A Lesson in Patience, Practice, Persistence and Praise
Why you want this
Loose Leash Walking (LLW) is about building companionship with your dog whilst you are out and about. LLW means that you and your dog are walking “together,” using a slack lead, and that there is no pulling between you. LLW has become the Holy Grail for pet dog manners. It’s easy to train a sit or a down, but few people put in the effort required to train themselves and their dog to walk easily and together without pulling or lunging.
Here are four reasons why you and your dog fail at loose leash walking:
- Your dog has not been reinforced enough for walking politely at your side.
- Your dog has been reinforced too much for pulling – pulling works. He throws his shoulders in so that he can get to that enticing scent just out of leash length reach.
- Humans and dogs have different gaits depending on the size of each of you: His walk may be faster than your walk (if he’s big), or his trot may be slower than your walk (if he’s small). There’s only a small area of overlap in which both of you can comfortably keep up with each other. Focus on how your own actions can improve the dog’s behavior on leash, including matching up your different gaits.
- The opposition reflex: I pull you so you pull away (or you’ll lose your center of gravity); or, I push you and you push back.
There are a number of different methods that you can use to improve your loose leash walking. This essay is not so much a linear training plan as a choice of techniques that you can pull out of your toolbox to apply to any one particular situation.
Health and fitness magazines and ladies magazines have done us a tremendous disservice by suggesting that dog walking is a good form of exercise for both human and dog. It is not. The well being that you will get from walking your dog is that of being outside in nature in companionship with your dog, breathing in fresh air, and de-stressing from your normal busy life. You will not be getting any cardio exercise from it, nor will you be burning a significant amount of calories. The well being that your dog gets from the walk is actually much more. Your dog gets to read the neighborhood’s pee-mail, find out which squirrels have been about in his absence, and find out if there have been any new dogs in the area since he last walked this route, and what gourmet foods they have been eating. In other words, your dog is fulfilling his social needs, but a walking pace is generally not fast enough to “exercise” him either.
The purpose of the leash is not for either of you to pull the other one. It is only a lifeline meant for safety and emergency use. It is best to think of the leash as a back-up safety mechanism rather than as a tool to actively manage the quality of your walk together.
Before you start
Spend a little time at the beginning, before you even put the dog onto the leash, thinking about the following:
- How to hold the leash in your own hand. Experiment with what is comfortable for you, and in which hand you will be holding the leash most often. Will you use both hands on the leash, and where will you gather up the slack in the leash?
- Practice holding your elbows in at home base, your side. Your arm should not accidentally get extended to give the dog an additional two feet of distance, so you need to get used to the fact that your elbows need to stay tucked close to your side. You might tuck your thumb into a belt loop to help you with this if you are one of those people that is constantly snapping the leash back to correct your dog without even realizing that you are doing that.
- Decide which side of you your dog will most often walk on. I prefer to walk my dogs on my left because that means that my body is in between that of my dog and any oncoming traffic (we live in an area with no pedestrian sidewalks). You may have a different reason for walking your dog on the right. Keep your treats ready in the same hand (left side dog means that treats are in or accessible to your left hand).
- Loose leash walking is not the same as Heeling! Heeling is a stylized form of walking around an obedience competition ring with the dog’s shoulder glued to your pant’s leg, and his neck craned upwards so that he can look you in the eye. This is not only unnatural, and difficult to keep up for any length of time, but puts the dog into a position of suffering from neck pain as well as not being able to enjoy the sights and smells of being outdoors. Loose leash walking implies that the leash between you is always slack. That is all.
Painting a Picture
Let me illustrate a technique that I find comfortable and that you can use as a starting point for yourself. You may need to shift this information around if you walk your dog on your right hand side. I walk my dog on my left hand side. I slip the loop handle of the leash over my right thumb (Figure 1a), and gather up any excess length of the leash into my right hand by folding my fingers around a few loops (Figure 1b and 1c).
Then I hold the middle of the remaining length of the leash very lightly with my left hand, between my thumb and index finger (Figure 2a) and between my ring finger and little finger (Figure 2b).
(Please excuse the huge big plaster on my left thumb, I bought a new vegetable paring knife yesterday – this always happens to me).
And your dog goes onto the dog end of the leash. When looking at my dog, I always want the snap to be below her throat, with a J-shaped loop visible under her chin to show that the leash is indeed slack. That J-shape is my criterion for knowing that we are walking well.
Now, if my dog sets off at a fast pace and starts to pull me, then I just lightly twitch my left hand twice to tell my dog that she is going too fast for me. At the same time, I stop immediately in my tracks, twitch the leash again, and then ensure that I close the distance just enough to reintroduce some slack into the leash. Then I just stand still waiting for my dog to turn around and look at me (even if this takes 5 minutes) so that I can know that she has re-connected with me. When she reconnects in this way, I immediately click and offer a treat – at my pants seam in the reinforcement zone. This tells my dog that there is no forward motion if the leash is tight, and that the best place to be is at my side.
If it takes you 20 minutes to walk your dog down the driveway at the beginning of your training, then you are doing this right! Put in the work now, and you will have years of walking enjoyment with your dog.
Here are nine additional techniques to keep your progress consistent. Many of these techniques are thanks to Trish King and the Marin Humane Society for writing them up so well that I have found little to change.
TECHNIQUE 1 – Finding the Reinforcement Zone
This is a good beginner technique to use when you are just starting to learn how to loose leash walk with your dog.
Step 1. Feed for position: With both of you stationary, and inside your house where distractions are minimal, get your treat hand and leash hand into their home base positions. Drop your treat hand down to the seam of your pant’s leg, and feed your dog a treat there. Then immediately return your hand to its home base position. Repeat many times.
Step 2. Next, introduce a step. With your hands at home base position, and your dog at your side, say “Let’s Go”, and take one step forwards. Stop, click and treat your dog for remaining with you. Always feed your dog in the reinforcement zone – the area right next to the seam of your pants leg. Repeat many times.
Step 3. Repeat step 2, gradually increasing the number of steps you can take whilst your dog stays with you. Make it easier sometimes; don’t always ask for more steps for each click and treat. Go back often to an easier number of steps. Keep practicing these steps inside your house.
Step 4. Begin to intersperse changes of direction to your left, right or a full about turn. These changes of direction will make your dog aware that you get to set the direction of your walk, and that he should keep some of his focus on you. Repeat many times, always inside your house.
Step 5. Repeat the above steps in different rooms in your house, then on your back deck, in your back yard, and in your front yard before you venture out onto the road.
TECHNIQUE 2 – Connecting the Dots
This technique encourages the new handler to reinforce the dog more often than they would expect to, and teaches the dog to focus on his handler.
Step 1. Set up twelve dots (e.g. soccer dots or small cones) in a straight line, about 4 feet apart from each other.
Step 2. Walk towards the first cone with your dog. Click as you approach the first cone. Stop at the cone. Give your dog a treat, and then move on to the second cone. Click as you approach each cone in turn, stop at the cone, and give your dog a treat.
Step 3. When you reach the end of the dots, turn around, and repeat Step 2.
Step 4. Now randomly remove three dots from the line, but do not adjust the spacing between the remaining nine cones. This means that at three places in the line, you will have a longer section of walking to do before you get to the next cone. Repeat Step 2, cueing “Let’s go” just before stepping forward to the next dot.
Step 5. Remove two more random dots, and repeat the exercise.
Step 6. Now introduce a few mild distractions such as a toy or obstacle to the full 12-dot course, and repeat the exercise. Repeat many times using different mild distractions.
TECHNIQUE 3 – Walking backwards
This is also a starting method, good for practicing in your home and garden before you set out and about.
Step 1. Begin with your dog sitting directly in front of you, facing you; soft delicious treats in your hand, and the leash held very loosely.
Step 2. Take a step or two backwards, and encourage your dog to follow. You stop, he stops. Click and treat. Repeat several times.
Step 3. Begin to extend the behavior: walk back several steps before you stop and reinforce your dog for following you.
Step 4. After he’s got this (it takes maybe 4 minutes!), begin to teach him to walk beside you by first walking backwards, and then abruptly, whilst maintaining your momentum, do an about turn thus gathering your dog at your side. You are now both walking in the same direction, which was the direction your dog was originally facing. Take 3 or 4 steps, stop, and he now sits beside you rather than in front of you. Click and treat.
Step 5. Extend the behavior, each time making him go further and further beside you. If he begins to forge ahead, quickly step backwards until he follows, then move into him again, making him walk beside you. Walk several steps, stop, he sits beside you. Click and treat.
Step 6. When he is reliably walking next to you for several steps, introduce the cue “Let’s go” whilst you are in motion together, side-by-side.
TECHNIQUE 4 – The Knotted Leash
This technique gives you a real physical reminder of how much leash you’ve decided to give to your dog.
Step 1. Pick a cue that tells your dog you’re going to change direction e.g. “this way”.
Step 2. Use a 6 – 8 foot leash. Tie a single knot into the leash about 18 inches to 2 feet from the clasp that goes on the dog. Assuming your dog is on your left, hold the knot with your left hand. With your right hand hold the loop at the human end of the leash. Your dog should be able to walk beside you and about a foot in front or behind you without pulling on the leash.
Step 3. When you practice this, walk him in a safe place, where there are no other dogs. As you walk, watch his head and body language closely. As soon as he loses his attention on you or starts to pull away, give your “this way” signal, and let the knot go. Hold onto the looped end with your right hand, and change direction. Your dog should catch up to you, and when he does, reinforce him heavily – lots of praise, maybe a jackpot of treats.
Step 4. Do this many times. For it to work, it must be as automatic as you putting your foot on the brake of the car.
TECHNIQUE 5 – The Unreliable Leash
This technique works well on dogs that are quite emotionally attached to their owners, and should only be practiced in safe, fenced-in areas.
Step 1. Hold the leash very lightly, giving the dog plenty of slack. As she draws ahead of you, say “oopsie”, let the leash slip all the way out of your hand, stop and begin walking backwards.
Step 2. When she finally notices that you are gone, and comes back to you, reinforce her (pet/praise/treat) and begin walking forward again. After a while, she will stop relying on the (unreliable) leash to give her cues as to where you are.
TECHNIQUE 6 – Crazy Lady
This technique takes a lot of physical coordination to get right, but it can be very successful.
Step 1. If your dog is walking on your left side, then your leash should be in your left hand for this exercise. As he begins to forge ahead (i.e. as soon as you sense that he’s focusing on something other than you), move your leash to your right hand, say his name, and do a quick about turn – turning INTO your dog.
Step 2. Then switch the leash back to your left hand and continue walking. You are now going the opposite direction; he has been swung around, and is now following you.
TECHNIQUE 7 – Target Walking
This technique is a great one to practice when you’re on your way to the car, to a dog park, or anywhere else the dog REALLY wants to go.
Step 1. Begin to walk with your dog towards a delicious target – a bowl of chicken or beef, for instance, that the dog knows is there. As soon as he steps ahead of you, say “oopsie”, stop, and walk back to the start line, drawing the dog back with you.
Step 2. Begin again. The dog gets the treat when he has successfully walked WITHOUT PULLING all the way to the bowl.
TECHNIQUE 8 – Find It
This technique is fun for dog and handler. At its most useful, it distracts the dog from another dog or human, so it’s handy when working with a reactive or aggressive dog. Practice it first in a safe, fenced in area.
Step 1. Put a treat on the ground, point to it, and say “Find It”.
Step 2. After a few minutes of doing this, begin to toss the treats on the ground. You’ll notice that after the dog finds the treat, he always comes back to you to check if you’re handing out more treats.
Step 3. Now begin walking and toss a treat gently on the ground in front of you. Say, “Find It”.
Step 4. As the dog locates it, begin walking away in a different direction, keeping your leash very loose, or dropping it altogether. He’ll get the treat and hurry to catch up with you. As he does, give him the cue to walk with you “Let’s go”.
Step 5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 many times over. Your dog is now either looking for the treat or looking for you.
Step 6. Begin to extend the behavior by walking further and further between “Find Its”.
TECHNIQUE 9 – Go sniff
Sometimes your dog will be really keen to go and sniff a particular bush or lamp post.
Step 1. If you see that your dog is keen to sniff a particular spot, then allow it! But deliberately indicate to your dog that you are encouraging this by cueing a “Go sniff”. By doing this you are reinforcing their access to the environment. If you keep this up for long enough, your dog will become conditioned to only going to sniff when you say “Go Sniff”. Be consistent in your use of the words “Go Sniff” to speed up the conditioning process.
Step 2. Make sure that you give your dog enough time to sniff the spot before you ask him to move away. Just when he is ready to move on, cue the dog “Okay, Let’s Go”, silently count to three, and then move away from the sniffing spot encouraging your dog to go with you. Do not allow your dog to linger at the spot for longer than your count of three as that will otherwise teach him that the “Let’s Go” cue can be ignored. By counting to three (and no more), you are giving your dog a small amount of time to complete his sniffing experience (the same as when you call your spouse to come to you, you don’t expect him/her to immediately drop whatever they were doing and run to you!)