“Take your dog on a walk,” they said.
“It will be fun,” they said.
Walkies can be a fun experience for both human and dog, but it’s not something that happens automatically (not usually, anyway). Loose-leash walking is the ultimate in calm, rewarding daily walkies, but it’s an experience your dog needs to learn. The only way they can learn this is if you communicate to them in the right way that this is what you want from them.
What is loose-leash walking?
Loose-leash walking is when your dog’s leash – connected to their collar or harness – hangs down in a ‘J’, with you holding onto the long end of the J. There is absolutely no tension on the leash and your dog is walking next to you, either in line with your knees or just slightly ahead of your legs.
Unfurtunately, all that most dog owners know is a dog who pulls on the leash, making dog-walking a rather unpleasant obligation that usually ends in embarrassment or resentment… and a sore shoulder. It appears as if the only dogs who can be walked on a leash are either too small to yank your arm out of its socket, or so impossibly well-trained that they must belong to some secret dog school or be too scared to put a paw out of line.
There is no secret.
And if there was, it’s all about consistency and patience (and treats, but we’ll get to that). Loose-leash walking comprises a complex set of skills, which are surprisingly easy to learn. It’s not just about walking your dog, it’s about building a bond – a relationship based on trust; one in which both dog’s and owner’s needs are being met.
Why does your dog pull on his leash?
A dog who pulls on his/her leash is responding to two cues:
- He has somewhere to be and he’s learned that pulling as hard as he possibly can on this thing that tethers him to you, is the only way to get there. He pulls because he’s learned that it works – essentially, because you let him.
- Opposition reflex. This is a dog’s natural resistance to pressure. If you (gently) push against your dog, he will naturally lean into your hand. If you pull him towards you, he will naturally pull away. Opposition reflex doesn’t explain compulsive and excessive leash pulling, but if you don’t correct leash pulling early, opposition reflex becomes the catalyst that leads to your dog’s pulling habit.
BUT: Leash pulling is not the problem.
Your dog’s problem is that he’s not focused on you.
A successful dog walk is one in which your dog follows your verbal and non-verbal cues throughout the whole walk. You don’t need to be constantly talking to him or commanding him; but given enough consistent training, your dog will know that what you really want from him is to walk to heel.
Your dog wants to please you, so by communicating this clearly and consistently enough, your dog will learn that good things come to dogs who walk to heel. When he’s focused on you, he’ll know to do what you do – a sudden change in direction, a complete stop, or not reacting to dogs, people, and cars going by, are good, and will make him a Good Boy.
How to train your dog to stop pulling on the leash
Loose-leash walking is a skill that needs to be trained, but it’s not about the leash and it’s not about the walk. It’s about building a bond; building trust and relationship. It’s not about dominating your dog, but about mutual respect – you give him what he needs (clear communication) and he gives you what you want (obedience).
There are some tips below to help make these training steps a lot easier. Read on.
Step 1: A treat for eye contact
Clip your dog’s leash to their collar. Their instant response may be to start walking! But just stand still. Your dog will eventually look at you to see what you’re doing or why you aren’t moving.
Reward them for the eye contact. Give your dog a treat and/or say a peppy “Yes!” and start walking.
Step 2: Leash tension = STOP/change
Be consistent about which side of you your dog should walk on (usually this is on your left side, giving treats with your right hand). At the slightest tension on the leash, either stop and wait for your dog to look at you, or suddenly change direction and say your dog’s name and give the ‘come’ command. Don’t ask them to follow you, but make a decisive direction change so they are forced to follow you (without yanking on their collar or causing any kind of pain).
Change of direction.
And as soon as they are in position (on your left side), lavish praise on them and/or give a well-deserved treat.
If they aren’t ‘getting it’, break the steps down even further. Teach your dog that leash tension means they’re not going one step further. Stop dead still. When your dog stops and looks back or up at you, reward him for focusing on you, and only start walking again when he’s focused on you. To help him keep focused on you, keep a treat (or toy) in your hand and make sure he knows it’s there.
Step 3: Change direction
While walking calmly, before there is any leash tension, change direction suddenly and give the ‘come’ command. When your dog complies, say “Yes!” and treat for his obedience. Walk for a few metres, then change direction again suddenly with the ‘come’ command and say “Yes!” when your dog complies. This unpredictability will motivate your dog to stay focused on you so that he can better read your cues and stay with you when you change direction.
Remember: this will help him to focus on you – the loose leash is just the consequence of the focus!
Practice makes pawfect
This may be a quick explanation, but training loose-leash walking can take months for your dog to achieve. Some dogs may be a quick study, but if leash pulling is an ingrained behaviour in your dog, he first has to unlearn an essentially instinctive behaviour and then relearn what you want from him. It’s up to you to persist and pawsevere until it clicks and he learns that walking next to you, keeping focused on you and not pulling ahead are what gets him a positive response from you.
Make sure that everyone who engages with your dog or walks with him performs the same training methods. It doesn’t help putting in all the effort of training him, only for a family member to walk him and let him pull again. Just one rewarding pull could negate any and all progress you make in the meantime.
- Training sessions should be short and fun. Three or four short, fun sessions per day will be more successful than one long, potentially frustrating session.
- Set your dog up for success. Reward the smallest positive responses – things like him making eye-contact, taking a step in your direction, stopping/changing direction immediately. Work on the smallest increments of success until you’ve got a calm dog who’s focused on you, walking next to you with a loose leash.
- If your dog is too hyperactive to focus on you during training, tire him out first with a vigorous play session to get rid of some of that energy. If he is more toy-motivated than treat-motivated, use the above training steps, but instead of a treat, reward him by letting him grab a special toy. Reserve that toy for training sessions only, to increase its value!
- Start training somewhere where there are no distractions – such as in your backyard, or even in your house. Only when you’ve successfully got your dog to walk with a loose leash will it be time to upgrade the training to an area where there are distractions (like other dogs, people or traffic).
- Never scold, punish or get visibly frustrated with your dog. Simply ignore the unwanted behaviour and start again, or end the training session with a positive win (even if it means rewarding your dog for obeying the sit command before you end). Remember, it’s about building trust and relationship, and no relationship should be built on frustration.
- Combine treat rewards with a positive praise: “Yes!” Sometimes just used the “Yes!” praise without giving a treat. It will have the same positive reaction in your dog’s brain and he will feel like he’s being rewarded. If the treats come unpredictably, he’s more likely to stay focused just for the possibility of a yummy reward!
- When your dog pulls, just stand still. By taking even one step in their direction, this teaches him that if he wants to get from A to B, all he has to do is pull. Standing still tells your dog that pulling doesn’t work. Don’t ‘pop’ the lead or do anything that hurts or punishes him. Just stand and wait for your dog to look back at you, make eye contact and see why you’ve stopped.
- If your dog walks with a harness, clip his leash to the front clip on the harness. This discourages pulling, but it’s not a shortcut to stopping your dog from pulling on the leash. He still needs to be trained to focus on you and walk to heel (next to you).
- Read our article on Collars vs harnesses to make sure you are using the right equipment when training or walking your dog.
To see loose-leash training in real time, watch behaviourist videos on YouTube and see how many of their methods you can try, to find what works for your dog.
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