Loose Leash Walking: Are You Ready?
More great dog training advice from Nancy Tanner:
There are a lot of things people want to learn how to do with their dog when they come to train with me. The most requested each week – hands down – is loose leash walking. I get it, it’s nice to be able to step out with your dog and walk together, without conflict, get some exercise, and feel like you are truly a Team.
And wouldn’t you know it, even with great intentions, loose leash walking is the least practiced behavior. Why? It is simply easier to take your dog off-leash and let them run around at a park or on a trail than to practice walking together.
But here is a little secret between you and me: learning how to walk with your dog, and teaching your dog that walking with you is a good thing, is actually fun. Really fun. When you start out it feels awkward, and for sure, no semblance of anything graceful. But it’s a start, and everything has to have a starting point. And once you have put good time into practicing, and your movement with your dog feels smooth and effortless, well it is a sight to behold, almost magical. You can feel it, seamless, and tangible, like a relationship in motion.
So here is how to walk your dog with a loose leash. Keep in mind, loose leash walking is not rocket science, so don’t over think it; however, it does take time and practice. Just as with horses, when you work with a dog, the groundwork you do sets that solid foundation for everything else. So, practice. Practice in your yard, your family room, your driveway, or your pasture. Practice in a safe place with low-to-mild distractions, for short periods of time, and not too much distance to start.
Every dog is different, so please don’t set a time limit, just enjoy the ride. Oops, I mean the walk!
A leash does not teach your dog how to walk with you. You teach your dog how to walk with you.
A leash is a great thing to have. It is cheap insurance, required in many public places, and shows others that you are responsible and will keep your dog with you. A six-foot leash is a nice length when out for a walk in public. If you really want loose leash walking, please do not use a flexi leash, they actually encourage pulling.
I really like harnesses when out and about with my dogs. There is no pressure on the neck, and without pressure on the neck a dog is naturally more relaxed. Harnesses are safe and comfortable, and, I think, all around awesome.
THE SET UP
When you step out to start practicing with your dog, have the leash in one hand, but not clipped to your dog. That will come later. You will have the webbing leash in your hand, but use your VOICE as your first leash. It is a great way to learn how to walk with your dog while creating a willing partner.
It’s best to practice walking with your dog on your right and your left side. This way you create a more flexible Teammate and build your skills at the same time.
Keep the 3 D’s in mind: distance, duration, and distractions. When starting you will be limiting distractions, working for a short period of time, for very little distance. As you and your dog really get the hang of it, the 3 D’s become a guide of sorts that is always in flux and will help you gauge your practice sessions.
1. STARTING – The Discovery Stage
Be happy, let your dog be happy, and connect, BEFORE you start practicing. Never try to train if you are cranky or distracted. It just never goes well, and this is not a place of good learning for either end of the leash! So, enjoy and let your dog enjoy.
Practicing loose leash walking should not look perfect when you start, and it should not feel perfect. The discovery stage is learning about each other, your ways of moving, body language, and verbal communication. This is my favorite time in training. You learn a lot about each other!
2. STARTING – The Discovery Stage
Pat the side of your leg on the same side as the dog, and say, “Are you ready?” Then start walking. You should be slightly angled toward the side your dog is on, head and shoulders. If you square off forward when you start, that is where you will be sending your dog, forward and in front of you, by a little or a lot.
After a few steps, and while still in motion, say, “Stay with me,” and then reward your dog. What you are teaching is a word phrase and a behavior that means we are doing this together. So each time you say, “Stay with me,” you must reward your dog. High value rewards are best, and in my opinion, loose leash walking is a high value behavior for humans, so please don’t mess around with so-so rewards.
When you first start out, you will be rewarding with what is called a high rate of reinforcement. This changes when your dog and you start to smooth out. You will know it when it happens, as there will be knowingness, and then you reward what is called random and variable. Don’t be stingy. If it is a behavior you really want, and you really want to work on it, then pay your dog for working with you. The results are generally pretty awesome!
Pat your leg. “Are you ready?” And you move, you walk, you cover space together. “Stay with me,” and you reward, and move, and cover more space. Repeat as you hit your stride together. That magical pace where it is interesting for you and your dog.
If you can, circular movement with your dog while teaching loose leash walking is way more interesting, productive, and preferable than, say, a long straight line. So, walk around garden beds, furniture, paint buckets, flower pots. Create circular patterns in your movement.
Days, weeks, many weeks… how long you stay in the Movement stage is up to your dog, and the amount of time you spend practicing this stage. Practice, practice, practice.
When you feel smooth as a Team it is time to move on to the next stage.
6. WORKING WITH THE LEASH ON
It is time to clip the leash on and practice the same skills, but with a physical leash connection when:
- Your dog has a clear understanding of your word phrases
- You have nice movement together
- You’re both really enjoying your time and work together
7. WORKING WITH THE LEASH ON
Why? Why the same skills? Well, all too often, when a leash is clipped to a dog, the person gets super silent and lets the leash do the work. Rarely does this go well for the dog, and frankly it’s just not good training.
So after you have spent a lot of time moving together, and practicing movement on both the right and left side, using your word phrases, rewarding, and enjoying the feeling of your Team in motion, the leash being clipped on should make ZERO difference to what you are doing. That is right, there should be no change in what you are doing, other than now you have your extra insurance for safety while out and about.
8. WORKING WITH THE LEASH ON
The leash is held in your hand just like before, but now clipped to your dog. There should be a nice lazy J in the leash, meaning lots of slack, and no pulling for you or your dog.
9. WORKING WITH THE LEASH ON
Every work session you have with your dog should end in play. Let it be explosive and dynamic. Let it be playful. Bring out toys if your dog likes toys, run, have fun! This should be the final memory of each session, for the both of you.
And then over time, you expand your skills. Start working in new environments that are within you and your dog’s skill level, but new and different at the same time, keeping the 3 D’s in mind.
Just like everything great, loose leash walking is a process, and a process that carries many benefits, most importantly a willing partner. Enjoy!
By Nancy Tanner: Certified Professional Dog Trainer, knowledge and skill assessed. She is also the owner of Paws & People, LLC in Bozeman, Montana, est. 2003. A dog sport competitor, award-winning writer, and Mother. Visit her website at: www.nancytanner.com