What is loose leash walking? Loose leash walking is an informal leash walking behavior. It’s not “heeling”, which is a precision walking behavior required for obedience competitions, but it can be a precursor to that. While loose leash walking it is acceptable if your dog sniffs, lags behind you, or forges ahead of you a little bit, as long as the leash stays loose.
Why does my dog need to know it? Leash manners are invaluable for all dogs. Imagine taking your dog for a walk around the block, on a hike, or even just out to pee without getting dragged around. It is also important to teach for safety’s sake – a pulling dog is dangerous on icy sidewalks or steep stairs. Plus, your dog walker will love you for training it!
How do I teach it? LLW is a duration behavior. Duration behaviors are taught in tiny increments. Remember, we don’t ask for a 15-minute sit stay right off the bat, so we don’t ask for 2 minutes of perfect LLW immediately either. Start teaching loose leash walking in a quiet, neutral environment like your living room or bedroom. To teach it, shape it step-by-step: take a step forward, and click and feed your dog a treat right at your side before your dog has the opportunity to sniff or wander off. Take another step, and click and treat for the same behavior. Repeat.
If at all possible, try to feed your dog in motion, without stopping, when giving the dog a treat. It builds the behavior faster. Also, make sure treats are soft and very tiny so they can be eaten quickly while the dog is moving.
Gradually work up to taking two steps before clicking and treating. Then three steps. Once you have worked up to three steps, randomize how many steps you take before clicking and treating. Don’t always make it harder and harder (for example, 5 steps, 6 steps, 8 steps) because it reduces motivation. “Ping-pong” it by randomizing how many steps you ask for (3 steps, 1 step, 5 steps, 2 steps) for the best results. By varying the duration in this manner, you can work up to longer periods of LLW without losing your dog’s focus.
Remember that loose leash walking on a busy road or near the dog park is a lot harder for your dog than doing it in your backyard. As a result, be sure to decrease duration back down to 2-3 steps per click in exciting environments, and use high-value, super tasty treats when working near a lot of distractions to ensure your dog is successful. Loose leash walking is a hard behavior for dogs to learn – do not ask for too much too soon! It takes weeks of training to teach this behavior reliably, so be consistent and practice often.
We recommend that owners purchase a front-clip harness, such as the Freedom harness, and use that while taking their dogs for walks while the dog is still mastering LLW. Front-clip harnesses discourage pulling by gently turning the dog back towards you if he pulls. It is much harder for a dog to pull you anywhere when he is wearing a front-clip harness. Head halters can be used in a similar manner. Regardless of the equipment you decide to use, success comes from using a high rate of reinforcement to reward the dog for staying by your side and not rushing forward. Happy training!