Loose Leash Walking

Loose leash walking can be a super challenging skill–just think of it–all the fun stuff to sniff and play with just out of reach, and this big primate crawling along like a snail behind you. Add to that, you guys don’t speak the same language or share the same interests–I mean, who doesn’t love a good skunky roadkill? So for us hoomans, it’s a question of explaining, in a language the dog can understand, that we really really don’t like to have our arms pulled out of the sockets, or to be careened across the pavement in pursuit of that squirrel. We humans can teach loose leash walking by making it unpleasant anytime the dog pulls, OR we can it by making it pleasant when the dog doesn’t pull–but remember what you are competing with. You are competing with last nights roadkill, fresh urine de female dog (possibly in heat!), a mouse, a hot dog, deer poop–whatever particular potpourri of enchanting smells decorate your neighborhood every day. Remember that for dogs, their nose is their most important, most vivid sense. It’s like looking at a Van Gogh or a picture of a gorgeous sunset, or the sunset itself, only more so. Smells are almost irresistible for dogs. And, with our lifestyles, dogs spend most of their days indoors, sniffing the same old boring stuff, day after day. Don’t get me wrong–they love a nice snuggle on the couch, a good dinner, watching the football game with Dad. They truly do–but it’s not like actually playing the game or being the hero–and dogs LOVE to play the game.

Some breeds are harder to train than others. My list of “challenging” breeds include Huskies, pointers, hounds, and “pitties”. Huskies are built and bred for sledding–they LOVE to run. That said, it IS possible. I’m not the only one. I know quite a few trainers who have had great success. Many of them actually do pulling type sports with their dogs, and just change equipment for when they want to walk on a loose leash.

Pointers and hounds are really nose driven dogs–they love to run and get super excited about being outside, and they just can’t understand why you don’t want to watch them run and run and run and run–really–they might find a BIRD (or squirrel, or rabbit–you get the idea)! Pointers can also be taught loose leash walking–but you might have to teach them first about yummy treats–in my experience, a well bred pointer may actually spit out treats in lieu of an opportunity to run and sniff. It’s doable–just realize that “outside” is a distractor of monumental proportions.

Pitties are my favorite. I actually don’t think they are hard to train. I just think they are bowling balls that are completely impervious to the human dangling along behind them. They are strong, and built to take a LOT of pressure. So, rather than try to fight them–let’s make it FUN for them!

So, before we even address actual training, there’s something else we need to talk about. Is your pup getting enough mental and physical exercise? Take a good hard look and answer honestly. It’s super hard to train a dog to walk in a relaxed manner if he is so excited he can’t think. It’s kind of like taking a kid on a 32 oz bottle of cola and a birthday cake and asking him to sit quietly. It just isn’t possible–at least not in the beginning. Yes, after a bit of training (quite a bit of training actually) you can amp a dog up to the 9’s and still get him to walk calmly–but you can’t do it to start with. So be honest, be realistic. Get your dog some exercise.

I know it’s tough–you want to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash so you can exercise him. We’ll get there, but for now, consider playing fetch, getting a flirt pole, playing chase in the back yard, playing with the water hose, even playing tug can help–any fast and furious activities to get some of the yayas out. (Cautionary note here–you might want a few minutes of calm activities between physical exercise and training just to return to a “zen” state where he can learn. Otherwise, you may still have all those excitement hormones butting in on your walkies).

Brain Games
Often mentioned, but not always practiced, is the benefit of mental exercise. The brain actually uses thousands of calories when it is “working”, and a good brain game can really help to “center” a dog and prepare him for learning. Super easy (for the human half!) “brain games” for dogs include kong feeders, puzzle toys, playing “go hunt” (see our files), sprinkles, chewing real bones, and my favorite, nosework.

I’m pretty much of a purist when it comes to equipment. I like using the least amount of equipment possible–I want my dog to be listening to me, and I like my dog to be obedient even if I forget my super duper magical training equipment (that’s happened more than once–ooops!).

Some equipment is needed for safety–the perfect example is a leash. Leashes are important for keeping our dogs safe, even when they are excited. We train a loose leash walk so we can pleasantly keep dogs from running out into the street, running up to other dogs or people , and in general, making “Joe Public” feel safe.

We’ll use a couple simple pieces of equipment to train. For me, priority number one is safety–I don’t want anything that can damage my dog. This is why I avoid flat collars when training a loose leash walk–it can cause damage to the trachea, which can be lethal in the long run. I also don’t like choke collars–those can cause medical issues from the pressure. My second priority is comfort. I want my pup to be happy and comfortable when working with me–so all of my dogs were trained on www.cleanrun.com’s “original fleece lined harness”. It is super comfy, doesn’t usually put pressure on the neck, and doesn’t put pressure on the shoulder joints–super important for puppies and hard working dogs. If your dog is a strong puller, try a front clip harness. Front clip harnesses are comfortable, safe, effective, and they don’t cause pain and discomfort. So go ahead, spring for a little bling! Get front clip harness and start walking. All my clients love it!

(If you plan on doing any kind of weight pulling or sled work with your dog, I suggest you get a totally different piece of equipment for that–a harness that is built to distribute the weight. Having a separate piece of equipment also helps your dog work through the confusion of “now she wants me to pull?!?!?!” )

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I saved up a bunch of super awesome videos to help you out.
These videos below are my favorites collection for how to teach a loose leash walk–these are all rewards based, all fun, and–’cause it is fun– you can mix or match without creating anxiety and confusion in your dog. Feel free to switch it up depending on what is working that day or week, or switch it up to keep your pup excited and having fun–no one likes to do the same thing every day! Remember the basics–exercise your dog before training. Have fun. Start out super super easy! If you or the pup are getting frustrated, stop, go back a step, increase rewards, take a break, try again! Call a pro trainer. Don’t Panic!

The videos are loosely organized by difficulty. For my super high drive, overstimulated pups (remember, I have pointers), I would literally step out of the back door and back in again the first time I started going outside with the loose leash. I think we spent 3 days within 5 feet of the back door (remember, we got our yayas out in other ways).

Wow–all that was just the intro! But, the thing is, if you don’t set yourself up “right” to start with, training is just a struggle. It’s no fun, and I can tell you from experience….if training isn’t at least a little fun, we just don’t do it. So, get set, on your mark….TRAIN!

Video links!
Foundations–starting out indoors and low-distraction areas

High drive dogs, no treats needed
Also good for between intensive heel sessions
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UHQXCQ1MkoHeeling using “300 pecks”. Good for short training sessions and to build solid loose leash
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyG0oF5-d0wA unified training protocol using consequences, treats, and body language.