Teaching Leash Walking Skills
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Another important point is don’t let the dog move forward unless they are exercising self-control. Meaning they will not exit the house or car unless completely under control and I 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 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 If the dog is not a wild child I really don’t care if they sit as long as they wait patiently.
The key with this technique is the dog learns that tension turns them around so they are now behind you and now they need to catch up. Avoid allowing 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 is designed to not provide the dog any verbal cues so the dog learns that when they lose track of you they will need to catch up the opposite direction. The key being we want the dog to walk next to us and keep track of us with its peripheral vision. Much like us driving with traffic. When the dog gets a distance out in front of the owner they can no longer see its 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.
The reason for lowering the leash hand is to keep the pressure of the collar on the opposite 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.
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
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
More helpful information
Selecting Training Equipment
How Much Does Your Dog’s Cooperation Weigh?
Guidelines for Teaching Self Control
Understanding Thresholds: It’s More than Under- or Over-
Thresholds, Thresholds, and Doing Nothing
Training or Restraining?