Loose Leash WalkingSeptember 24, 2018 2021-01-09 7:48
Loose Leash Walking – it is perhaps one of the hardest skills to master for many dogs!
Does your dog pull so much on his leash that it is no fun whatsoever to walk him? Do you dread taking him out since you know he will drag you around, making it physically uncomfortable for you?
The good news is that:
Leash Walking doesn’t have to be unpleasant.
(For both the owner and the dog!)
We are able to teach our dogs to walk well on leash by just paying attention to a few key factors.
Why Does My Dog Pull?
Why on earth does the dog pull on leash in the first place? Does he not understand it is wrong? Is it not uncomfortable for him?
(Especially for smaller dogs it is clear that pulling cannot feel good. Some little ones throw themselves into their collar so hard that they end up choking and coughing up mucus. This is not good for them, and we need to show our dogs that there is another, better, more relaxed way to go for a walk with us).
As always, we want to ask ourselves the most important question in dog training: What does the dog get out of pulling?
(And also: Why does he not seem deterred by our stopping, making him sit, telling him “no” or yanking on the leash? How does that not make any impression on him?)
Born To Run
It has been a while since our dogs were wolves, but a characteristic that is still deeply ingrained in them is the wish to move. Wolves are experts at moving – they travel around 8hrs a day, essential all of their awake time. Our dogs are hard-wired to move just like their ancestors.
But even after we domesticated dogs and made them our companions and helpers, they were on the go all day long. Dogs are hard-working athletes who have high goals in mind: move, go, do stuff. Even many of the smallest lap dogs still want to keep moving.
So what your dog gets out of pulling while walking is just that – walking.
Behavior – Consequence
Let’s think back to the very first time you ever walked your dog. Perhaps he was still a little puppy. A blank slate, should not be hard to teach him to not pull, right?
That very first time you ever walked your dog he learned that in order to make you move into the direction he wants to go, he needs to pull you.
He might have hit the end of the leash and pulled a little, but since it was not too bad yet, you continued moving. In his mind, he learned “Aha, a bit slow this human, needs some encouragement to keep on walking in this direction.” He pulled a little more. Since it was your first ever walk and you only wanted to make it around the block once, you let him pull more. Again, your puppy learned “Pulling makes us both go the way I want to go”.
An unfortunate cycle of pulling and rewarding was started for your dog!
Slowly Getting Worse
During that first walk the pulling might have never been too bad. But over time your dog got stronger and stronger (just like a sled dog pulling a sleigh!) and he was able to pull harder and harder as he grew up. Eventually he pulled so badly that perhaps you do not even want to take him for walks anymore.
From the dog’s point of view, he continued to learn “Pulling makes this human move”. He is not aware that he is doing anything wrong, because what he wants (to go) is what he gets and the reward (the long road ahead of him) is right in front of him.
If he is a small dog, he puts up with the discomfort of pulling for the sake of walking. If he is a very large and powerful dog, he might not even be bothered the slightest bit by having to pull you. Months and months of pulling you around have made him an athlete who knows this is just a fact of life:
To make the human go, you have to pull on the leash.
Changing The Consequence – Changing The Behavior
If we want our dogs to stop pulling, we need to change that very enticing reward that they have right in front of them, and this is getting to keep walking. No scolding or leash popping will be able to deter strong-willed dogs from pulling on the leash as long as they are allowed to keep on moving into the direction they started in.
In order to make lasting changes to their leash pulling habits, we need to remove the promise of being able to keep walking.
Why Stopping Does Not Always Work
A widely used method for this is to stop walking, waiting to get the dog’s attention, making him sit and then start moving again into the same direction.
This is not always successful. Here is why:
For your dog, stopping, sitting and then continuing to walk is just a behavior chain. Dogs are very, very good at learning behavior chains. They can memorize very well: first a, then b, then c and so on. At the end of every behavior chain stands the reward – in the case of your dog, walking.
As long as we allow our dogs to carry on with a behavior chain, we are implying that they are doing everything correctly. Here are two human examples to envision this:
The Cop And The Highway
Imagine driving on the highway and there is a cop car behind you. The cop doesn’t flash his lights or tailgate you, he is just driving behind you. You go over a quick mental checklist: driving the speed limit, check. Lights on, check. Both hands on the wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock, check. You are doing everything right – and the cop does not seem to have any problems. You drive on.
After 20 miles he pulls you over. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” You don’t. He tells you that 21 miles ago, right before he pulled up behind you, you were indeed going too fast.
Why did he not pull you over right away?
This is what we would expect him to do. We expect being interrupted when we make mistakes, and being allowed to carry on with behaviors when they are correct.
The Math Question
Back when you were in school, did you have a math teacher who would make you come up to the front of the class and solve a problem on the blackboard? I sure did. It was a constant source of anxiety for everyone that we might get called up at any moment, not having a clue how to solve the equations.
If you were so unfortunate as to get called up front and started writing down a solution and had no real idea how to even address the question the teacher posed, you would start out writing slowly and looking at the teacher for confirmation. “I do step 1…yes? And now I calculate x…right?” not being told that you are doing anything wrong is permission to continue on with your solution.
What if at the end, after you wrote down your final result of the calculation, your teacher would say “All wrong, it was wrong by the time you started the third line”? You would be so confused. Why did he not tell you earlier that this was not ok? Why would he let you carry on, therefore implying everything was correct?
The Stop And Sit Method
If nobody stops or interrupts you during a behavior chain, you assume that you are doing everything correctly. After all, you are allowed to carry on with the next behavior and the one after that. This ultimately brings you closer to the goal. That concept applies to all instances we looked at – being allowed to keep on driving, being allowed to continue the calculation and also being allowed to keep on walking into the same direction after being asked to stop and sit.
The Stop and Sit Method makes another mistake (apart from allowing the dog to carry on moving into the same direction): It falsely applies the human concept of “slowing down” to dogs. For humans it is very clear that the stopping and sitting before continuing with the walk is meant to communicate that the dog was walking too fast and should slow down. For the dog this however is totally meaningless!
From a dog’s point of view, any kind of on-leash walk is a slow walk already. Unless he is galloping, he probably doesn’t perceive motion as being fast. The difference between his speed when pulling on leash and his speed when not pulling on leash is negligible. By assuming our dog understands us making him stop and sit as asking for him to slow down, we are actually overestimating his thinking skills (by a lot).
Again, dogs think in a behavior – consequence mindset. Since you probably not taught the sit cue to be a punishment, it is hard to apply sitting as a negative consequence for the dog who pulls. If he pulls and you ask him to sit, he might just think this is an exercise unrelated to the leash walking altogether.
Doing Too Much Can Harm Your Dog Training
We often tend to try and influence our dog’s behavior not by controlling the consequences of his actions.
A typical example is a dog who tends to rush out the door when going for a walk. We open the door and the dog starts pulling on leash to get out. Many owners respond to this by trying to hold the dog back and asking him to sit and stay. For the dog it is very hard to comprehend what is happening. In his mind his action of trying to run outside and the consequence of the open door are clear. The human telling him to sit and stay is just a background noise.
He does not want to defy you – he just does not see how the consequence you provide (giving a sit and stay command) is in any way tied to him wanting to rush out and the door being open.
Here’s what to do instead:
If your dog tries to rush out, close the door. Do not say anything. Do not hold him back by his leash. Just close the door.
I guarantee that this will make more of an impact on him than any commands you could give him, and even more than shoving him backwards (or using the leash to do so).
Simply use the following two consequences for his behaviors:
Rushing forward – close the door
Staying back – open the door
This will make it (much!) clearer to your dog that he is actually in charge of the outcome of the situation. If the outcome seems the same whether or not he is pulling (in the case of keeping the door open and telling him to sit), he will have a hard time appreciating why it is so crucial for him to stay back.
If however the outcome of his behaviors is directly linked to his actions, he will be much more able to change his actions to do what we want and what leads him to his ultimate goal – going through the door.
What Actually Works
Now we know two important key facts:
- Dogs like to move.
- Dogs respond best to immediate consequences to their actions, which show them whether or not they are successful.
Again, let’s go through our thought process on what reward the dog finds in his behavior for pulling. It is being allowed to keep on walking into the direction that he wants to go. This is his greatest goal – and it is also our biggest chance to teach him that he can only get what he wants if he does not pull on leash!
So what we will do whenever he reaches the end of the leash is…
This might seem odd. Turn around? So in the beginning (with a dog who pulls a lot) you turn around every couple seconds?
When you were teaching your dog to not rush out the door, you were probably closing the door quite a bit before ever getting to go out the door. In teaching loose leash walking, it is important that we use the same consistency and clarity in our feedback. Whenever your dog reaches the end of the leash, make a 180 degree turn.
How About Only Pulling A Little Bit?
It is very important that you are consistent and predictable in your criteria. So far your dog has experienced that pulling gets him to walk. Now all of a sudden we plan to change the rules and show him that not pulling is what makes the walk happen.
It is much easier for your dog to understand that he should avoid putting any kind of strain onto the leash than just not straining too much.
If you allow your dog to pull just a little bit (because you just want to walk around the block once or you want to make it to the post office before it closes) it is only natural that he will regress into following the old rule set of pulling = walking.
It is very difficult to be consistent in allowing the dog to pull a little bit.
This little bit will vary every day – depending on how well-rested you are, how strong your dog feels, if it is too hot or too cold etc. It will definitely vary a lot of several people walk the dog. What might be acceptable pulling for the father of the family may just knock the child over.
By My Side – The Best Place To Be
Now we know how to tell our dog what not to do (pulling). Let’s explore how we help our dog be successful in walking without pulling as well as possible.
For a dog who is just starting out to relearn loose leash walking, it might be very tricky to only have turning around/walking straight ahead as a feedback option.
You see, your dog has a long history of experiencing that pulling makes him go for a walk. Now the rules have changed and the opposite is true. He is still a bit “caught” in the old mindset and may find it difficult to switch. We want to give him all the help we can!
Which Side Should Your Dog Walk On?
Dog trainers used to teach heeling on the left side only. I strongly recommend to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash on both sides of you. This will not only come in handy when you are walking along a road that might only have a walkway on one side (and you want to of course have them on the side that is not next to the traffic), but also in dogs sports such as agility where the dog will need to learn to work on your left and right side.
The following exercise teaches dogs to choose to stay by your side by building a reinforcement history for it.
Step 1: Just Standing Around At Home
First, we want to practice having your dog be by your side at home. We will build a reinforcement history for finding and staying in the right heeling position.
Pick a wall and stand next to it with your dog between you and the wall. The wall is there to prevent the dog from swaying out to the side and moving away laterally from you. Do not use a leash for this exercise. Since you are at home, your dog is not going to go anywhere and you can practice showing him where you want him to be not by using physical pressure, but only good rate and placement of rewards.
You can set up your dog in his place between you and the wall by tossing a treat behind you, and then, as you dog looks up at you after eating it, luring him next to your leg.
Now just give him many, many treats in this position. There is nothing the dog has to “do”. It is all on you! You want to show him that this is a perfect and desirable place to be.
Step 2: Walking The Wall
After at least one or two sessions of feeding your dog treats for nothing else than assuming his position next to you and standing there, you can advance to walking along the wall. This does not mean walking for 15ft. It means taking one small step and rewarding your dog enthusiastically for walking alongside you. Then another small step, and so on.
It is very important that you do not rush this groundwork. It is supposed to be laughably easy and doable. This is not supposed to be a challenge for your dog, it is intended to built a reinforcement history of staying by your side. The more positive experiences your dog can build in this position, the smoother the actual loose leash walking will go.
The more time you invest into these first steps, the better prepared you are for the later stages.
Think of it as making a little deposit into your loose leash walking bank account every time you reward your dog by your side at home.
Step 3: In Front Of Your House
Now hold a leash in your hand (for safety, not for steering the dog), but otherwise do the exact same process outside your house along a wall. You can pick a low-distraction time of the day at first. Perhaps that this late in the evening, early in the morning or during the afternoon. I do not recommend starting out while everyone drives to or from work or walks their dogs along your street. By choosing busy times like these, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Just stand next to the wall and reward your dog for finding his place by your side. By now he should enthusiastically do so, after all the treats he has eaten in the position before.
Don’t push him too far and aim for as much attention and focus as possible.
Step 4: Walking Along Your House
Advance to walking along the outside of your house. Start with one step at a time and many treats for staying by your side. Then two, three, and so on. Once more, don’t rush. This is not a step that you want to check off your list as soon as possible, but rather a long-term investment into your dog’s understanding of the value of staying with you.
Putting It All Together
Now you have a lot of theory and groundwork, ready to put it into practice?
Start with a dog that has already had some form of exercise (more on that below). Have a lot of treats ready and try to hold several in your hand at once for rapid rewards.
Start walking. As long as the leash does not pull taunt, you can treat your dog. Make sure that he eats his treats. In the beginning he may not even know that you have any. I often see owners wanting to reward their dog, but the dog is unaware and sniffing or turning his head to the side – do not simply give up. Hold your treat directly in front of your dog’s mouth, we need him to take our reinforcement when we want to deliver it!
If your dog does reach the end of the leash and pull, turn around. I would not even speak, definitely not call the dog’s name (a turn on a leash is not a recall), say “no”, “ah-ah” or similar. Simply turn quietly and walk into the other direction. Now you have a big advantage: Your dog was in front of you before you turned, so now he is behind you. That means that in order to get in front of you again, he needs to pass your side – a great moment to treats him and remind him of the value that comes with walking by your side!
Continue like this: Walk while your dog is not pulling and reward him frequently, turn around when he does pull. It is very important that you turn around instantly – remember the cop car that should stop you instantly, too?
Make the sessions short and end while you are ahead. Do not spend 30 minutes practicing this! Your dog’s whole view of the world (okay, the leash walking world) has just changed and processing it is tiring for his mind. He will learn faster on the long run if you keep the sessions short and successful.
While you are retraining, please note that:
Loose Leash Walking Is Not “Physical Exercise”
While you are retraining your dog’s loose leash walking skills, you need to find another type of exercise for him. As we have discussed above, you and your dog will not cover a lot of ground in the beginning stages of relearning.
You need to find another way to provide him with exercise, both because
- Unless he is quite old or a sedentary breed, he will require physical exercise.
- Loose leash walking practice is going to be a lot easier if you do not start with a dog that is brimming with energy.
Whatever behavior or skill we are training, we always want to set up our dog for success. That not only means capturing the moments in which he is doing something correctly, but also trying to let him enter the training session with the best mindset possible.
Loose leash walking is a calm and low-energy activity. If all the exercise your dog gets is leash walking, and he does not yet understand that he should not pull on leash, you are setting yourself up for a cycle frustration and disappointment.
Your dog will be full of energy and ready to go, and then we ask him to walk slowly on leash. He will pull a lot, we will turn around a lot and not actually cover a lot of ground and in the next session our dog will be even more energetic and ready to go.
Instead, we want to establish another cycle: One in which leash walking is a relaxing downtime for our dog, with a lot of sniffing and chilling.
In order to achieve that it is very important that he has had some sort of energy outlet before you start training.
Running into problems with the method outlined above and not sure how to fix them? Here are some solutions.
My Dog Won’t Take Treats
If your dog is refusing to take treats from you during your leash walking practice, he is not yet in the right mindset to learn. Refusal to eat is a common sign of over-arousal.
The solution here is not to look for a method without treats, but to bring the dog back to a state in which he is able to eat.
We all know the level of excitement that goes along with not being interested in food. We might have felt that way before an exam, during a high-stress period at work or before a date. Recall the sensation of buzzing with energy and adrenalin and not being the slightest bit hungry.
This is not a mindset in which a dog can be calm and collected enough to take a relaxing walk on leash.
If your dog cannot eat, go back to the last situation in which he could eat. If he stops taking treats when you walk by a busy park, then go back to the corner of the road before you reached the park. If your dog stops eating when practicing loose leash walking with many other dogs in a group class, bring some distance between you and them and practice further away.
Refusal to take treats is a very strong feedback from your dog that says “I am too excited to learn right now.”
Make sure you always take this seriously and make the situation less arousing for him.
My Dog Can Only Walk On A Prong Collar/Choke Collar/No-Pull Harness
If you have used specific tools so far for walking your dog, you can still apply the method outlined above and transition to a flat collar or regular harness.
The underlying principle of choke collars, prong collars and no-pull harnesses is all the same:
Pulling is made physically uncomfortable for the dog so that he basically self-corrects.
Like in our door example however, the dog still sees his final goal – walking – in front of him all the time. The behavior pulling is paired with the consequence of discomfort.
While this works, it can make the dogs “collar-smart”: They know whether or not they are wearing the equipment that makes pulling uncomfortable, and need to be wearing it in order to reliably not pull.
The dog still has his big reward in front of him the whole time: Getting to walk where he wants to walk.
(But going fast might be a bit painful.)
If you want to transition from using a corrective collar to a flat collar, follow the steps outlined above. Do not use the collar in a corrective way, but instead rely on turning around as the sole consequence for pulling.
Weaning The Treats
Of course you do not want to spend the rest of your life walking your dogs with fistfuls of treats. This is not necessary – I have not walked my own dogs with treats in years! (Ever since they first learned how to walk on leash.)
As your dog gets better at understanding that in order to walk, he needs to curb his speed, you can give him fewer and fewer treats. Dogs really enjoy eye contact and friendly words, so start to replace every second treat with a smile and a “what a good boy!” at first.
Since walking itself is a strong reward, walking will eventually become the sole reward.
As you are fading the treats, you can go from fading every second treat to only giving a treat at every street corner to only one at the end of to walk to none at all.
While you are doing this, you need to remain very consistent in your other consequence though:
Pulling always needs to be met with turning around