing equipment should be an early first training focus too. 

A simple beginning exercise is to mark and treat your puppy for investigating the equipment as you hold it out for him to check out.  If he seems inclined to want to bite or play with it, Mark and treat as soon as you present it to keep him from rushing over and grabbing his harness or leash. You can also lay the equipment on the ground so it’s less active and not dangling enticingly. 

Next, work on putting the equipment on them:

  • With treats in one hand and his harness in the other put a treat in front of his nose and lure his nose into the neck of the harness, feeding treats while you move the harness over his head and then off his head.  You aren’t putting the harness on at this point you are only helping him get used to the feel of it coming over his head and off.
  • Work each stage the same – harness over and laying on his body, then back off all the while receiving treats.
  • Next is putting harness on, clipping it up and taking it off – all while eating treats.
  • Keep working at various stages making sure that your puppy is still looking engaged and happy to be working with his harness. If his tail is tucked and he’s backing way, then take the steps more slowly.
  • The goal is to be able to present the harness and have your puppy happily put his head into it and stand while you fasten it up – anticipating the generous pay out of treats.

Note that it’s important to work not just on putting equipment on but also on taking equipment off.  I think that taking off equipment is worse for dogs as most of it goes over their head and catches on the backs of their ears.  Take your time to work through these things with lots of treats and training so your puppy is very comfortable and able to hold still easily while you get him dressed for his walks.

Puppies learn quickly so spending the first weeks with your puppy teaching him important skills like this will have a huge impact on future successful walks.

What about when I’m not training?

Remember that your puppy is always learning when he or she is awake, so in a sense you’re always training even when you think you’re not!  However, here are some suggestions when you feel you just have to get there or there’s just too much fun stuff going on and things are getting frustrating for you and for your puppy:

  1. If it’s a pee break, give your puppy a cue to potty and let him go where he needs to go within the length of their leash, temporarily ignoring the tension until he gets the job done. The cue to potty will indicate to your puppy that the issue at hand is that, not working on leash walking. 
  2. If you encounter something super interesting that makes your puppy want to get there faster, stop moving, and ask your puppy to come back using a treat at his or her nose, if necessary, and reward generously while you keep your distance from the distraction.
  • This is now a socializing moment – letting your puppy watch the human, dog, squirrel or novel object while having a treat and standing calmly on a loose leash.

Because puppies are always learning and every experience is a “first” in the beginning, keep in mind that if you occasionally let them pull you over to humans, dogs or other things, those moments become very impactful and will register in a much bigger way than if an adult dog pulled in the same circumstances.

If you’re worried about not being able to socialize your puppy because you aren’t going for long walks on leash, don’t be.  Socializing is all about teaching your puppy or dog to be comfortable and happily tolerant with all the things that are part of your life: different environments, surfaces, objects, sounds, sights, people and other animals. 

It’s not important that your puppy be touched by humans or interact with dogs in order to be socialized to them.  Being in very close proximity to strangers or other unknown dogs more often than not results in puppies jumping up on them which creates bad habits that you will need to fix in the future.

Socializing is taking place while your puppy is taking direction from you and learning what to do when he is out and about with you on leash.  Take your puppy many places in your car, stop and get out for some time on leash in many different environments.  Every place you go, every human and dog that walks by, every fire truck that speeds past, every surface you walk on is associated with the fun training and delicious treats you are handing out during your training sessions.  This is socializing done right!

If at any point you simply can’t get your puppy’s attention, always remember that distance is your friend.  Move further away or find a different location with more space until your puppy has better skills and the ability to follow direction in increasingly distracting areas.

Here is a great multi-part video that has all of the steps above clearly demonstrated with links to each part of the video listed in the general information below the video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUG_J7mIHvc 

(Many thanks to Emily Larlham and her fantastic YouTube channel “Kikopup Dog Training” for her generous, free video offerings and great training tips!)

What if you don’t have a puppy but your dog pulls on leash?  Good news!

All the same training exercises noted above can be done with dogs of any age and are just as effective and valuable to do.

If you have a new older dog or have never mastered leash skills with your existing dog and want to finally solve this issue, you can start at any age.  All the exercises work well, and all the same rules apply. 

You just have to be consistent and be aware that progress may take longer with an older dog than with a puppy.  Much like training a puppy, the more training you can do in your home or yard and other areas of very low distraction, the faster the overall progress will be. 

If you’re worried that your older dog won’t get enough physical exercise, don’t be.  Train frequently and every day in order to make some fast progress.  He may temporarily get less exercise while you train but he will be just as tired as if he was getting the same level of exercise – in fact he will likely be more tired – thinking is very tiring!  If you’re worried about calories, then use the calories for training instead of meals.

Once you have trained some solid leash skills, you can much more easily get back to the level of physical exercise you prefer and go any place you want to go with your dog.  It’s worth taking the time to train right, then to try and train sometimes but let bad habits linger and get reinforced at other times. 

You will never be successful if you randomly reinforce behaviour that you don’t want your dog to display – like occasionally letting them pull without appropriate redirection.

Make your walks enriching for your dog, strengthen your bond.

Once your dog is an expert leash walking partner, don’t forget to help keep his walks fun and interesting.  The ideal walking partner is one who is excited to be out walking with YOU, not just excited to be out.

  1. Break out of your usual routine, frequently, by going to different parks, neighbourhoods, even different municipalities for your walks.
  2. Find interesting objects to go around, jump up on, walk along like boulders, fallen trees, low benches and rock walls – do a low-key version of “doggie parkour” to keep things interesting.
  3. Scatter treats in the grass or hide treats in rock and tree crevices for your dog to find as you investigate a new area.
  4. Give your dog plenty of opportunities to merely stop and sniff as long as he wants.
  5. Surprise your dog by pulling out a tug toy or a new squeaky to play with or carry for a while on his walk.
  6. Arrange a meet up with friend as a fun surprise for your dog.

Have fun working with your dog and remember – keep it positive and keep it fun for both of you!

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