Teaching Leash Walking Skills
Before You Start
How To Teach Loose Leash Walking
A well-trained dog can mean different things to different people but one foundational skill every dog should master is walking nicely on a loose leash regardless of what is nearby. Many owners have told me their dog walks nicely on a leash but there is often a caveat; unless he sees another dog, cat, rabbit, squirrel, etc… My definition of a dog that walks nicely on a leash is a dog that will stay connected to its owner and is under control "even if" another dog, cat, squirrel, etc…
Loose leash walking is different from “heeling”. Loose leash walking is just that; a dog that walks with, and next to you while not pulling, or putting tension in the leash. Basically enjoying a walk on a leash with you. Heeling is having your dog directly at your side with its attention on you. Heeling is used in competition and for times when you need your dog to focus on you for short distances to get by a distraction.
The training collars I use and recommend are all fabric martingale collars that do not have chains or buckles. My favorites are hemp and soft nylon collars. Martingale collars are used to give “direction”, not “corrections”. We ultimately want dogs to desire to be with us, not find us punishing.
When fitted properly they prevent the dog from backing out of the collar. For most dogs a proper fit is when the leash is tightened and the two metal rings touch and the collar is fitted just tight enough that the dog cannot back out of it. (Not choking them) Once the collar is fitted correctly it should slip over the head easily without the need to loosen to get on and off. For medium size dogs I use a 1” martingale collar, for larger dogs I like to use a 1 ½” soft martingale collar, and for extra large dogs with a 24” neck or larger I prefer a 2” wide soft martingale collar. Martingales collars should not be left on unsupervised dogs. Use a Break-Away or Quick Release buckle collar for your dog’s identification collar. With toy and small dogs I often just use a simple properly fitted flat collar as long as they cannot back out of it.
My preference is a standard 6’ leash but if you are working with a large dog a 4’or 5’ leash is acceptable for loose leash walking training as long as there is enough slack so there is no tension in the leash while walking. If working with a dog that likes to bolt just as soon as we start moving I will work with my 6’ leash shorten to minimize unintended corrections as can happen when a dog gaining momentum hits the end of a 6’ leash if we are not careful. I will also use a bungee leash to lessen any unintended impact with fast moving dogs.
I don’t recommend leashes with heavy padded or rubber handles. When holding a leash it should not look like we are water skiing. A lite leash permits you to feel where your dog is and sense the slightest movements.
Retractable leashes should not be used to walk a dog for a number of reasons. One simple reason is you cannot feel or sense the dog’s movements unless they are pulling but that is the least of the problems. It’s not unusual to have retractable leashes break when a larger dog takes off at full speed. There is no shortage of stories of people getting tangled up In the cord of retractable leashes and suffering cuts and burns as a result of the cord wrapping around a leg or other parts of the body. Another issue is a timid or fearful dog being terrorized and chased when retractable leashes were accidentally dropped.
One of the biggest problems with retractable leashes is that dogs learn to pull on leash since the dog learns pulling results in the lead extending. Do an informal survey. Look to see how many dogs being walked with a retractable leash have constant tension in the leash or are even capable of walking nicely next to their handlers without tension. My goal is for dog’s to walk on leash without tension.
Before You Start
If a dog is over-excited and prone to being out of control when taken for a walk it’s a good plan to engage the dog in games or other activities before the walk to reduce their energy and to make it easier for them to concentrate. Next give the dog an opportunity to relieve themselves so you remove one of the reasons for the dog being distracted and wanting to pull. To start it’s important to work in the least distracting environment to start. This may mean choosing a quite time of day or driving to a another location. It’s best to start the training on a sidewalk or other clear visual path since this will make it easier for your dog to understand.
Require self-control from the start. Don’t let the dog move forward unless they are exercising self-control. Meaning they will not exit the house or car unless under control and we have given them permission. Be careful not to move so fast that you are rewarding them for persistent. For example, as soon as we exit a door/gate I will often request they sit while I calmly shut and lock the door. If the dog is not a wild child I really don’t care if they sit as long as they wait patiently. If this means it takes 10-minutes for them to exercise self-control I take the time because soon the dog will realize that his persistence gains nothing. Consistency will result in a dog cooperating in a shorter amount of time as you continue to practice. Here is a great video from Suzanne Clothier covering the subject. Thresholds, Thresholds, and Doing Nothing
How To Teach Loose Leash Walking
If you have not done so already stop and watch the 14-minute video at the top of the page titled “Walking Nicely”. In this video I take a dog from the shelter and begin loose lease walk training.
8 Points of Loose Lease Walking
Use a standard 6’ leash
Start on sidewalk or other visual path
Stop & Turn BEFORE tension in the leash
Lower your hand below the dog’s neck
Gently pull your dog forward
Don’t turn around at the same spot more then 3 consecutive times
Don’t turn around after the same number of paces more then 3 consecutive times
The key with this technique is the dog learns to walk without tension. By turning around before there is tension in the leash and lowering the leash below the dog’s base of the neck, the tension will be on the side of the neck stopping any forward movement and now turning him around. Lowering the leash hand keeps the pressure of the collar on side and top of the neck not on the front of the neck. If we wait until the dog pulls the pressure is now on the front of the dog’s neck which is what we want to avoid. As we turn the dog around he is now in a following position and collar pressure will be on the top of the neck as we gently pull/lead him forward to the appropriate position.
Do not have any tension on the leash while moving forward unless you have given them permission to do so. (“Okay go explore”, etc…) but that permission must be given only after the dog has been under control for say at least ten seconds. (disassociation time)
The technique does not provide the dog any verbal cues since our focus is not managing the dog, but rather training the dog so they learn that they are responsible to keep track of us and they will need to catch up with us. The key being we want the dog to walk next to us and keep track of us with its peripheral vision much like us when driving with traffic. When the dog gets a distance out in front we can no longer see their eye, and the dog can no longer see us in its peripheral vision.
It’s important to give the dog feedback when they have walked nicely next to us for about 20 paces and then we can calmly praise the dog while walking nicely to let them know they are doing great. The 20 paces (approximately) is so that there is a disassociation time between the behavior we do not want (dog pulling to the side, or out front) and the correct behavior. This way the only thing the dog can associate the praise with is walking nicely.
For most dogs we can get about a 70% improvement in their leash skills in about 10-minutes. Often times we start with about a 20’ stretch of sidewalk. The dog will be great on that 20’ but as we move to 30’ the dog will almost always start to get out front again. Stay consistent to start and keep slowly going further, e.g. 40’, 50’ 75’ etc… Then switch to a different location maybe six in total so the dog will learn to generalize the behavior to everywhere we walk. The basic principle is the dog over-learning walking nicely. That doesn’t mean they will be perfect. It will require patience, consistency, and time to build good skills.
There are a couple important considerations. If the dog has no real interest in their owners it will make it much more difficult to teach the dog to stay near the owners. In these cases we must work on the relationship between dog and owner. Some dogs are fine staying with their owners as long as they are standing still, but as soon as the owners start to move the dog shoots out in front. I’m big on “permission” when working with dogs. Meaning I want them to sniff and have opportunities to explore. But it must be with permission. If the dog pulls to the side guide/pull them back to your side and release tension. (No jerking) Be careful not to reward persistence. Many owners make this mistake. The dog will be distracted and pulling and just as soon as the owner pulls/guides the dog back to where they should be they give the dog “permission” to move away, sniff, explore, etc… What they get wrong is there was not at least a 10-second disassociation time between guiding them back and then releasing them to sniff. The dog was likely rewarded for persistent, not being under control or cooperating.
If the dog is distracted by other dogs, cats, rabbits, etc… work them just outside their reactive zone. With some dogs this is 20’ and others its 100’. Just keep working in small slices moving closer as long as you can keep them under control and focused on walking nicely. If the dog just wants to “say hi” or “go play” with another dog and pulls toward them don’t reward their persistence, or accommodate their pulling by permitting them to pull or continue in the direction of the other dog or distraction. I will often parallel walk a dog near another but not allow them to greet. I keep them focused on the walk so the behavior they practice is exercising self-control around other dogs.
Many times owners must learn how to achieve control and cooperation in other areas to lay the foundation for resolving the reactive issues. If you have lost your dog’s mind and do not have full control of your dog start with this short guide; Finding A Balance, by Suzanne Clothier
Reactive dogs need the least distracting environments to start so it may require finding a controlled environment to start. There is no way to completely control the environment unless you have access to a private location. “Life happens” so I choose places where I can create distance if needed. I choose the best environment possible for each dog. Sometimes I start; in their own neighborhood, a quieter neighborhood, a park that I have several options to create distance from others if needed, and with some at a place where it was very unlikely we would ever see a dog.
The importance of teaching good leash walking skills is that a dog cannot be both walking nicely on a leash and be pulling, lunging, or barking, etc… at another dog. Dogs just like us cannot be both cognitive functioning and emotional/reactive at the same time. (Although they can quickly bounce back and forth) A dog cannot be both walking nicely on a leash and be aware of my location, and be pulling, barking, etc… at the same time. So “before” I see unproductive arousal from the dog I immediately change directions. (be unpredictable)
Once the dog has basically over-learned how to walk on a loose leash, practice the leash walking at a distance from other dogs making sure to stay outside the reactivity distance. This is especially important with highly excitable/aroused dogs. All with the goal to have dogs appropriately social with other dogs, so they are not reacting or struggling against the leash to get to every dog they see. The goal is to teach self-control in the presence of other dogs and people.
Relaxed dogs typically move from point A to point B at a trot (especially if “going somewhere” – even if that’s from the kitchen to the hallway!)
Dog + human – both are in different gaits. Most dogs cannot trot as slowly as the typical person walks. (Amazingly, many horses can and do trot as slowly as a human walks!)
Loose Leash Walking: Easier with Horses Than Dogs? Suzanne Clothier