I recently went to a dog-friendly farmer’s market in the Pearl Brewery district. There were so many different dogs there that it made my heart happy! Unfortunately, the other thing I saw there was a severe lack of communication from parent to pet. While the parent started walking in one direction, the dog walked off in the other and then got a hearty yank on the leash. I even saw one small pup get yanked a good foot! Because of our busy and wandering brains trying to check off everything on the to-do list, we often forget that walking with our dogs on leash is a team sport. So, whether you are going to a crowded space or just down the street to the mail box, make sure you are following some of these tips. I don’t guarantee a perfect loose-leash walk after reading this article as it takes time and practice to achieve such a behavior, but following these rules will certainly make it better.
Your dog is not a mind reader. They have no idea when you are about to veer off the straight path and make a sharp turn in another direction. So be kind and give them a heads-up that there’s a direction change coming instead of yanking on the leash. I give my cue, “This way!” about two steps before making a turn. This give Sully enough time to give me his attention so he may follow suit. To practice this, put your pup on leash in the house and practice walking around the living room, kitchen, or down the hall. Before you make a change, say “This way!” or any other cue you may be comfortable with, take the turn and reward when your pup follows. The more times you do this, the more your pup will learn to expect a change in direction. Once Sully got the hang of it, I was able to see him stop and “think” mid-step after the cue was given – smart man! You can even get more precise with your cues. Say “right” when you take a right turn, “left” when you make a left turn and “around” when making a complete U-turn.
- Teach stay
This behavior is just a sit-stay and it comes in handy for those of you who like to take your pup shopping with you. If you are going to stop at a booth or shop, have your pup sit and wait as you talk to the retailer or pay. Giving them a specific job to do will lessen the likelihood that either of you will get pulled around by the other. I also use wait to stop and look before crossing the street or while I’m getting my keys out to open the car or get inside the house.
To begin teaching this behavior, first teach your kiddo to sit at your side (hopefully your dog already knows how to sit. If not, start there). Usually when asked to sit, the dog takes position right in front of you which is a bit counterproductive on a walk when your intention is to move straight forward. Once again, clip on your pup’s leash inside the house. Choose one side of your body that your dog will now always and forever walk on. Take one step, say sit, and lure your dog to sit by your side. Try to lure before your dog has the chance to move in front of you. Continue this exercise, one step and sit, until you can wean off your lure and your dog understands that he’s supposed to sit next to you. Eventually, your dog will start to anticipate the cue and just sit on her own before you even say sit!
Now that your dog is sitting at your side, the next step is to add some duration. Start building the duration slowly! Start with one or two seconds of duration. Once he can consistently sit for that period of time, work on five seconds, and then 10. Say, for example, we are working on a three-second duration. I would ask my dog to sit, and then count out loud “Good dog one, good dog two, good dog three!” Now I know exactly how long he’s been in the sit and he simultaneously gets happy feedback from me letting him know that he’s doing the right thing! Now I would mark the moment with either my marker word (“Yes!”) or clicker, treat and then release him with “Free!” If your dog gets up before you hit the final count, simply get him back into the sit and no treat until you can complete the count. If you’re having problems achieving the next duration goal you’ve set for yourself, back up and practice a bit more at durations you’ve already had success with.
Once you can wait for 30 to 45 seconds, it’s time to start working on distractions. Practice taking your keys out of your purse or your wallet out of your pocket. Think of the everyday things you might be doing when asking your dog to wait and practice them. Lighten up on the duration aspect when you first start working on adding distractions. Once you’ve practiced both separately you can then practice both at the same time.
- Don’t allow pulling EVER!
Easier said than done, I know. But pulling is a learned behavior. The first time you put your pup’s leash on, you didn’t hand her an instruction manual that states how she should act when this device is on. A lot of people don’t take the time to teach what they expect of their pup the first time they go for a walk. Your dog also doesn’t understand that this piece of fabric limits the distance she may step away from you. When your pup first goes out, the world is so exciting and new that she wants to go explore. She puts tension on the leash to go sniff the flower that caught her eye, you allow her to pull you to the flower, and she gets to it and sniffs it (or eats it, if we’re talking about my dog). According to her, the way she got there was by tugging you along on the end of this rope thing. “Oh, so that’s how this thing works.” Then she pulls you to the mail box, to her friend down the street, or to her daycare. You have accidently taught her that pulling you gets her closer to her desired destination. Oops! For those of you with puppies, don’t even give them the chance to be rewarded by pulling. The more you reward for them staying by your side, the quicker they learn where the “treat zone” is. Start off on the right paw by only allowing good leash manners. For those of you with older dogs who have already had the chance to practice some pulling, no worries! We can still fix it, it just takes time and patience. When your dog pulls, stop right where you are (not one more step!), and have them ask permission to move forward by sitting. If your dog is so tenacious that she leaps to the end of the leash as soon as you take another step, practice a full turn-around (“This way!”) to get further from her desired destination. The new association she makes must be “pulling = we move further away.” Once you establish a few steps with no pulling, try again (“This way!”). Oops, she pulled again? “This way!”
I won’t lie – this will be time-consuming, tedious and even frustrating for you, but your dog has all the time in the world. She doesn’t have to get the kids to school or get to that work lunch. You must learn to be as persistent as your dog! So remember, every walk is a learning opportunity. You can’t be strict on the rules one walk, and then say “to hell with it!” on the next walk because you have some place to be. In the beginning, schedule a longer time period for your walk. Realize that you may not get as far as you normally do. But the mental work will tire your pup out just as much as the physical work. Also, take note of how far you get. Say one week you allow yourself 15 minutes and only get 2 houses down the street. But the next week you make it 4 houses down. It may not be the mile you were hoping for, but hey, you improved 100%!
- Practice Inside
There is literally a world full of distractions outside that make it very difficult to learn a new behavior. So don’t be afraid to put on your pup’s leash and practice inside first before moving on to the back yard, then to the front, then down the street.
- The Right Outfit
Explore different walking tools for your pup to wear. I don’t mean pinch or choke collars. (I’ll tell you why those aren’t as helpful as you think in a later post.) If you’re walking with a harness that attaches to the leash on your dog’s back, you might actually be making your problem worse. Sled dogs wear back connecting harnesses. What do sled dogs do? PULL! Dogs have what is called an “opposition reflex” which, simply put, means the more you pull one way, the more the dog naturally pulls or moves the other way. If you’ve ever tried to push your dog’s butt down to sit and met resistance, that’s the opposition reflex. If you’ve ever tried to pull your slow-poke dog along and they put the breaks on even more, that’s the opposition reflex. Instead, try a harness that attaches to the leash in front of the dog’s chest. Two great brands are the Sense-ation Harness and the Easy Walk.
For medium to large kiddos over 25 lbs, consider a Gentle Leader. Ladies and gentlemen, this is NOT a muzzle. I wouldn’t be recommending it to you if it was! The Gentle Leader operates the same way a horse’s head halter does. The logic is “where the head goes, the body follows.” Neither one of these tools will make pulling cease, but they will make it so that your dog can’t pull as hard. I have clients that love their tools so much they want to use them forever. I have other clients who use them as training wheels while they work to wean their dogs off to just regular buckle collars.
- Call a Dog Trainer!
This loose-leash walk, though not hard to achieve, can be a bit confusing to people. The walk is a complex behavior as your dog is constantly moving through a variety of environments and distractions. Trying the tips above will make your walk a bit better than what it is now, but if you want to work towards advanced loose-leash manners give me a call! The walk is a bonding opportunity for you and your pup, so it’s important that you enjoy it so your dog can continue to get the exercise she needs with her favorite exercise buddy – you!