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How to Teach Your Dog Loose Leash Walking

If your dog pulls on the leash, then the walk is neither healthy for the dog nor relaxing for you.  It’s also a sign that you and your dog are not paying attention to each other — it takes two to pull.

Pulling on leash is very rewarding to a dog.  What do we mean by this? The action of pulling doesn’t feel so bad at the time and it gets them where they need to go.  Any behavior as rewarding as pulling on the leash takes a lot of commitment to fix. Keep in mind that a dog that’s beside you on a tight leash is still pulling!

Make this promise to yourself now:  I WILL NEVER LET MY DOG GO FORWARD  WHEN PULLING. (One exception! See Harness section below.)

Think of it this way.  Let’s say you are a gambling addict, that you like to go out and gamble until you run out of money.  As intervention, your family prevents you from gambling.  You watch them carefully and about once a week, they aren’t paying attention and you slip out for an evening of gambling and you win big.  Are you still a gambling addict?  Yes.  Are you ever going to stop at this rate?  No.  In fact, your desire to gamble is probably stronger!

So…you have this canine gambling addict in your care, who wants to go forward and sometimes it works to pull, so he might as well try it all the time.  What to do? Follow the Training and Management tips below.

Note: If you have more than one dog, practice the following leash training techniques on each dog separately, at first.

Training for Loose Leash Walking

Reward him for checking in with you so you are walking together.  Learn how to use the clicker (see our clicker handout).  Practice walking on leash or even off leash in the house, where your dog probably doesn’t pull.  Each time he looks at you, click and give him a treat (in the house, you can practice this with his meals.)  Whenever you go on a walk, do the same.  This helps bring your dog’s focus back to you.  Besides, it’s hard to face you if he’s 6 feet ahead of you!

Reward him for being in the Sweet Spot.  Click and treat whenever he is in the area near your left leg (It doesn’t have to be the left, but that’s the traditional side.  Just pick one and stick with it.)  Soon he will begin to think that it is a very good thing to be near you, your side.  As time goes by, fade out the use of food by treating less and less frequently.  You’ll need more treats if the distraction level goes up.

Canine Cha-cha.  Teach your dog that any pressure on the leash means that he should return to you.  On your walk, even if he is not pulling, suddenly walk backwards.  You are walking backwards and he turns around to face you, so he’s walking forwards, but the opposite direction of before. When he turns to look where his feet are taking him, give him a treat.  Repeat – over and over and over.  If he pulls ahead, do that as well.  As time goes on, don’t reward him if it was his idea to pull, only if you suddenly walked back without him pulling ahead.  This is not a collar correction, just a cue, so don’t jerk it to make it hurt – the goal is to make it gentler and gentler, until a slight tug from you puts your dog back in place.  As time goes on, you will stop walking backwards, just reward your dog at your side and keep moving forward.
Feeding Tree. Dogs have a natural resistance to pressure, called the Opposition Reflex.  This helps them get out of brambles that catch at their fur, but makes it hard for us to teach them to go into the direction of a pulling leash, not away from it.  Leash pressure can be from a dog stopping or from a dog pulling ahead, or from you changing directions. Do not allow the dog to go where it wants to on a tight leash.  When the leash pressure eventually eases up – you should feel this in your hand, though you can see it by the way the leash begins to sag – click and give the dog a treat at your side. You can do this inside the house, which is the best place to start.  It’s best to combine the Feeding Tree with rewarding for the Sweet Spot, else the dog is forced to pull on the leash to get more cookies.
Speed as a Treat. Reward with Speed Training by walking fastest when the dog is next to you in heel position (speed = 1) and slower as s/he gets farther away (speed =.75, .25, etc.). Slightly before they arrive at the end of the leash, you have the option of slapping your thigh or saying something like “easy” and if s/he reaches the end, either stop (speed = 0) or do the Cha-Cha (speed = -1). At first, the maximum speed might be running – whatever pace your dog wants. As the weeks go by, it’s gradually slower and slower to match our boring human pace. By inserting the word “Run!” or “Quickly!” just before you speed up, you can also teach your dog to walk fast on cue – great for intersections.
Focused Walking.  This is a technique that I learned in agility class at Dog Sports Northwest.  Teach your dog to follow your finger, as a fun game.  This is your defense against cats, children, dogs, and other fascinating things.  Let’s say your dog is on your left, leash in your right hand.  Put the clicker in your right hand as well and load your left hand with treats.  Put one finger out on the treat hand, like you were pointing at something.  Encourage your dog to chase that finger (remember, this is a fun game, not a boring obedience exercise!)

Click and treat right as they get close to the hand target.  After about times in a quiet setting, your dog will probably follow the target with no food in the target hand.  Click and get the dog a treat from somewhere else, like your right hand.  You’ll need to work on being able to stand up straight while your dog does this.  If she jumps, just click when she’s on the floor, and she’ll do that more.

Work on your relationship.  Pulling on the leash can be a sign that your relationship with your dog could use a little tweaking.  Do you demand that he pay attention to you without you paying attention to him?  One way to improve your relationship is to consistently ask your dog to Say Please to get what he wants. (see our handout on the Say Please Protocol.)  On a walk, for example, you can ask him to sit and look at you before he is allowed to take a long time sniffing something.

Set your dog up for success. For all of the above techniques, work in situations where your dog will be successful.  If you take him out to train and he is just a basket-case, pulling every which way, he is not going to learn, and you will just become frustrated.  Believe me, we’ve all been there!! Back up a step or two — work at home, inside, with only a few distractions.  Then work in the yard.  Next, work in front of the house.  Make your training walks longer and longer.  Avoid distractions that your dog is not ready for: if you can make it to the park, but not through it, for example, bring along one of the management tools below for the currently-impossible stage of walking nicely through the park.
Physical Tools for Loose Leash Walking

We recommend that your dog wear a harness or head collar whenever you go on a walk, until your dogs get very, very used to walking nicely, and then wean off of the head collar or harness in 6 months to a year. “Weaning off” means that you’ll use a flat collar in places that your dog can concentrate on you and not pull, and in places that are still difficult to focus, use the head collar.  The same applies to harnesses. Of course, you can also use a harness forever; it’s your choice.

Why the switch?

Social pressure to be on time (like to class) causes people to let their dogs pull, so we recommend head halters or body harnesses almost across the board.  With these tools, you don’t have to use treats every time (or ever, actually), but if you work on eye contact and reward the dog for being in the Sweet Spot, you will be able to transition to a regular collar sooner.

Head Halters (rear attachment).  These head halters use your dog’s opposition reflex.  The leash gets tight, the dog feels a push forward from the pulley action of the collar, then he/she stops or walks backwards to oppose the push.  Keep the leash very short when you first use this. Drawbacks: Cost and the fact that you have to desensitize the dog to the head halter.  They flop around like fish for a few days and paw occasionally for another week or two.  But you go on more walks, because it’s fun!  Recommended Brands: NewTrix You can buy them from their site.

Head Halters (front attachment).  These head halters work on the principal that a dog will follow the direction of its head.  Benefits: usually works like power steering on a dog, large or small.  Drawbacks: you have to desensitize the dog to the head halter.  They flop around like fish if you don’t get them used to it slowly and fit it properly.  Recommended Brands: Comfort Trainer, Gentle Leader, Halti, Snoot Loop (recommended for dogs with short noses).

Body Harnesses. There are many kinds of body harnesses.  Front-attachment harnesses offer great control and are easier to get your dog used to than a head collar.  While you dog could still drag you down the street on a regular harness attached to the top loop (on the dog’s back), this doesn’t happen with front-attachment harnesses. If you hook it on the front, with the harness fairly tight, you get a similar effect to the head halters.  To get extra control, you can combine the front attachment harness and a head collar.

Be careful when you are picking out a “no-pull” harness.  Try to figure out why the dog wouldn’t pull.  If it’s because it hurts to pull, you might want to keep looking.  We like the front-attachment harnesses best. Benefits of front attachment harnesses: The dog turns around to face you when it tries to pull. It is my favorite management option, because dogs take little or no time to get used to it and it works very well.  Front-attachment harnesses can also allow for real-world mistakes.  My rule is that when the leash is attached to the back of these harnesses, the dog may pull, but when attached to the front of the harness or the collar, no pulling is allowed. Drawbacks: Body harnesses offer less control than the head halters.

Build-it-yourself harness. This is an emergency method.  Let’s say you are on a normal stroll, you thought you’d be in a training mood but suddenly Fido is just too irritating to deal with.  To make matters worse, you left the Gentle Leader at home (shame on you!).  Take your leash and loop the handle end under the dog’s midriff.  Now you have two places to grab the leash — one on either side of the dog.  Gather both of them up in one hand and you’ll have more control than you had before.  There are lots of ways to make your leash into a harness – experiment!

Options we don’t usually recommend the use of slip chains (a.k.a. choke chains), prong collars, basically any collar that works because of the pain or irritation the dog will experience.  We like to run through all of the less forceful options first, but have very, very rarely resorted to the use of a correction collar for dogs that simply cannot tolerate head collars and are too strong for front attachment harnesses. When I do use them, I recommend something like the protocol used by Suzanne Clothier, where you basically tap the brakes and don’t let the dog hit the collar at full speed.