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Loose Leash Walking

Loose Leash Walking

By Gordon Banks

Dip CABT (NOCN UK) / CABT SA Practitioner / IMDT
DogtownSA Trainer & Behaviourist

What dog owner can honestly say they have never experienced the “wonderful chaos” of being taken for a walk by their dog? – that all too familiar ritual of being dragged down the road or through the park at the end of the leash while their faithful companion rudely focuses on other dogs or excitedly jumps on a passer-by.

Walking calmly and politely alongside you on a loose leash is not some magical genetic behaviour that our dogs are born with but rather something you have to teach your dog, and failure to do so is precisely the reason way so many dogs continually pull on their leashes while out walking. This unfortunately ends up with the dog being confined to the garden because the owners do not relish having their arms jerked around constantly while trying to exercise their dogs.

Broadly speaking there are two ways you can walk your dog.

The formal practice is to have your dog walk at heel which means the dog must be firmly at your side and not deviate at all – this method is mostly used in competition obedience or when strict control is required and not really a bonding, fun moment out with your dog. This is more for people who like to do competitions.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.32.40 AMThe less formal and more enjoyable way to walk your dog is on a loose leash allowing the dog to casually do “doggy things” like stop and sniff, mark things and generally explore but without pulling or yanking you around. This is what our dogs love. To sniff and gather information of the local happenings.

So how do we go about teaching our dogs good leash manners?

First thing to remember is that walking your dog is a team effort! If you want your dog to be relaxed and attentive then you too must be relaxed and attentive. Holding the leash nervously and tightly or talking to friends on your cell phone will most likely result in you failing to see or reinforce good behaviours displayed by your dog. Also remember that the leash is not a steering wheel and just as you do not want the dog to pull you around, refrain from using it to drag him around.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.45.40 AMLet’s start with an equipment check. I recommend you walk your dog on a harness as it is more comfortable for him and prevents any inadvertent jerking of his neck which can lead to both medical and behaviour issues. A good quality leash (not a chain) is also essential and should be approximately 1,5 – 1,8M long and finally a treat bag that can be fastened around your waist to hold those all-important treats.

I suggest when you first start teaching your dog to walk on lead you do so in a quite area in your garden or even in a room in your house – you want your dog’s full attention without any distractions. Start with your dog sitting or standing calmly next to you. Hold the leash in the hand on the side that your dog is positioned i.e. if he is on your left side, hold the lead in your left hand.

In a calm relaxed voice give your dog a cue like “let’s go” and start walking forward. (You can use any cue you like as long as you use the same cue each time)

As your dog moves forward with you give a verbal marker like “yes” and immediately give him a treat with your free hand. If you are familiar with clicker training then you can replace the verbal marker with a ‘click”. The marker (verbal or click) indicates to your dog that the behaviour he offered i.e. walking forward with you is what you want and the treat you give him reinforces that behaviour making it more likely that he will repeat it when requested to.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.33.47 AMInitially mark and treat each step you take as long as there is no tension in the leash. He will quickly learn that it is worth his while to stay close by you and receive numerous treats. When he is happily walking next to you and showing no desire to wander away you can slowly reduce the rate of reinforcement but beware not to reduce to quickly to avoid losing his attention. At this stage the reinforcing treat must be offered randomly. If the treat is offered in a predictable manner for example every twelve steps, your dog will learn to fool around for eleven steps and shoot back to on the twelfth step for his treat.

Once you and your dog are comfortably walking around the garden on a loose lead you can take the plunge and venture into the street or park where your dog will experience his first distractions all this training will seem in vain as he pulls and strains to get to the source of the distraction.

There are a number of techniques you can employ to correct this. A change in direction can be very effective. If your dog starts to move ahead of you, before the leash pulls tight do an about turn and walk in the opposite direction. As you do so call him to you in a calm cheery voice to alert him to the fact that you have changed direction. When he turns and comes to you be ready to mark the behaviour (click or yes) and offer a treat while the leash is still slack.

Another useful method to correct pulling or tight leash walking is to “be a tree”. As your dog surges forward immediately stop walking and stand still (be like a tree). Keep this position and avoid any verbal cues or communication with him. Wait quietly and patiently until your dog looks back at you. As he turns to look at you the leash will slacken, immediately it does mark the behaviour (you are marking the loose lead behaviour). Your dog will have to return to you get his treat and will then be back in a loose leash position. Move forward again marking and treating until he is walking calmly next to again.

If you are struggling with these when out in the park or in the street, you may need to go back to the garden and get the behaviour more reliable before heading out into the wild world again. And when you do, find spots that are more quiet. Don’t take your first walk in the street along the road where every gate has a barking dog and children running around, we need to build up the distractions slowly and steadily.

Remember walking with your dog is supposed to be a fun time with you and your dogs. Putting in the foundation work will make for much more fun filled adventures with your dog in the future. So don’t try and move to quickly. Slow and steady always wins the race.

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