Expert Dog Trainer Liz London Brings You A Simple Yet Effective Guide To Successful Loose Leash Walking.
Going for a walk with your dog is a great way for you to unwind from work after a long day. Taking in some fresh air, getting some exercise and enjoying a break from the four walls of your home office is great for both of you.
But rather than loose leash walking, what most of us experience is much different.
Puppies chew their leash.
Big dogs drag you down the sidewalk running after a squirrel.
Small dogs’ legs are fluttering a million miles an hour under their harness, without actually moving anywhere.
Slow dogs stop to smell the roses (and garbage on the street) for 15 minutes every step of the way.
And trying to walk two dogs? Forget it. You’ve got a mess of tangled leashes and you all end up on the ground together, right?
Loose Leash Walking Matters
Teaching your dog loose leash walking in public is incredibly important, yet it can be daunting to a new pet owner.
What makes it difficult is simply that you must take time to practice properly several times per week, with incrementally increasing levels of distraction for your dog.
So, if you want to learn the proper phases of loose leash training, you’re in the right place.
Loose leash walking isn’t just more comfortable. It’s a safety issue too.
Whether you have a large or small dog, teaching him to walk politely on a leash is critical.
If your dog jumps on another person, even out of excitement, it could seriously injure him or her, especially if that person is elderly or a small child that falls down or gets scratched or nipped.
If you do have a large dog, then you probably already know the dangers of being dragged forward abruptly when your dog pulls against the leash.
In fact, my own sister’s hand was broken after she was tried to brace herself from falling down a step while her dog suddenly darted after a neighbor’s cat.
That equated to four hours in the emergency room plus three hours looking for her lost dog around the neighborhood.
Not a pretty picture.
Let’s see if we can help you avoid a situation like this by walking you through (pun intended) the basics of loose leash dog training.
We’ll go over various techniques and loose leash walking tips so you can figure out which method works best for you and your dog.
Then we will go through a step-by-step guide for how to teach loose leash walking.
Finally, we’ve put together a troubleshooting list for common mistakes or complaints about difficult loose leash dog training situations.
Always Use Positive Training Methods
Dog training should be a positive experience, even if it can be overwhelming at first. Try to make it fun for both of you by using positive training techniques. This is the only overarching training technique we recommend for dog owners.
You see, some people will use tools such as pinch collars, choke chains and remote shock collars to prevent their dogs from pulling on a leash. However, the concerns brought up by recent research are that these “compulsion” training styles can cause big behavioral problems with your dog.
Some people claim that it speeds up the training process, but there is no evidence of it. In fact, there is evidence that suggests that dogs who are trained with these tools cannot behave appropriately when they are not wearing them.
Instead, we favor a style of training called positive reinforcement, which trains your dog to want to behave politely, no matter the location and no matter what collar they are wearing.
Don’t let the big words fool you. Positive reinforcement is simply when you reward your dog for doing something you like and ignore the behaviors you consider “bad” or unwanted.
Rewards can include food, special treats, praise and petting, playing with a favorite toy, etc.
In this post, we’ll be walking you through the basics of positive reinforcement style loose leash dog walking.
How to Teach Loose Leash Walking Step by Step
You can start this introduction to leash training with puppies as young as eight weeks all the way up to adult dogs. We start very simply.
Each training session should last only five to 10 minutes at a time and always end with a fun romp together.
Phase 1: Teach your dog to want to be near you.
Start in a safe, fenced-in area free from distractions such as other dogs, people and toys.
Keep a handful of irresistible treats in a closed fist hanging by your side.
While your dog explores the space, simply walk slowly around the area.
If your dog approaches your closed hand to sniff at the treats, open it for her to nibble on one or two. Then close it again and keep walking.
If your dog roams off again, don’t worry. Keep walking silently.
When she returns for another sniff, casually release another treat or two.
After a short period of time, your dog will stay close and keep sniffing at your hand to see if she can get more of those tasty treats.
The goal of Phase 1 is to simply let your dog find out that when she stays close to you, treats pop out of your hand.
Phase 2: Introduce your dog to the leash.
Again, do this exercise in a safe, fenced-in location like your backyard or apartment courtyard.
Attach the leash to your dog’s collar.
Let it drag on the ground behind your dog. She’ll investigate it and possibly even try to chew on it or pick it up and run around with it in her mouth.
As in Phase 1, walk in slow circles around your space, calling your pooch to walk with you. If she is so distracted by the leash that she won’t walk with you more than a step or two, try giving her a treat or two while you’re walking to take her mind off the leash and back onto following her human.
After a few sessions of Phase 2, your dog should be able to walk around the yard with you with the leash dragging behind her. She should ignore the leash completely, come to your side when you call her, and walk with you at least five steps before wandering off again.
Phase 3: Start limiting your dog’s range by holding the end of the leash.
Resume your lessons in the backyard with no distractions. This time, though, loop the end of the leash around your wrist.
Carry a handful of treats or one of these convenient treat pouches.
Walk around your yard, giving a treat to your dog while you’re walking every few steps. Give the treat down at your side by your thigh. The idea is to convey “being right here next to mama when she’s walking means I get treats!”
Otherwise, completely ignore your dog.
If he moves off and reaches the end of the leash, just stop walking until you get enough slack in the line to keep moving.
Over time, slow down the rewards to every 10 steps, then every 20 and so on.
Some people like to add the verbal cue “heel” to teach the dog to slow down or walk calmly on cue (if for example, they get distracted or excited).
By the end of Phase 3, your leash training should result in a dog that is ignoring the leash, walking close to you rather than running to the end of the leash constantly and looking up to you for feedback.
This is all in low-distraction areas like your yard. We’ll start leaving the yard and adding distractions later.
Phase 4: Practice a powerful recall.
To keep your dog from constantly running after every distraction and pulling against the leash, a strong recall is in order.
“Recall” is the official training term for “come back to me when I call.”
I find it much easier to walk a dog who will immediately look up at me when I say his name.
This way, if I see a major distraction coming up, such as another dog or a squirrel, I can “reset” my dog’s attention on me, in a way.
By saying his name and him looking up at me, it immediately relaxes and reassures the dog that “even though there’s something else going on up there, we’re still walking together nice and calm, buddy!”
Phase 5: Implement the “About Turn” walk.
The “about turn” walk gets its name from the military style of spinning 180 degrees in place and moving in the opposite direction.
It’s an abrupt change of direction that trainers have discovered works wonders with teaching a dog to pay attention to his or her handler while walking.
You might want to start this technique while your dog is off the leash until you both get the hang of it.
Walk briskly in one direction with your dog at your side. (Use a few treats to get his attention on you to start if you need to.)
Abruptly change directions and start walking the other way.
Do not call him; do not try to attract his attention.
You are not training him to come to you at this point; you are training him to believe that you are unpredictable and that he needs to keep an eye on you.
After you get the hang of it, try it with the leash in hand.
I personally like to add a subtle cue of saying “heel” or “hup” just before I make my turn.
This way, the dog starts to associate that little vocal cue with looking up for direction from mama.
Expert trainer Pippa Mattinson says, “The ‘about turn walk’ will only work if you apply it consistently for at least a month. You will find it impossible to go for a normal family walk whilst you do this, as it will drive everyone with you quite mad. The technique will only work if you do not take your dog for any other kind of walk for at least a month.”
Phase 6: Increase the distractions.
The final phase of loose leash dog training is an ongoing process for the rest of you and your dog’s lives together.
Adding distractions is the final phase of any behavioral training.
This means that you need to practice your walking techniques in various locations, gradually building to more tempting and chaotic situations.
Start from walks around your own neighborhood and then into parks where there are other people and dogs.
Practice in busy urban areas as well as seemingly calm countrysides, which will actually be full of fabulous new scents to distract your dog.
Practice indoors at pet-friendly stores such as hardware stores and raise the stakes by trying out pet stores, the ultimate frenzy of doggy distractions.
Remember that every time you increase the temptations around you, bring a handful of treats (or your clicker or a squeaky ball) to reward and motivate your dog to keep one eye on you at all times.
You can phase out the need for rewards gradually.
Troubleshooting Your Loose Leash Dog Training
What if my dog keeps jumping on me instead of walking?
You might need to go back to the basics of training your dog not to jump in general. We have a great article on that here.
In general, apply the same concepts of positive reinforcement by A) ignoring your dog when he jumps on you, and stop the walk. B) When he drops down on all fours, resume your walk.
My dog jumps on every person that walks by.
Practice the “polite greeting game” covered in detail here, and extend it to strangers coming up to your dog to pet him.
To start, have a few friends practice greeting your dog while you hold her on a leash.
They can only pet her when she’s sitting down.
When you’re in public and a stranger approaches, give your dog the sit cue before allowing the person to pet.
How do I stop my dog from marking his territory every few steps?
Adolescent male dogs naturally want to mark their territory frequently.
Practicing the “about turn” walk the minute you see your dog start to lift his leg is one way to curb the habit.
How can I prevent my dog from spending so long sniffing things on the street or other dogs when we’re supposed to be walking?
Training your dog to “leave it” to interrupt a distraction like a food item on the ground or another dog walking by is a great tool for advanced leash walking.
Again, the “about turn” technique can help, or add a cue to “leave it” as you approach a distraction while calling your dog’s attention to you and rewarding a look with a treat.
Tighten the leash and speed up your walking pace while you say, “Leave it.”
Once you get past the offending temptation, you can praise and reward your pooch even further with something that will be more exciting than garbage.
Loose Leash Walking Success
Lots of practice makes perfect in the case of loose leash training with your dog.
Take the European versus American comparison of this particular custom as proof.
I am American, and I have been teaching loose leash walking for over a decade.
I’ve also spent a significant amount of time in Europe–England and Italy specifically.
In both of these cultures, it is commonplace for pet dogs to accompany their pet parents all over town every day.
You’ll find dogs on buses, in subways, at stores and sometimes even in the dressing room of your nearby H&M–a little Pomeranian gave me quite the surprise one day, albeit harmlessly.
All of these dogs seem to completely ignore everyone else on the street.
Even when I try calling them to greet them in my customary American “Oh, so cute, can I pet her?” excitement, the dogs often stare at me like I’m speaking another language (in reality I am, I guess).
Compare this greeting in the United States, where dogs are mostly relegated to a life at home.
So, when they do go out for that 10-minute walk a few times a week, it’s a huge adrenaline rush.
In conclusion, I highly recommend taking a page from the European dog companion manual.
Bring your pooch everywhere whenever you have the chance.
They’ll be trotting alongside your shopping bags in no time.
Good luck teaching loose leash walking. I hope our guide has helped.
Liz London is a certified dog trainer through the Certifying Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) and the Karen Pryor Academy (Dog Trainer Foundations Certification) with regular continuing education courses from the top animal trainers all over the world, including Michele Pouliot, director of training for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. She has trained zoo animals; search and rescue canines; gun dogs; and helped people raise happy, healthy, well-behaved canine companions for over 10 years.
Resources and Further Reading:
Herron, M.E., Shofer, F.S., and Reisner, I.R., 2009, “Survey of the Use and Outcome of Confrontational and Non-Confrontational Training Methods in Client-Owned Dogs Showing Undesired Behaviors,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science