Dogs that enjoy inclusion in their families’ activities usually share one characteristic: good leash manners. Think about those summer dog festivals or kids’ soccer and baseball games. For the most part, the dogs that get to join their families for these events walk nicely on a loose leash. Sure, we all see those dogs who are pulling like freight trains, choking themselves on their leashes. But the dogs who walk with their people on a loose leash – without the pain of a prong collar as their incentive – are the dogs that people admire and who get to go everywhere with their families. After all, it’s no fun getting dragged around by your dog. So those dogs with poor leash manners often wait out family outings at home.
The good news is that loose leash walking is a very trainable behavior, but it does take time and practice. Like all learned behaviors, loose leash walking is shaped through a process that incorporates several key elements.
When starting the training, help your dog focus on the new task by limiting environmental distractions. In other words, don’t start outside. Why compete for your dog’s attention? Learning something new requires full concentration on the task – whether the learner is human or canine. Practice in your house until your dog becomes proficient in that environment. Then practice in a place that is a little more distracting, but not exceptionally so, such as your garage. Then work in your back yard. Realize that walks in the park will be the toughest challenge, so work up to that.
While your dog is learning to walk next to you on a loose leash, don’t let him practice pulling. Anything we practice, we get better at. So make sure he practices loose leash walking, not pulling. Use a humane piece of equipment, such as a head collar or no-pull harness to discourage pulling as you work to create polite leash manners.
Positively Reinforce a Loose Leash
There are a number of methods to teach loose leash walking. I have my favorite. But whichever method you choose, make walking on a loose leash fun and rewarding for your dog. Use frequent clicks and treats, which will become less frequent as your dog learns to walk on a loose leash. Leash “pops” or quick jerks on the leash to correct pulling are unpleasant to your dog and diminish his enjoyment of the walk. Since we’re working to make leash walks enjoyable for you and your dog, keep the punishment out of the training.
Proof Against Distractions
This is where the rubber meets the road. After all, if your dog walks like a Westminster champ around your basement or backyard, but forgets everything he has learned away from home, your efforts have been wasted. As noted above, build distractions in progressively – from low level to more intense. This is the part of the training that takes the most time and where a lot of dog owners get discouraged. Don’t give up! Keep up the practice, and if you’re having trouble, scale back the distractions to where your dog can be successful and work back up to higher levels of distractions a little more slowly and progressively.
I frequently hear from clients that different members of the family have different rules and equipment for their walks with the dog. This practice is only going to muddle the dog’s training and make it a longer, more frustrating process. Get everyone on the same page to make the training most effective.
Finally, get the help of an experienced rewards-based professional trainer to get you on the right path and help you past the bumpy spots and frustrations. In the long run, the benefits of having a dog who walks with you on a loose leash far outweigh the effort required to train him. You’ll enjoy a lifetime of pleasant walks and your dog’s company in family activities. Let’s get started!