In an ideal world, your dog happily walks next to you at the same, constant pace and never leaves your side except once to go potty. In your dog’s ideal world, venturing outside means racing toward the fire hydrant, chasing after a squirrel, or stopping every 10 feet to mark his scent. How can we find a happy medium so that everyone gets an enjoyable walk? Whether you have a puppy that is new to leashed walks or you have an adult dog who needs a little (or a lot) of work on leash walking, this guide will help you get started on the right paw.
The realities of loose leash walking
To start, you’re going to need a collar and a leash. If you have a puppy or a dog that has never had to wear a collar, the first step is getting them used to wearing their collar. Have your dog wear it around the house and distract them with toys and play. For loose leash training, you’ll need a standard leash (not a retractable leash) because it’s easier for your dog to understand the different sensations between a slack leash and the tightness of reaching the end of the leash, as well as how much length they have to work with.
Next, get your patience in check by mentally preparing yourself. A dog in the habit of pulling on the leash does so because they know that it works at least some of the time. Successfully training your dog to walk with a loose leash requires your full commitment to never reinforce pulling again. From now on, you’ll have to treat every walk as a training session, which means coming to a dead stop when your dog pulls – Every. Single. Time. We told you you’d need patience!
Set your dog up for success by tiring them out before a walk training session with another form of exercise such as tug of war, a game of fetch, or time to run around in the yard. Equip yourself with a pocket full of small, pea-sized rewards (like pieces of cheese, cut up meat, or high value dog treats) that will be easily accessible during your walk. You might even consider buying a treat pouch that clips onto your belt.
Set out for your walk at a swift pace to keep your dog from becoming distracted by interesting smells along the way. As your dog walks with a loose leash, mark the desired behavior with “yes!” (or a click if you use the clicker for training) and a treat to start communicating that he is doing something good. If your dog briefly stops, reward him as soon as the leash has loosened again. Continue to variably reward so long as the leash is loose and keep your dog’s attention by rewarding your dog each time he looks at you.
If your dog is a known puller or you think he will try, be on the ready. As soon as the leash becomes taut, come to a complete stop. Wait for your dog to give some slack in the leash before continuing to move. If your dog holds tight to the end of the leash without offering any slack, turn around and walk a few steps in the other direction so your dog’s only option is to come along, then turn around and head back in the original direction. In the case that your dog is fixated on a strong distraction like a squirrel and you can’t get his attention even with treats, then turn around and walk in a different direction. Your patience is of the utmost importance for successful loose leash training because you’ll be making many stops and frequently changing direction during dog walks over the next few days or weeks.
You can practice loose leash training in a small area by playing a game. Set up a goal for your pup, whether it’s a treat on the floor or a favorite person standing still. Stand a few paces away from the goal with your leashed dog and start walking toward the goal. If they pull to the end of the leash, stop and say “oops!” and return to the starting point. The message we’re trying to teach the dog is that pulling never gets him to his goal, and sometimes takes him further from it. Help your dog succeed by offering treats along the way when the leash is loose.
For a strong puller, additional equipment may help with your training efforts. There are a variety of no-pull harnesses which have a clip for the leash at the dog’s chest. These work to discourage pulling by redirecting the dog’s forward momentum if he reaches the end of the leash. Head halters like the Halti or Gentle Leader will cause your dog’s head to turn if they attempt to pull.
Continue practicing on every walk that you take, coming to a complete stop with any pull and offering rewards for a loose leash. With dedication and consistency, you can reach a point where walks with your dog are enjoyable for everyone involved. You’ll get to enjoy relaxing exercise without constant yanking on your arm and your dog gets to enjoy the sights and smells of the outdoors (and take care of business along the way).
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