Canadian-American chemist and author O.A. Battista once observed that “a dog is one of the remaining reasons why some people can be persuaded to go for a walk.”
For many dog owners though, walking the dog can be a nightmare. Dogs walk faster than we do and their exuberance in being outdoors often results in owners being yanked and pulled along. It’s easy to forget that dogs are not born knowing how to walk nicely on a leash; dogs need to be taught this skill.
So how do you teach your dog to walk nicely on leash? There are probably as many variations to teaching this skill as there are dog trainers.
Because most of my clients are pet dog owners, I prefer teaching loose leash walking as opposed to an obedience heel.
What is loose leash walking and how does it differ from an obedience heel? In an obedience heel, the dog stays on the handlers left side in a straight line next to the handler’s knee. With loose leash walking, the dog is allowed more freedom in where he is positioned. My definition of loose leash walking is that as long as the leash is loose, anything goes (well, almost anything.)
Loose leash walking groundwork
Start by walking backwards with your dog facing you. The point of this is to teach the dog to pay attention and understand that the walk involves both of you.
Walk backwards for a minute or so, rewarding your dog with high-value food rewards such as hot dogs, cheese or Bil-Jac treats. Do not allow the dog to jump up to get the treat; reward at dog level (or drop the treats on the ground).
Next, pivot to your right and walk sideways next to your dog; it’s OK to continue rewarding with treats.
After a few seconds, pivot again so you are now facing the same direction as your dog.
Take only one step forward, then stop and ask your dog to sit. Praise your dog verbally (no treat) and either release or repeat the exercise. The dog should only be treated when actually walking on a loose leash.
Repeat the exercise, but once you are facing the same direction as your dog, take two steps forward, and then stop and have your dog sit. Repeat again, and when you are facing the same direction as your dog, take three steps forward. You get the drill - slowly build up the number of steps you move forward each time you perform this exercise.
Keep your initial training sessions to five or ten minutes and repeat twice a day.
Once your dog “gets it,” what do you do if your dog does pull towards something and the leash tightens up?
The instant the leash gets tight, stop and stand still.
Wait until your dog (at some point) turns around to see why you’re not moving. The leash will loosen up slightly when this happens.
Call your dog back to you and continue walking forward. What we’re teaching the dog is that if the leash goes tight, the walk stops. If the leash is loose, the walk continues.
If the dog hesitates, move backwards (be lively and interesting) and slap your thigh while calling your dog in a happy high-pitched tone of voice; reward with a food treat. Now the walk can continue.
If you’re having difficulty, go back and repeat the groundwork steps.
Be sure to start your walk with a calm and tired dog. Work the edge off with a rousing game of catch or Frisbee before starting out.
Establish manners before the walk. Have your dog sit and stay at the door before leaving the house. If your dog goes crazy when he sees the leash, you are starting out your walk with an out-of-control animal.
Be consistent. If the dog is allowed to pull on occasion, he will always continue to attempt to pull. This may mean using a product such as a head halter during those times that you do not have time to train.
Tools of the trade: collars
One issue with standard buckle collars is that dogs can back out of them suddenly if frightened. Choke (chain) collars may prevent your dog from slipping out, but this type of collar continues to tighten around your dog’s neck which can result in tracheal and esophageal damage.
No slip limited closure collars (often called martingale collars) tighten and reduce the risk of your dog slipping out of his collar, but the closure is limited, so the collar is safer than a choke collar that continues to tighten as the dog pulls.
I’m not a fan of retractable dog leashes. The thin cord used in these devices can cause burns, cuts and even (finger) amputations. Leashes are designed to keep your dog safe and under your control; it’s impossible to keep your dog safe if he is on leash 25 feet away. And because the retractable leash is spring loaded, there is constant pressure on the dog’s neck. Just by its very design, a retractable leash will teach your dog that pulling is what allows him to move forward.
A standard four or six foot leash provides most dog owners with the best control. One particular design of leash I like is the double-handled leash (google “two handle leash”) which has a handle near the front as well as end of the leash. This gives you extra control when you need it.
No pull walking harness
There are a number of no pull harnesses on the market. This type of harness typically has a strap across the chest and another strap that goes over the dogs back and across his belly right behind his front legs. The leash attaches to the dog dogs chest, not his neck or back, giving you control and leverage.
Traditional harnesses (where the leash is attached to a clip on the dogs back) can actually encourage dogs to pull harder because of a phenomenon called “opposition reflex,” which is the reflex that makes sled dogs pull.
The front chest leash attachment stops pulling by tightening slightly across your dog’s chest and shoulder blades. The gentle pressure steers your dog to the side and redirects his attention back towards you. This harness does not choke the dog because the chest strap rests low across the breastbone.
Head halters for dogs work the same way a head halter works on a horse; when you guide the nose and head, the rest of the body follows. A head halter is an excellent tool for high energy pullers. Some dogs adapt to a head halter quickly; with other dogs it may take a little more time, but with proper introduction, most dogs get used to wearing the halter quickly.
The halter does look like a muzzle, but it’s not. The dog can still breathe, eat, drink water, carry a stick or tennis ball and yes, bite.
In addition to helping with pulling, users have found the head halter can also help with leash reactivity, barking and jumping (by gently pulling the leash down and over to the side to face you). The pressure around the muzzle also frequently calms anxious dogs.
The Thunderleash (developed by the Thundershirt folks) is a relatively new product that can be used as a regular leash or can be reconfigured into a pressure harness if the dog is pulling.
If the dog is pulling, the leash can cleverly be wrapped around the dog’s torso; the leash then puts a gentle pressure on the dog’s torso which usually results no pulling.
Proper fit of these products is important. Most trainers carry these products and can help you properly fit your dog. Happy training!