Leash walking is one the of the most-requested training topics I address with clients. Whether they have a new puppy and it’s a foreign concept, or an older dog who pulls incessantly, it is a very important part of having a great relationship with your dog. If you are frustrated, hurt, or otherwise not having a good time with your dog on walks, it can really impact your quality of life together, so I’ve decided to write a series on it!
When I begin teaching people how to walk their dogs on leash, we always start, as with training any cue, in an environment that has less distractions and where we can have success. Most clients can’t wait to go to fun parks where all kinds of distractions await, or on hiking trails that have such amazing smells, and they then get frustrated because their dog cannot concentrate on them or walking on a loose leash at all. From the start, there is stress and frustration, and a real need to start in a very easy environment, so we begin in the home.
If the dog is excited from the moment you pick up a leash, we have to also address that excitement first, as it can impact the dog’s ability to be calm and learn how to be on the leash. If the dog bites at the leash and is too playful or excited, it’s best to address these items and reward calm. If your dog knows how to sit, ask him to sit before you put on the leash. If that is too much, start with a calm stand. I wrote a blog a while ago on how to get puppies to stop biting on the leash, which you can read here, and there is a wonderful video from the incomparable Emily Larlham on how to teach puppy to be calm for the leash.
How do you hold your equipment? We advise, if you are walking your dog on the traditional left heel position, to hold your leash handle and clicker in your right hand so you can easily treat your dog with your left hand, as he’s on your left side. You can reverse this if you wish to walk him on the right. It’s your decision but picking one side and sticking with it will help make your experience better, as well as less confusing for the dog. You will be able to take turns easier and won’t have to worry about tripping over your dog if he tends to switch sides. Sometimes using a hands-free leash or attaching your leash to your belt with a carabiner can be a good way, especially if you don’t have a bad back and have a dog that doesn’t pull/isn’t too strong. If you feel it’s too hard to hold a clicker, you can always use a verbal marker, such as “YES” or “GOOD” to mark behavior instead.
When you do get the dog on a leash, I will reward for eye contact and proper position to start. If I want to walk my dog on the left side in a normal heel position, I will either wait for him to come to that side, and click and treat when he does, or I may lure him with a baited hand. By concealing a smelly piece of food or treat in my hand, I get his nose “attached” to it, and then slowly move my hand so he follows it to the correct position, and then click when he gets there, and give him the treat. If you do use luring techniques, be sure to fade the food quickly–it should be about following your hand–so use a treat only a few times, then lure without the treat. Your dog will understand quickly that following your hand is rewarding and this will often be a faster way to get him to follow you.
Before you start moving, ensure you are getting good eye contact by clicking and treating a few times for this. When I am ready to move, I say, “Let’s go,” and take a step forward, clicking and treating for the dog following beside me. I maintain what we call a “high rate of reinforcement” in the beginning: I click and treat every one to two steps. I practice taking turns and I click and treat for every turn the dog makes with me. I also vary my speed and directions of the turns I take. As the dog becomes proficient, I can then click and treat less, and give more praise and other reinforcement, like petting or even tugging on a toy, instead of always using food.
As you practice in the home, you can use hallways as a great way to reinforce a heel position (meaning your dog is walking with his shoulder flank to your thigh–walking right beside you). By positioning your dog between you and a wall, or even a fence or other similar barrier (even the side of a building), he will not be able to get to the end of the leash as easily and you can reinforce that heel position as you move along it.
Now–before you get out the door, we should go over some impulse control about making it out the door, which will be in our next blog. If your dog dashes out the door, you’re not only setting him up for not having the best attention on you, but it can also be a safety concern. Check out how to work on this in part two of this blog series, and then check out part three on going outside and adding more distractions.
Thank you for reading and feel free to contact me with any questions!
Owner, Delightful Doggies