Loose leash walking

r.nial.bradshaw / Foter / CC BY

Walking nicely on a loose leash is not natural behaviour, but it’s one of the most important things you can teach your dog. When your dog is able to walk with you, you will want to take her many places. She’ll get more exercise, see more of the world and the two of you will enjoy your time together.

To teach your dog to walk calmly on a relaxed leash takes patience and diligence, but every dog can learn to do it.

Daniele Nicolucci photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

What happens when the dog pulls on the leash

The dog pulls because it’s rewarding: she gets what she wants to have, whether it’s to meet another dog or human, sniff something or eat something. While her collar presses against her neck, she makes gasping, choking sounds (and many also significantly damage her trachea). She may not sound like she’s having a good time, but she’s so intent on going somewhere or finding out about something that the discomfort is worth it to her.

Meanwhile, as she lunges from one side to another, she drags her handler around. If the dog lags and the handler walks ahead of her, the handler can be pulled over backward if the dog stops suddenly.

It’s not fun to walk a dog who is pulling on the leash.

Teach self-control

When you teach leash manners, you’re actually teaching your dog self-control.

Start indoors. Cut a hot dog into 5-6 pieces and put them on the floor about 10 feet away from you. With the dog on leash beside you, move toward the hot dog. If the dog tightens the leash, take three or four big steps backward and stop. When the dog is calmly standing or sitting beside you, start again.

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Move forward only as long as the leash stays nice and loose. When it tightens, back up again.

Do this over and over until she finally gets to the hot dog pieces, whether it takes three minutes or 15–all that matters is that she gets there on a loose leash. Let her have all of the hot dog. Unclip the leash. Lesson finished.

Repeat only after the dog has had a good, long nap (at least two hours) or a night’s sleep. Gradually increase the initial distance from the hot dog pieces to about 20 feet, then take the lesson outside.

In the new location, start over, 10 feet away from the hot dog, and repeat everything exactly as before. When she can keep her leash loose for 20 feet, leave your garden and go out onto the sidewalk. Start again, 10 feet away from the hot dog, and repeat as before.

Resume your normal walks only when the dog is able to walk half a block on a loose leash. Don’t walk her on leash anywhere until she can walk that half-block nicely. You don’t want to reinforce any leash-pulling, ever again. Exercise your dog in your garden or indoors by playing fetch, tug and puzzle games until she’s ready to walk on leash.

Most dogs can learn to exercise good self-control and remain calm on leash in about three or four days if you practice two or three times a day.

Walking, not heeling

Loose leash walking is exactly that: walking nicely on a loosely-hanging leash. The only thing the dog has to do is keep the leash relaxed. Ideally, the leash clip should hang straight down from the dog’s collar. The leash can be any length you like. I sometimes walk my dogs on a 30-foot long line. As long as the leash or line is loose, the dog can go anywhere and even pause for a quick sniff of something.

This is not heeling. Heeling is a complicated formal Obedience exercise that requires the dog to maintain a precise position on the handler’s left side while following certain patterns under a judge’s direction. Formal heeling is beautiful and taxing. It’s useful for crossing busy streets and weaving through pedestrians on crowded sidewalks, but it’s not intended for long, leisurely walks. In the ordinary course of life, most dogs never need to know how to heel.

If you have a problem

What if you’re outside and your dog sees a squirrel? She may lunge to the end of the leash, hoping to get near the squirrel or even to break away from you so that she can chase it. Stop moving. Hold onto the leash firmly. As soon as you’re able to do it. back up three or four steps and wait for your dog to calm herself. When she’s ready, walk forward again.

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Never jerk the dog’s leash, yell at her, yank on her collar or give any other kind of correction if she lunges to the end of the leash. Simply back a few paces away from whatever she wanted and wait for her to calm herself. Her reward for calmness is that she gets to go greet someone, sniff something, eat something or have what she wanted. If she’s not calm, the penalty is simply that she doesn’t get the reward.

Always set your dog up for success! When you’re training, increase the distance to the reward gradually and only end the training session when she reaches her goal. Let her have what she’s worked for and praise her.

Alternate rewards

Once your dog has figured out how to maintain self-control and keep the leash loose, you can use anything that she wants as a  reward. Greeting another dog or human being is a reward for approaching them politely. If she loves to swim and gets excited anytime she sees a pond or lake, use the water as the reward for approaching it nicely.

Of course, if she wants to chase a skunk, roll around on a dead fish, or have some other reward that’s genuinely not acceptable to you, it’s only fair to give her some other highly valuable substitute.