How to Train Loose Leash Walking

Do you have a stiff achy shoulder?

Is one arm longer than the other?

Are the muscles in one arm bulging and well developed?

If so, you are probably suffering from a common syndrome found among the dog owning population called Dog Walker Dysfunction.

Though no tiny purple pill has been developed for this problem, it is possible to deal with it effectively no matter the age of your dog. Take heart. Help is available.

Do you feel like you are on the other end of this leash sometimes?

As with all dog training, there are many approaches to this problem and I have found that the most rapid progress is made when combining several approaches.
But first, look over an earlier post entitles “Top Three Dog Training Problems and Solutions.” In the post I mention three important concepts:

  • Dogs do what works
  • Practice makes perfect
  • Train an incompatible behavior

Referring to these concepts will guide you through many a dog training issue. So how do they relate to walking on a loose leash?

Principal #1: Dogs Do What Works

But how could charging ahead and pulling you zigzag down the street while strangling himself possibly be working? Simple. He is getting to go where he wants to go and you are merely tagging along for the ride. For all he knows, you could have been replaced by a couple of cinder blocks, because he never checks back to see whether you are even there.

Principal #2: Practice Makes Perfect

How has that practice been going? Has he perfected the lunge and drag technique? Chances are he has been practicing this with you for a very long time. It tends to sneak up on us because we don’t generally mind it very much when they are cute little puppies. The 80 pound behemoth pulling your shoulder socket out is not nearly as cute.

Principal #3: Train an Incompatible Behavior

Training him to check back with you often and to focus on you goes a long way to correcting this problem as well as putting “let’s go” on cue.

Principal #1 tells us that we should make this pulling, tugging and lunging no longer work for him, but how exactly do we do that? There are several ways.
First, you could simply refuse to move until there is slack in the leash. We are not technically aiming for a formal “heel” at the moment. We just want there to be no tension in the leash. If there is tension – stop. If there is slack- walk. If you are consistent about this, since dogs do what works, they will figure it out. And what happens if you need to get somewhere quickly? Three choices: run like crazy, thereby maintaining slack in the leash, or pick them up and carry them. Another approach would be to use a piece of equipment that controls the problem, but is not training. This should only be used as a stop gap measure.
Principal #2 tells us “practice makes perfect.” If they have been practicing this pulling and tugging for a long time, then it is also going to take a long time to replace this with a new habit of walking nicely. In the meantime, you may want to use a piece of equipment that will save your arms and help you control your dog until you are able to go on loose leash walks for some distance. Just as you would never ask a dog who is just learning “stay” to hold that for long periods of time, it would not be fair to ask them to hold a position close to you for long periods in the beginning. After all, that does take a certain amount of attention and awareness of us that they are not used to. I would recommend a head halter or an Easy Walk  harness where the leash attaches on the chest strap. This is a very different style from many harnesses that have a ring on the back where the leash attaches. These are only effective in teaching your dog to pull very effectively. But if the leash attaches on the chest, it is very difficult, though not impossible, for them to move forward easily while pulling. They tend to swing themselves around, and they are not keen on walking backwards or sideways. Remember that these are methods of control and are not training. But with the help of this specialized equipment, we are not allowing them to practice and perfect the pulling.

Principal #3 tells us that we need to train an incompatible behavior.  Consistency is the stumbling block here. Sometimes WE just want a walk. You have two options. First, you can only practice loose leash walking at the end of your regular walk, assuming that he is tired by that time. If he is tired, he is more likely to succeed. And we always want to set them up for success, so practicing this after he is tired works well. Using a different piece of equipment also makes it clear that you are training. So you might use a different leash. You could use a twenty foot training lead at the beginning of the walk and then switch to a 6 foot leash for the actual training portion of the walk. You also need to decide on two different “cues.” I use “free” in a happy tone when I want them to know that I am not asking for loose leash walking. I use “let’s go” when I want them to stay close without tension in the leash. And I use a 6 foot leash as opposed to a 20 foot for loose leash walking.

Teaching them to wonder what you might do next is also a successful approach. You are essentially teaching them to pay attention to you. With your dog by your left side, say “let’s go” and step out in a brisk manner.  Keep a close eye on their head in relation to your leg. As it starts to move past you and they are starting to take up some of that slack, quickly change your direction and pat your left leg happily to attract their attention. In their mind, we hope they are thinking “Oh gosh, I should have been paying attention. There she goes changing directions on me!” As you head off in the new direction the chances are they will catch up and start to forge ahead of you once again. And again you change directions on them. This should all be done quickly and happily as if it were a great game. In addition, change your speed frequently requiring them to be attentive.

I am a whole hearted advocate of clicker training. I have found that clicker training makes loose leash walking must easier to train. Essentially, a special sound, a “click”, marks a behavior that you want repeated. It is immediately rewarded with a treat or reward of some type.  Because behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated, you will see the behavior you marked repeated more frequently. I will deal much more thoroughly with clicker training in a future post, but for the time being you might want to check out Karen Pryor’s site.

The three speared approach seems to work well.

  1. Refuse to move until there is slack in the leash
  2. Do not practice bad leash walking
  3. Train “let’s go” and encourage attentiveness by changing direction and speed

Related Posts

What Are Head Halters Used For?

Top Three Dog Training Problems and Solutions

How To Choose A Dog Trainer

Photo Credits: elviskennedy on flickr

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