Loose leash walking… it’s what separates mutt from maven, puppy from prodigy. We all want it, but few truly achieve it. Ask any dog walker which skill they could impart to any dog, and I’ll bet most would say “good leash skills.” In fact, most owners would likely agree. So, how do we go about teaching our pooches to cut us a little slack? Here’s a few tips that are likely to get you off on the right paw.
First, let’s talk equipment. Again, ask any dog walker what their least favorite piece of equipment is, and this time you might get a more unanimous response: “RETRACTABLE LEASHES”…usually uttered with disgust. Simply put, retractable leashes are the wrong tool to use if you want to teach your pup to walk nicely beside you. It gives your pup mixed signals. Are they supposed to stay at your side? 5 feet away? 10 feet? There is not enough consistency with a retractable lead to give your dog a clear idea of where you want him or her. I also don’t trust those flimsy buttons to save me when I need my dog to stop for traffic. I like to use a nice nylon or leather leash, no more than 6 feet in length; 4 foot leashes are nice for bigger dogs whose heads come up to about the waist.
Beyond the leash, there are several harnesses on the market, most of which claim to keep a dog from pulling. Let’s be clear: the only thing that will stop a dog from pulling is YOU. Some harnesses help, but there is no magic solution that will instantly work. That said, there are a few harness that I like because they offer control. It’s all about control, people. The gentle leader (my personal fave) is a harness that goes around the muzzle and then clicks behind the head. It gives the walker a lot of control over the dog’s movements, since the body has no choice but to follow the head. Control the head, control the dog. A lot of pups do not like the feel of the gentle leader on their muzzle, so you may have difficulty getting your pooch to accept it. If this is the case, I would look into the Sensation harness. It’s a body harness that allows you to connect the leash to the chest of the dog instead of the back. It’s more comfortable for most pups, and still allows you to control the front end of the dog. I stay away from any harness that connects to the back of the dog, as it tends to create an opposition reflex and actually causes the dog to pull harder.
Okay, enough about equipment. Let’s move on to technique. I find that when I’m training a dog for almost any reason, it is helpful to focus on what I want them to do, rather than what I don’t want them to do. In the case of leash walking, picture in your head what that looks like.
What a "J" looks like, for the alphabetically challenged.
Envision what the leash looks like coming off of your dog’s collar or harness. It should look like a “J”, where the leash comes down off of your dog with slack before coming up to meet your hand. With this mental picture in mind, begin walking with your pup. Any time that leash has the nice, loose “J” look to it, use your marker (either a clicker or whatever word you usually use, e.g. “Yes!”). Follow up the marker with a treat or whatever reward your dog fancies (attention, a pat on the head, etc.).
Of course, most walking sessions will not start out this way. Most pups are so eager to get out on their walk that the pulling starts almost immediately. In this scenario, one technique is to simply plant your feet and wait for your pup to come back to you. If needed, you can give a pat on the leg or make a sound that will get their attention. As soon as they come to your side and the leash is loose, use your marker the mark the behavior and follow with the reward. The timing of the marker is very important. You want to click or use your word at the precise moment that you get the behavior you want. The reinforcement should come quickly, but should follow AFTER the marker. Once the dog is at your side, continue walking again, and repeat the drill every time your pup starts pulling again. Stop, plant your feet, get your dog to come back to your side, mark, reward. They will soon learn that pulling gets them nowhere, and being by your side gets them attention and/or food.
If this doesn’t seem to be working (and remember, BE PATIENT!), you can add a slight modification. When your pup starts pulling ahead, simply change direction and walk the opposite way. Once they’ve caught up and are nicely walking at your side, mark and reward. This also teaches them that you are in control of the direction of the walk, and if they put tension on the leash they don’t get to go where they want.
You might look silly constantly stopping, turning around, patting your leg, and making kissy noises, but who cares? It’s a lot less embarrassing and frustrating than having your pooch take you for a walk.