Loose Leash Walking
Loose Leash Walking
We have already discussed various aspects of walking skills from the leash and other tools, how not to use a leash, and what to do if your dog is developing leash reactivity on walks. We have talked a lot about walking! Walking on leash is such an important part of the modern dog’s life that it warrants plenty of talking.
This past week I worked with two different families who were quite confused about leash walking and what exactly their dog was “supposed” to do on leash. On TV and on the internet, you can find thousands of different perspectives on this exact issue. There are people showing off fancy heel walking, dogs walking on every type of collar and harness (many of which promise improved behavior), the list goes on and on. It can be overwhelming.
Here is my perspective on leash walking: the leash is a tool you use to keep you and your dog safe and within the confines of the law. It is not a steering wheel to direct your dog with, it is not a magic lead that will transform a hyper dog into a calm dog, but it is the tool of torture many people act like it is. Going for a walk with your dog should be fun! Are some dogs easier to walk than others? Of course! Is it okay to envy your neighbor whose dog seems to glide along right next to them while your pooch has his nose to the ground, yanking your arm right out of its socket? Sure! However, while you envy those individuals, realize that most people with dogs who walk well on lead put a lot of work into that dog or that relationship at some point (or got ridiculously lucky).
Heel walking is a behavior pattern that many people, specifically competition people, spend months and years working on. Heel walking is not intrinsically fun for the dog. Dogs have to be constantly taught and reinforced in order to keep a strong and smooth heel pattern. When a dog is heel walking, they are right next to their handler’s left side, almost touching, while looking straight ahead or straight up at the handler. The pooch can’t sniff the world, can’t look at other people or dogs, has to move at the handler’s pace, and be tightly aware of any stride or direction changes. No fun. This type of walking is not the way dogs exercise or the way they enjoy the world. Heel walking is a specific behavior, just like a “stay.” Most dogs do not know how to walk in heel position, no matter how short you keep the leash and how many times you pull them back into position and repeat the word “heel.”
We can absolutely teach a dog to walk in heel position, but it is a lot of work for you and for your dog. And in reality, if your dog can master loose leash walking, you will both enjoy your walk so much more. So what is loose leash walking?
Loose leash walking is a walk where you and your dog are attached to either end of the leash and the length between the two of you is slack, i.e. j-shaped. Your arm isn’t being wrenched all over the place, your dog’s neck isn’t being strangled, etc. All around, this a more comfortable endeavor. So how do we teach a dog to magically accomplish this feat? We use the same theories we apply to every other aspect of training: reward the behavior you want to see repeated and do not reward (or allow your dog to reward) other behaviors. Simple right? Not quite. The reason most dogs do not walk nicely on leash is because this concept sounds easy, but it is not so easy to follow through on.
Loose leash walking is one of the most popular reasons people call a trainer. It is always easier to train a puppy who has never been on a leash before to keep a loose leash, but that’s not what we are going to cover here. That process will be covered in a later article.
For dogs who have already been walking on a leash and pulling, here are a few very brief tips:
1. Get the right tools! (See: other tools)
2. Get yourself ready and choose the least frustrating time and place. I recommend your driveway after a good play session.
3. Do not plan to go far. Walking up and down your driveway for 45 minutes is still walking for 45 minutes.
4. Do not get mad at your dog.
Here is one good way to start teaching your dog to walk with you:
1. Tell your dog how wonderful they are and pop a treat into their mouth.
2. Take one step forward.
3. If your dog is still looking at you for another treat, give them one! Feed right next to your leg if your dog takes treats nicely. If not, you can drop a treat right next to, or behind, your shoe.
4. Take another step. Feed.
5. Repeat a lot!
6. Anytime your dog moves away from you, stop talking and feeding. If they don’t come back to check for a treat, turn and take a step in the opposite direction. As soon as your pup is at your side, praise and feed!
7. End the session after a few good, attentive steps.
Sound boring? Yup, it is! It is simple and not amazingly fun or cute (unlike other tricks) which is one reason many people don’t follow through and practice. While loose leash walking is not the most glamorous behavior, it makes your dog a much more enjoyable companion. Go ahead, try working with your dog for just a few days and see if you see a difference on your next walk! No more jerking them close and firmly saying “heel.” Simply feeding them where you want them and engaging with them on the walk will make walking much less stressful for both of you!
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator