Loose leash walking is one of the most challenging behaviors for most dogs to master. There are a lot of reasons why: For one thing, dogs generally like to walk at a faster pace than we do. They also have an opposition reflex, which means they instinctively push against pressure – in other words, when they feel the pressure of a tight leash, instead of backing off they pull harder into the pressure.
It doesn’t help that the environment around us on walks tends to be overstimulating and more interesting than we are.
One note: “Heel” and “loose leash walking” are not the same thing in most situations. Teaching a “heel” (where the dog stays in position right next to your side, focused on you the entire time and matching your pace) is wonderful and can help loose leash walking as well. However, it does take a lot of time and effort, and most dog parents want a more casual loose leash walk (meaning the leash stays slack and the dog is not pulling against it). So when I refer to leash walking through this post that is what I mean.
In the first part of this blog post, we covered choosing the right equipment. This is vital to successfully getting your dog to walk nicely on the leash. But there are a few training plans you can follow to teach your dog that staying close to you and keeping a slack leash is a better option than dragging you down the street.
Make Your Side a Magnet
My mantra when teaching loose leash walking is “Make your side a magnet.” You want your dog to automatically return to your side on a consistent basis. You can make this happen by catching good behavior (walking next to your side) and making sure the treat happens in the spot you want your dog to walk. Where you feed the treat is vital here – if you give your dog his or her treat in front of you, that is where they will gravitate as you walk. If you deliver the treat right next to your leg, that becomes the spot they keep coming back to because that is where they have a reinforcement history.
Don't Reward Pulling
One of the biggest mistakes I see people making when walking their dogs is continuing to walk when their dog pulls. If your dog wants to walk, moving forward at all is rewarding – if you move when your dog pulls, you are rewarding pulling on the leash. Instead, stop and plant yourself when your dog pulls, and only move forward when there is no tension in the leash. This can take a lot of time and patience but, when combined with the other training techniques mentioned, the pay-off is worth it. For some dogs, changing direction or taking a few steps backward can also be helpful, but be careful that you are not pulling too hard on your dog’s leash as you do this – just turn and walk, don’t drag or yank.
Many dogs pull simply because they want to explore the interesting things around them. You have to make focusing on you more rewarding than the rest of the world. Use high-value rewards at first (cut-up hot dogs, chicken or cheese usually work really well for this exercise) and start in a low-distraction environment to help your dog be successful. Reward your dog for any eye contact, whether they offer it on their own or you ask for it with a cue. Once they get the game, add in more distractions.
I also like to give dogs a cue that allows them to go sniff or explore their environment when they are being good. For example: they sit and look at you, you tell them “go sniff” and allow them to explore for a few minutes before calling them back. (Make sure to reward coming back to you so they don’t just want to sniff all day!)
My basic routine for starting loose leash walking is this: I stand still with the dog and wait until they focus on me, click or yes to mark good behavior and give them a treat next to my side. I repeat this a few times, then try to take just a few steps forward. If they stay close, I mark the good behavior, reward and repeat. Over time, the rewards are spaced out until they can be faded to low-value treats like kibble or given very infrequently.
Teaching loose-leash walking is never a quick process. For most dogs, the “wrong” behavior here is so rewarding that it takes a lot of repetition and practice for the behavior that we want (walking nicely close to us) to become reinforcing enough to replace it.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.