You close your eyes and see your beloved dog, walking along beside you in perfect harmony, both of you enjoying a sunny afternoon stroll through the park with all the other dogs and owners out.
You open your eyes, sigh, and grab the leash while your pup screams in excitement, jumping all over you as you clip on the leash and head out to get the necessary chore of dog walking done.
Your shoulder is already sore in anticipation of the pulling you know will happen, as your dog excitedly encounters other dogs, people, and vehicles, and lunges towards them. Maybe, just maybe, it will get better as he matures.
Walking with your dog can be a pleasurable activity, but it takes some work. Leash manners aren’t likely to appear as a result of wishful thinking and growing up. Some equipment can make it easier, though, and help prevent the development of bad habits while you work on the training.
There are plenty of collars and harnesses that promise to make walking your dog easier. Some actually work, at least in the short term. Many of those, like prong collars, command collars, and electronic collars, work by causing pain, and are not something I can recommend.
So, what equipment helps control your dog’s pulling without causing pain? Our article on the best dog collars and harnesses for training takes you through our top picks for all these designs, but in short:
Some harnesses work by impinging shoulder movement or controlling your dog’s head. In the long term, I like to see people moving away from these options. While head halters and no-pull harnesses are good “triage” options, they don’t actually teach your dog how to walk nicely on leash.
Taking a calm and relaxed walk in the park among other dogs may be the end goal, but it isn’t the best place to start. You should begin in your own backyard, or even inside.
We’ll outline several different training options for teaching your dog to stop pulling on walks.
This technique was developed by Grisha Stewart. It teaches the dog to yield to small amounts of pressure on the leash. Start inside, in a boring room, and have some treats ready.
You can use a clicker if you are used to using one, or simply mark the right behavior with a short word, such as “yes!”
Clip the leash on the collar, and wait until things are calm. Apply a slight pressure on the leash to one side, and wait for your pup to yield a bit to that pressure. Your pup might actually move towards the leash pressure, or just shift his weight a bit. Take whatever you get!
Mark the moment, and give a treat. Wash, rinse, and repeat until you can see the dog respond readily to very slight leash pressure while inside, then start working on it in a familiar place outside.
Check out the video of me working on silky leash training with Barley below.
Be sure to gradually increase distractions rather than taking your dog straight from the basement training room to the dog park! Now, whenever the dog is pulling, it becomes a cue for the dog to give in to the pressure!
This technique works really well to help the dog process the environment and learn to handle distractions. 1-2-3 walking is one of the Pattern Games developed by Leslie McDevitt. Have some treats in your pocket or treat pouch, but don’t lure your dog around with the treats.
This game is really simple. Just count out loud, “One, two, three.”
Right when you say “three”, give your pup a treat. Start out just delivering treats right to your pup’s mouth until he gets it that treats come when you say three.
Then start to deliver the treat right next to the seam of your pants at head height for your dogs. I tell my clients to keep their hand touching their leg, so that they deliver the treat nice and close. This helps train your dog to stay super close to you.
Keep walking around, counting out loud, and ignore anyone giving you funny looks. Like all leash walking techniques, start playing this game when you are somewhere relatively boring and safe.
Once you have established the game, your dog should understand that when you start counting, treats are coming, and will be there when you say “three,” and you can use this when you go to someplace more exciting. Just make sure you have plenty of treats ready for training!
After you’ve done some 1-2-3 Walking and Silky Leash Training, set something out that your dog wants, (but don’t make it too hard!) like a toy, or bowl with a few low-level treats.
Be ready to use your strategies, and start about 50 feet away. Start to walk towards the “bait” and keep practicing your skills. Make sure you don’t give your pup the opportunity to get to the object without you! When you get close without your pup pulling, give your dog permission to get the toy or treats.
If at any point, the dog makes a serious attempt to get to the toy or treats, stand still, don’t move, and wait for the dog to give up the attempt and come at least a little bit back to you before starting back.
Work up to using higher level treats or toys, and increase the distance you expect your pup to walk nicely before getting his toy or treats.
Setting up practice scenarios is one of the biggest keys to success in loose-leash walking.
“But he’ll get fat, and I don’t want to give him treats forever. My hands get slimy, and what if I forget?” I hear you say. I get it.
You can use your dog’s daily food ration to start with, though you may need better treats when you first start working in the real world. My personal favorite is chopped-up hot dogs, but there’s a lot of great treats for training out there.
Just because we are using treats to get the process started, doesn’t mean you’ll have to always use them. I like to use treats intermittently to maintain the behavior – think of it like a reminder. I like payday and my dog does, too! Once my dog understands how to walk nicely, I can use life rewards, like getting to play, or go for a car ride.
Speaking of life rewards, taking a walk is often very rewarding for your pup. Remember that scenario at the beginning, with the dog screaming and jumping around while you put on the leash?
Once you’ve started to make headway on walking nicely, it is time to address this behavior.
Choose a day and time when you can wait him out, and don’t expect to get perfect behavior the first time out. But once you’ve started this process, it’s important to be consistent and not continue to allow the crazy behavior.
Pick up the leash, and watch your pup go crazy. Put your leash down, and wait until your pup gets bored and settles down.
Pick up leash again, and watch your dog go crazy again. Repeat the process until your dog can settle down while you’re holding the leash. Only then can you put the leash on. This helps put your dog into a calmer frame of mind before your walk and prevents you from rewarding him for his crazy pre-walk shenanigans.
Having a bit of control before the walk even starts, sets you up to have better control once you are actually on your walk.
So why do dogs pull on leash, anyway? Because it works! Dog pulls to get to something they’re interested in. If he succeeds, he learns that pulling works. Preventing your dog from being successful at pulling is a key component to helping your pup have good leash manners.
The fact of the matter is, your dog also probably just walks faster than you do! Pair that with his super-sniffer nose and the excitement of a walk, and no wonder we’re all being dragged down the street!
You might notice that your walks are a bit shorter while you’re working on loose leash walking. Don’t forget that walks aren’t the only way to exercise your dog. We’ve already outlined 22 games to play with your dog – don’t forget to use them!
While you’re working on your Loose Leash Walking, plan on helping your dog exercise in other ways. Keep walking on leash to a minimum when you aren’t actively training it. It’s easy to get frustrated when you overdo a new training task, so in many cases, less is more!
Playing retrieve games, hide and seek, and training recalls are all good ways to exercise your dog and spend time together. Hiding treats or toys around the yard, or home, can also help burn that pent-up energy. It’s fun for the dog – and a great show for you to watch. If you want to explore that further, tracking and nosework are fun training avenues to explore.
If you don’t have access to a yard, you’ll still need to walk your pup outside for bathroom purposes. Still, try incorporating other ways to exercise when you can. Working on your loose leash walking skills after your pup has done some other exercise can make working those skills a bit easier.
It’s important to remember that if you let Fifi drag you outside to go potty one day, she’s just learned that pulling can get her what she wants. This can threaten your loose leash training program if you take frequent walks that you don’t use as training practice.
If this feels daunting, here’s what I did to teach Barley. We lived in an apartment and I was busy. I couldn’t always do a training session when we clipped on the leash. Instead of always trying to treat walks as a training session, I only worked on loose leash walking if Barley’s leash was attached to his flat buckle collar. If I knew I didn’t have the time (or mental energy) for a training session, I clipped the leash to his Front Range Harness.
He quickly learned that the collar meant training time, while the harness was sniffing time. A year later, I still use his harness if we’re going on a relaxed walk, and his collar if I want him in a nice, loose leash walk the whole way.
Teaching your dog using this method is a great compromise for busy families that need to take frequent leashed walks.
Loose leash walking takes practice, but with some consistency, you can have a walking partner you enjoy exploring and exercising with.
Helping your dog figure out how to walk nicely using 1-2-3 Walking and Silky Leash techniques works with many dogs, but if you have a dog that is fearful or aggressive, you may need the help of a trainer, preferably one who is versed in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed program, or Grisha Stewart’s BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training) program.
These programs use positive reinforcement to help you figure out how to develop a cooperative relationship based on trust, while helping the dog process and understand the environment as not being something to be feared or reacted to.
So go, get started and let us know how it goes! We love hearing back from our readers about how their training goes, so be sure to add your own loose leash experience in the comments below!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.