Loose Leash Walking
By Dr. Jessica Kleiner, DVM
Training a dog to walk nicely on a leash, loose leash walking, is one of the hardest skills to teach because it is not natural for a dog to be tethered to a human. Loose leash walking means that your dog is walking at a similar pace with you and the leash remains relaxed without tension. Loose leash walking is a skill that should be taught young and while it can be taught to older dogs it might be more challenging, and take more time, to get the desired response.
First, you will need a standard four-to-six-foot leash that is wide enough that if your dog pulls, it does not cause any burns on your hands. Avoid retractable leashes as they are prone to breaking and do not give the control that’s really needed to teach loose leash walking. Be sure that your pup has a well fitted collar or harness to use when walking. Note: please consult with a professional before attempting to use training collars (such as prong, electric, or chains) as they can cause harm if not used correctly. Puppies and smaller dogs tend to do better with a well fitted flat collar. It’s okay to allow puppies to walk around and drag the leash behind them when taking a break but do not allow them to chew on it. Chewing on the leash is a habit that could cause them to break loose and run out into the road one day.
Next, make sure your dog’s needs are met before beginning each training session. Dogs require both mental and physical stimulation, and while walking can meet those needs, it is better to make sure they are met prior to training. Make sure you have good treats because the higher the reward the more successful you will be. If your dog is not food motivated, then bring along their favorite toy as a reward for good reactions. Your dog should understand that when they do good things, good rewards will come. You will want to obtain a treat pouch to hold the treats, or toys, so you can be hands free when needed.
Begin inside your home or an area with little to no distractions. Clip the leash onto your dog and just wait. When there is the slightest slack in the leash, give a reward. Repeat this many times until the leash stays slacked. Once that step has been mastered, try moving about the house or area. Sometimes you might need to lure your dog, and that involves making the dog follow a treat/toy to perform a certain act. Keep the leash in your dominant hand and your dog on the same dominant side. Hold the leash with both hands, so if the dog decides to pull, you will be able to maintain control. Reward two to three treats every time the leash is slacked. You want your dog to understand that when they are beside you, good things tend to happen. Having a phrase that’s a good cue to move is also very helpful. Starting the walk with “Let’s Go!” or “Heel” is a good way for the dog to understand what you would like them to do.
If your dog is doing well, and then suddenly stops walking loosely, either because they see something interesting or another dog, then just stand still or take a few steps back. If your dog disengages what is holding their attention, and then focuses back on you and the leash becomes slacked again, give a reward. If they are having trouble disengaging, keep backing away until they disengage, and the leash becomes loose again. Note: Avoid pulling your dog because dogs see the world through their eyes and pulling makes them feel like they are being held back from what they want.
If your dog has a habit of lunging and barking, additional help will be needed. Discuss with your veterinarian the issues you are having, and they should be able to offer recommendations for a trainer who can help with your specific needs in a one-on-one setting.
Loose leash walking is one of the basic skills that dogs should know. Starting young is often the easiest way to set your dog up for success, though it is never too late for a dog to learn. Remember to show your dog that good things happen when they are walking nicely beside you. Remember to try and not set your dog up for failure and be sure to praise whenever the response you want is achieved! Loose leash walking takes patience, but with time and hard work, your dog can become a pro! Remember, if you’re struggling with some of these steps, do not be afraid to reach out to a professional.