Loose leash walking is one of the most important yet least understood and utilized skills a dog owner employs. Do you own a dog? Does it pull? Have you ever seen an owner walking his dog, being pulled from pillar to post? I would venture to say yes. Ninety-five of the dogs I train pull their owners during the entire walk. I’m not talking about an occasional lunge or strain to get to a wanted object. I’m talking about constant pressure between the owner and the dog. I’m talking about sore shoulders, owners going down from the pull, then dragged if they don’t let go. I have trained hundreds of these dogs and found that the great percentage of them do not pull at all or very little when I have the proper equipment and use loose leash walking technique. Usually, it is the owner or walker alone who is responsible for teaching the dog to pull. Often it is the walker’s desire to control or dominate the dog which is at the root of the pull. The walker uses jerking or pulls on the leash in order to “correct” (actually punish) a perceived aberrant pull by the dog. The act of pulling is taught by the owner early. The dog learns that it will be pulled by its owner as a matter of course. Some theorize that the dog is trying to get away from the punishment meted out by the walker. There seems to be an overwhelming desire in humans to control the dog by pulling or jerking it during the walk. The pull is just part of being on the leash for the majority of all dogs in America. I find when I have the proper equipment, upon opening the door for the walk, often with dogs I just meet, the vast majority of the dogs will not continue to pull after a few feet of loose leash walking. After I take care of a few basics, I will give specific training techniques to ensure your dog learns to walk close to you without pulling
It is important to have the proper equipment for your dog walk. That does not include a retractable leash. In fact, one of the chief causes of a dog pulling is the retractable leash. The moment the retractable leash is attached the dog feels the pull. It is the spring action of the leash. Even if it is slight, it is constant. The dog gets accustomed to the pull because of the ever-presence of the pull. It seems harmless but in fact, the pressure is a settled condition. The dog also learns to ignore the walker. Dogs, like all other mammals, have the emotional need to go forward and seek. The dog is preoccupied with the environment in front of them, with no apparent regard for the owner. Owners perceive they have a happy dog walking unencumbered, but this is just not the case. What they have is a dog walking under constant leash pressure with a walk characterized by ignoring its walker. This abdicates the owner’s leadership. It is when the dog gets to the inevitable end of the leash that the real trouble begins. It is fair to say that dogs have no sense of measurement, therefore, if they are interested in something in front of them or begin to run toward something, they have no regard for the end of the leash. They really don’t know nor care how long the leash is. If the dog has a running start, the pull can be extremely hard. Depending on the size of the dog and the odd shape of the handle along with a lunge, the walker loses control of the leash and drops it and this can be dangerous. The dog is free to go after the object of the lunge which can be disastrous to the dog or the object of the dog’s interest. The retractable leash appears to give a dog freedom and solve the problem of pulling, but neither is true.
Now that we have discussed the wrong, let’s talk about the right equipment. As for the leash, I recommend a 6 foot cotton training leash. This will provide enough room for the desired exercise and training. Six feet is enough to give the dog freedom of movement without pulling. Anything shorter will limit the movement of the dog and will set up a pulling situation. We want the dog to have freedom of movement and the owner to proceed when the dog does not pull. The dog will learn through loose leash walking that it can only proceed when it does not pull. This will become clearer when we discuss loose leash technique. I also recommend cotton for the collar for the dog. The reason I recommend cotton for the collar and leash is because cotton breathes, therefore it is cooler for the owner and dog and more comfortable with less chance of burning as it slides against the skin. Cotton is a lot easier on the skin than nylon. Nylon is rough and burns the skin more readily. The collar should not be too loose or too tight. Just tight enough so the dog can’t slip it and loose enough that the dog is comfortable. That usually means a two finger play between the neck and the collar. This should be the right fit.
Now that we have the proper equipment for our loose leash walk, let’s focus on the dog as it relates to the purpose of the walk. There are several types of walks; the Business walk, the Heeling type walk and the most important Seeking walk. Usually dogs will relieve themselves during any kind of walk, but in the case of a business walk, we might not have that much time, so a cue can be given and easily learned by the dog for the dog to do its business. Praise or a treat should follow the elimination. These walks usually occur when time is limited. The longer Seeking type walk allows the dog to seek and sniff pretty much where it wants to for however long it wants. This walk is characterized by the tenent that it is the dog’s walk, but we are in control. Depending on time restraints, the dog should be able to sniff and discover at its own pace. If the owner, wants to move on, the dog can be cued by saying, “This Way” or “Com’on”in a happy voice. I can say without hesitation that in my years of dog training a scant few dogs do not respond to these particular cues. Sometimes a “hurry up” or a similar phrase will work. A sound can be used to get the dog’s attention with the cue to move on to follow. These walks should be casual and fun for the dog. This will increase your fun in knowing your dog is enjoying the exercise and bonding that takes place. Control and leadership are established by setting out the course and then allowing the dog to dictate the exact spots covered. As long as the dog doesn’t pull, everything is fine. The arm should be loose and relaxed and move forward at every chance. So many walkers find ways of shortening the 6-foot lead by either wrapping it around their hand or body or pulling upward. The hallmark of the walk is that the dog gets to go where it wants, as long as it doesn’t pull. This takes finesse and technique, There are also heeling type walks when you want your dog close to you because of training goals, dangers, objects, people or some other reason. For obedience or teaching your dog to heel, these walks should be for short periods and extended slowly. Remember, the dog learns incrementally. Let patience be your guide.
During the 1930’s, BF Skinner was the innovator of operant condition and reward-based learning and training. Bob Bailey, Marian Breland-Bailey and Keller Breland continued his tradition. But today it is Karen Pryor who is the greatest proponent of clicker and reward based training. The following is an adaption of an article devoted to loose leash found on Karen Pryor’s invaluable website, clickertraining.com. If you do not know how to or do want to use a clicker, you can use praise or a voice marker and then a treat to reward your dog.
- Put your dog’s leash on and just stand still. When your dog releases the tension on the leash, click and show him the treat in your hand. Let him see you place the treat on the ground by the outside of your left foot. Once he’s eaten the treat, move to the end of the range of the leash so it is taut and stand quietly. When he moves to release the tension, click. Show him the treat and place it by your left foot. You don’t care about eye contact. What you are teaching is that releasing the leash tension gets clicked and treated. Do this a number of times.
- Continue to stand now that your dog is not pulling. Now you will click for eye contact. After the click, treat by your left foot. Remember after he has finished eating the treat to move to the end of the leash. Click and treat three times for looking at you while on a loose leash.
- Again, just standing with your dog on a loose leash, looking at you, toss your treats right past your dog’s nose to about three feet away. When dog eats the treats and comes back to you looking for more, click and treat by placing the food by the outside of your left foot. Move and repeat.
- Again toss the treat right past your dog’s nose. When your dog finishes eating it and turns around to come back to you, you turn your back and start walking. (Just take a few steps in the beginning.) When you dog catches up to you, but before he gets past your pant leg, click and treat. Repeat.
And here you have it, Loose Leash Walking