Our goal with this plan is not to teach dogs to walk in a heel position or turn our walks into military marches but rather to teach the dog to walk with us on a loose leash. Walks should be a time to sniff, explore, and for dog and human to enjoy one another's company rather than a struggle during which you are connected to your dog only by a length of fabric. To achieve this, we need to show our dogs what it is we want and remind them (and ourselves!) that we are out on a walk together.
Keep in Mind …
Find the walking equipment that works best for you.
This means a leash that feels comfortable and sturdy in your hands and a secure harness or collar that fits your dog well. We do tend to prefer harnesses to collars simply because they are (usually) more secure, less likely to risk injury to the dog due to distribution and location of force, and provide the dog with more body awareness. For leashes, stay away from retractable leashes and look for a standard 6 foot leash that feels good in your hands. If you do choose to use just a collar, purchase a martingale rather than a traditional flat collar which dogs can easily slip out of.
Set your dog up to succeed before the walk even begins by establishing calm leashing and door behavior.
Be warned: this takes patience and consistency to establish but is well worth it, we promise! If your dog begins jumping when it's time for leashing, stop and wait for them to stand. If necessary, turn away until the jumping stops. If the jumping begins again, repeat. An excited jump or two to express enthusiasm about the walk is fine (and cute and fun!) but your goal is to have your dog stand with four paws on the ground for leashing.
Now, ask for a sit at the door. If this is way too difficult to begin with (you have a seriously turbo jumping bean on your hands and you are both getting frustrated), it's okay to begin with asking only for four paws on the floor and build up to a sit as you and your dog are ready. If you have your sit/four paws on the floor, start to open the door. If your dog starts jumping or darting forward, close it and reset. Repeat this step as necessary until you can open the door and exit together.
Don't Allow Pulling
Seriously. Dogs pull because it works. If your dog pulls, stop moving forward. You can prompt them back to you by making a kissy noise or, if that doesn't work, coming down to their level. Other tricks are shuffling your feet, gently stroking your fingers up the leash towards you, or making a silly (but non-threatening) sound. Once the dog comes back to you, tell them "Yes," in an upbeat voice and begin moving forward. As soon as the pulling starts again, repeat. Initially, you may repeat this a lot. Read on for ways to help scaffold this process and make it easier!
TIP: Handling the Leash
When handling the leash, we want to communicate to the dog that we are working together while allowing them to make choices. Holding the leash too short does not allow the dog to make any decisions or learn desired behavior but rather relies on physical strength to control the dog. Giving the dog the full length of the leash, however, puts the dog too far away from the handler for effective communication and safe use of space. We find using an 8-15′ leash and then giving the dog varying amounts of that leash leads us to the best success.
Too often we rely solely on the leash to control the dog, forgetting that we should be keeping the dogs interested and connected with the handler, even as they explore the environment. Use your body language, voice, and even training games to remind the dog that you are working together. Make sure you are rewarding eye contact any time a dog checks in with you. If you are no longer able to get the dog's attention, it is time to re-engage.
Get to Know the Premack Principle
See this great photo illustration by Lili Chin here: https://boogiebt.com/2010/06/30/the-premack-principle-boogies-leash-pulling/. You can use the "Premack Principle" to reinforce both leash skills and connection. When your dog wants to go a certain direction and starts to pull, stop, come down to his level, and call him back to you. Once s/he engages and puts slack in the leash, walk forward towards what s/he wants to sniff/investigate together. You can reinforce this even more by joining in the exploration – "Oh, is that a tree? Cool!" At first, s/he will often immediately pull again when you start moving forward – stop & repeat and know it'll get easier with consistent repetition.
Practice your loose leash walking skills in easier, lower distraction environments.
You can do this with or without a leash in your house or fenced yard and can also work on a long line (30-50 foot leash). Invite him/her to walk along next to you (should be no tension at all in the leash or long line for this) and reward him/her with treats for doing so. Prompt the occasional sit or other known skill as you do this to keep him/her engaged and make things more interesting – you can also vary your pace and direction. Integrate those skills and pace/direction variations into your neighborhood walks too!
So How Do We Do It? – Loose Leash Walking Techniques
Technique 1: Be a tree
This means exactly what it says. If the dog starts pulling, the walk stops. When the dog puts slack in the leash, the walk resumes. So if you are walking and your dog pulls out ahead, stop and wait. It may take 5 seconds, or (and this is where your patience may be tested), it could take 5 minutes. Timing and consistency are key: the second your dog puts slack in the leash, you start walking again. And the second you feel or see tension in the leash, you stop and wait. Again and again. It may take a couple walks for your dog to figure out that pulling makes the walk stop, but if you practice the tips above to keep your dog engaged and interested in you, pretty soon you're off and walking again.
While practicing "Be a Tree", we recommend keeping your walks very short and close to home, and practice in low-distraction areas. Don't hike five miles from home and then try to practice this technique when you're in a hurry to get home. If you get too far from home or need to speed things up, try one of the techniques below.
Technique 2: Change direction (frequently)
This technique allows the handler to scaffold the dog by putting the slack in the leash for them. Rather than stopping when the dog pulls, turn and walk in a different direction, at an angle to the direction you were headed. We find a zig-zag pattern works well, where you head in a direction for a few steps, and then angle off at a 20-45º angle in a slightly different direction. This puts the dog behind you and gives you the opportunity to move forward while rewarding them (maybe verbally, maybe with treats) for walking on a loose leash. If the dog starts pulling again, change directions more frequently or randomly.
Technique 3: Stray dog
This technique keeps the dog on his/her toes and more engaged with the handler. Vary your pace and direction so the dog has to anticipate your movement and work harder to stay with you. Maybe cross the street randomly, or start running for no reason, or zig-zag for a while, or double back the way you just came. This keeps your dog guessing and the walk (and you!) immediately becomes more interesting.
Technique 4: Creating patterns in walk
This technique is derived from Leslie McDevitt’s simple pattern game, “1,2,3 Treat!” By establishing a specific walking pattern that ends in a repetitive reward, you simplify the often difficult task of loose leash walking for the dog.
Leash Skills for Humans
It takes two to pull, and sometimes just a little finesse from the human can go a long way. Practice these techniques to take your training up a notch:
Instead of simply allowing your dog to hit the end of the leash, creating an inadvertent jerk on the leash, you can allow the leash to slide through your hands to create a nice slow stop for them: https://boogiebt.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/slowstop2.gif.
Stroking the Leash, or “Mime Pulling”
This is a TTouch technique where you again slide the leash through your fingers, but you’re putting a little more friction on the line so you create a clear signal that the dog should follow you in a certain direction: https://boogiebt.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/mimepulling.gif. Keep in mind that you are not just mindlessly stroking the lead. Only stroke the leash when you need to signal to the dog, and as soon as the dog takes a step in the direction you wanted, leash the tension in the line.
This is a nice video of Grisha Stewart putting all this together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaA8n_6fBsc. When handling a shelter dog you just met, beware of sticking your arm through the leash handle. If you needed to let go quickly, you would not be able to do so and you risk injury. Instead, stick only your thumb through the handle, and lock the leash in your hand. It’s still just secure, but a lot safer for you.
1. I can't decide which harness to buy!
Solution: The most important features when choosing a harness for your dog are comfort, fit, and security. It's not a bad idea to purchase a few different models to try on and return the ones that you don't choose. We do love the security of the Freedom Harness as well as the good old fashioned step in harnesses sold at a low cost at many pet stores. While Easy Walk Harnesses are popular and relatively easy to put on, they are not secure and can cause issues with a dog's shoulders and chest muscles. If you choose to use one (we use them with some dogs too!) we recommend double clipping that front clip to your dog's collar (you can use a strong carabiner clip to do this if you find double clipping with just the leash creates tension in your dog's neck).
2. I am stopping when my dog pulls and trying to get his/her attention but it's not working.
Solution: You're not alone. The early stages of loose leash training can be frustrating and difficult for both dog and human, especially if the pulling behavior is something that's been practiced. Your dog WILL eventually check back in with you. Use the attention getting tips in number three above and wait your dog out. If you are only getting millisecond check-ins at first, lengthen and reinforce them by using treats (immediately "Yes!" and offer a high value treat while you've got that focus, following with verbal praise for as long as your dog stays tuned in to you) or try engaging in one of the pattern games below to reconnect with your dog.
3. I'm really giving this my best shot and I want it to work but I'm frustrated and I'm afraid that's hurting our success and my relationship with my dog.
Solution: Put those neighborhood walks on pause for right now and focus on step five so you and your dog can build success in lower distraction environments. You will still be getting the mental enrichment and skill work of a walk and can balance out any potential lost physical exercise with some great games of fetch, tug, or play with a flirt pole. When you are succeeding in the lower distraction environments, start building your neighborhood walk back up slowly. If you can only do a block right now, do a block. Then two, adding on as you and your dog are able to succeed in each new distance and duration.
4. Is it okay if my dog wants to stop and sniff/pee on stuff?
Solution: Yes! That doesn't mean you can't ever urge him/her to move on but somewhere along the way, we humans forgot that dog walks were supposed to be fun and that they're really about the dog! Dogs experience much of the world through their noses and making sure they get to do so is not being permissive, it's being kind and understanding what matters to dogs.
Tip: Loose leash walking is often treated as one of the "less serious" issues dogs and humans may seek training help for but we know this is an every day experience you share and that getting it right matters. It impacts your relationship and can turn what should be an enjoyable experience into a frustrating one. Remember that dogs do not naturally walk in a boring straight line at a consistent pace. They follow their noses! If you stay in tune with your dog and use the Premack Principle outlined above ("Yes we can sniff that but let's do it on a loose leash TOGETHER!") to reinforce connection and behavior you want, it will go a long way towards helping you and your dog get on the same page.
Extended Learning: The exercises below will help reinforce your dog's handler focus and the connection you have and are relying on to make loose leash walks a success. You can also use them to re-engage with your dog when you start to lose them while out on a walk together.
1. Leslie McDevitt's Pattern Games (reinforces handler focus, diffuses tension & redirects focus): Play simple pattern games to increase your dog's focus on and engagement with humans. Start with the up/down game where a treat is dropped directly in front of you on the ground. When your dog takes the treat and looks back up at you, mark with a “Yes!” and drop the next one, repeating to create a simple engagement pattern. When this is too easy, start playing the in/out or ping pong game by tossing the treat further away and marking with a “Yes!” when your dog reorients and looks back at you, repeating to create the same type of engagement pattern as with up/down. –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mtn-BeI9lHE
2. Reinforce ALL Handler Check-Ins (reinforces handler focus, makes it easier to get dog's attention when you need it): Any time your dog checks-in/looks at you while on a walk, mark the behavior with a “Yes!” and reward him/her with a high value treat. You can also prompt your dog to check-in by making a kissy noise, waiting until s/he does, and then rewarding him/her with a “Yes!” and a high value treat. Once this is a natural behavior that is occurring regular on your walks together, you can fade the frequency of the treat rewards to be intermittent.
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