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Loose-Leash Walking

Whether you have a dog that lives indoors or outdoors, a daily walk on a leash is crucial. It not only provides exercise for your dog, but it also helps with bonding and problem behaviors such as barking and digging. We all know that leash walks provide lots of physical stimulation for dogs, but did you know that they provide tons of mental stimulation, as well?

Almost anytime someone asks me about their dog’s behavior, or just asks me a dog-training question in general, my first question is, “How often do you walk your dog?” The response is usually that the dog has plenty of room in the backyard to play, has a playmate that she plays with all day, goes to doggy daycare, etc. Those are all great ways to provide your dog with physical stimulation, yet there is not much mental stimulation being provided.

When you walk your dog around your neighborhood on a daily basis, you are exposing him to different sounds, sights, and smells. He is being stimulated by new things, plus he has to pay attention to you–where you’re walking, turning, etc. This provides plenty of physical and mental stimulation. When a dog is mentally and physically stimulated, he is less bored and anxious. So, this means if you walk your dog every day (length of walk depends on dog’s age, breed, health and the weather conditions), he will dig less, bark less, chew less, etc. When a dog isn’t bored, it no longer feels the need to exhibit these undesirable behaviors. It also helps with dogs that are anxious and/or skittish by lowering their cortisol levels.

What if your dog likes to drag you on the leash? We can easily let them drag us down the street, but that’s really no different than letting them run around and play outside. It provides no mental stimulation, and it hurts them as well as our arms and backs.

Realistic expectations
The first thing you should do is have realistic expectations. Training takes time. Think of your dog’s age. A puppy is going to learn loose-leash walking faster than an older dog that has been allowed to pull on the leash for years. So, be ready to put in lots of work for several weeks–sometimes months for older dogs.

Proper equipment
Second, be sure that you have proper equipment. Retractable leashes are not a good option for loose-leash walking because they actually encourage pulling on the leash. I do not recommend choke or prong/pinch collars either. These devices are very old-school, outdated, and can cause aggression, fear, anxiety, and/or physical harm. I recommend a regular collar and regular leash (4-6′ nylon or leather leash).

Harnesses work well, too, but the more you can control the dog’s head and nose, the more you can control the pulling. If you have a dog with breathing issues like a brachycephalic dog, then a harness would be a better choice than a collar. If you feel as though your dog overpowers you, then I recommend using either a Gentle Leader or an Easy Walk Harness (both can be found at your local pet stores, and you MUST read all of the instructions and move at your dogs pace with a Gentle Leader).

Red light/green light
The next thing to remember is the “golden rule” of Loose-Leash Walking: A loose leash is a green light, and a tight leash is a red light. This means that when the leash is tight/taut, you should not continue to walk forward, for this is just signaling to your dog that pulling is an appropriate behavior.

There are three different ways to “execute” this rule. The first method, and the most popular, is to stop–completely come to a halt every time the leash is tight and your dog is pulling. As soon as you feel tension in the leash, just stop in your tracks. Ideally, you should wait until he makes the leash loose again. he may do so by turning around and facing you, taking a few steps backwards, or maybe sitting.

In any of those scenarios, the leash will go from tight to loose. When it is loose again, you can continue walking forward. When it’s tight, you stop and wait for a loose leash. DO NOT pull back on the leash. This will cause your dog to want to pull even harder in the opposite direction. You could also severely injure his trachea. Training should never be forceful or scary for your dog.

The second method is to switch directions. As soon as you feel tension in the leash, instead of stopping, just immediately start walking in the opposite direction. You can continue to do so, or you can make a circle and turn back . Sometimes, I even just turn the dog in a small circle, rather than turning with the dog. Remember that this is NOT forceful–you shouldn’t be yanking, tugging, etc. Whether you turn with your dog, or you turn him around, it should be smooth, gentle, and completely pain-free.

The third and final method is to walk backwards. I know, it sounds silly, but trust me–it works. As soon as you feel tension in the leash, immediately start walking backwards until your dog is near you again. Then continue walking forward again.

In order for Loose-Leash Walking to be effective, you MUST either stop, turn around, or walk backwards every time your dog pulls. Just as I encourage my clients, I encourage you to use all methods. You can stop and wait for a loose leash, occasionally switch directions, and other times, walk backwards. Or, you can use a combination that helps the dog best. Some dogs may respond better to one method alone. Find what works for your dog. Again, remember to be patient. I always tell my clients that Loose-Leash Walking training is one of the things that will take the longest.

A Few More Tips

1. Your dog does NOT have to walk on your left side. Pick a side, and try to stick to it–it can be on the left or right.

2. This is not a military-style walk, and it’s not heel. Your dog can walk in front of you or behind you–there should just never be a tight leash where the dog is pulling. Heel is for working dogs, show dogs, etc. Loose-Leash Walking is intended to be a nice walk with you and your dog in a park or around your neighborhood.

3. This walk is for your dog. It is perfectly fine to let him stop and smell things, say hi to a friend, etc.

4. Praise, treats, and rewards go a long way! Don’t wait for your dog to pull. When he is walking nicely give lots of praise, give a treat here and there, and/or even stop and play tug with a toy for a moment. Letting him know that staying near you equals way better stuff then pulling towards distractions will make him want to stay near you and not pull.

5. Don’t focus on the distance that you cover initially. With all that stopping, switching directions, and walking backwards at first, you probably will not get too far. That’s OK. Your dog was still given lots of mental and physical stimulation. Generally, I recommend about a 20-minute walk (at least) per day. Remember that this varies from dog to dog depending on different variables.

6. Every time you let your dog pull you, you are starting his training all over again.

7. Be patient. Have fun. Dogs thrive when they’re happy. So, be happy that your dog is happy! If you find yourself getting frustrated, ask yourself if you’re having realistic expectations or if you’re moving at a faster learning rate than your dog. If you’re still frustrated, then just end your training session and come back to it later. No need to take out stress and frustration on Fido.

Until next time…Happy Training!

Britney Blanchette Pitre, CPDT-KA
Bons Chiens Dog Training, LLC.

a Ruff Life is a monthly column featured in the Jambalaya News and on LakeCharles.com, read more great articles from these great publications here.