A Walk in the Park: Leash Walking Tips for You and Your Pup
By Joan Hunter Mayer
Walking together is one of the most basic activities dogs and the people who love them do together. So, we would like to share some tips to help you and your dog harness an easy, enjoyable, walking experience.
Why Do Dogs Pull?
If you have a dog that pulls, lunges, or drags on leash walks, it can be helpful to walk a mile in their paws and think about why this might be happening.
For starters, keep in mind that the average dog walks at a pace much faster than the average person. Many times, our dogs do a great deal to accommodate us humans on walks!
But sometimes they pull to get closer to things they’re interested in – ‘terrific’ scents, new places, other dogs, people to meet, critters, and the occasional stray leaf. Your dog’s pulling might be telling you that what he’s pulling towards is more motivating than you are. Or maybe he’s dragging to prevent leaving a desired location. Lunging while on the leash could be a clue that your dog is becoming overly excited and/or lacking impulse control, or that he’s upset about something. This is all pretty normal doggy behavior! It’s a lot to ask your inquisitive canine to consistently maintain self-control around exciting and/or unfamiliar things while out for a stroll.
Energy outlets and enrichment could be at play as well. Appropriate activities should match your pup’s age, overall energy, and health. Let’s say Fido relentlessly pulls towards people and/or pets during walks. What else might be going on? Is he attempting to release pent-up energy? Not getting enough mental and physical exercise between walks? Lacking adequate opportunities to engage in normal species appropriate behaviors such as sniffing and socializing?
Sometimes dogs pull to escape something that scares them or that they don’t like. So, when we try to see things from our pup’s point of view, the question shifts from, “How can I stop him?” to “How can I help him?”
Lastly, dogs might pull simply because they don’t know what to do instead or because it’s just doggone fun!
What Can You Do if Your Dog is Pulling?
Even with some insight as to why, dogs pulling on leash walks can be frustrating for us humans. A love-of-dog approach to teaching loose leash walking is a step in the right direction! Loose leash walking (LLW) means your dog is walking calmly on leash next to you while being allowed to explore, sniff, and enjoy the sunshine – within the length of your leash, with a relaxed, loose body, soft facial features, often an open mouth, without pulling, tugging, or lunging.
Dog Walking Equipment We Recommend
Leash – As both a certified trainer and dog mom, I’m a fan of 4’-6’ flat leashes that feel comfortable in your hand. They’re usually lightweight, easy to hold, and easy to clean. Note: Be sure the leash is used as a safety line, not for controlling your dog; try not to pull or tug at your pup. Holding the leash at your waist, with your arms relaxed, helps prevent you from inadvertently pulling back on the leash.
Harness – Using a comfortable dog harness with a front clip option for leash attachment will help decrease pulling while you work on building your dog’s LLW skills. The harness should fit your dog so he can move freely, not impinging on the shoulders, but also something he can’t wriggle out of and escape from.
Treats – Novelty is key, so vary what you offer to help keep your pup curious and engaged with you. You can use your dog’s dry food - giving them part of their meals ‘on the road’ - and also include a variety of higher value treats, such as small pieces of chicken or other lean meat.
Training Loose Leash Walking
How do we teach loose leash walking? One step at a time – literally! Rather than focusing on the behavior you want to stop (pulling), first determine what it is you want your dog to do. If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for? Do you want your pooch to happily and comfortably walk next to you, at a pace that matches your own? Once you have this picture in your mind, take the time to teach the necessary skills and practice them. Here are our top tips:
Gradually Adjust the 3-D’s: Distance, Duration and Distractions
Distance: Reward what you want! In this case, it’s less distance between you and your dog. So, use an upbeat, encouraging voice and yummy treats to encourage your dog to stay next to you. Since position is key here, be mindful about delivering treats where you would like your dog to be - at your side with the leash loose.
Duration: Duration is something that needs to be built up s-l-o-w-l-y. It’s not fair to expect three minutes of loose leash walking from a dog who has only ever done it for three seconds. The key is to avoid steadily and predictably increasing the duration. Mix it up and reward for longer and shorter spans of walking on a loose leash. Creating many opportunities for reinforcement helps your dog stay interested and engaged. You’ll soon find Fido spending more time at (or near) your side, with a slack leash. If not, consider moving to a less distracting area.
Distractions: Again, slow and steady wins the race. Begin teaching the basics inside, with few distractions. Next, consider moving to the back yard, then the front, then a familiar street, before you venture out to that busy hiking trail together. Staying focused and motivated in the face of the many competing stimuli encountered on walks is hard for dogs! So, remember to start practicing in a quiet, low-key environment and be ready to return to that level if needed. Add in distractions one at a time and as you step out of your dog’s comfort zone into more distracting situations, keep up the positive reinforcement whenever you see polite walking on a slack leash.
Building to Advanced Levels
With all the excitement of the outdoors, if LLW seems challenging for you and/or your inquisitive canine, not to worry. Instead, take a step back and consider the following:
Generalization - Dogs don’t generalize this type of skill, meaning, if she learns to walk on your left side in her own neighborhood, then she might not know what to do when asked to walk on your right side in a new location. To really polish this new skill, practice LLW in a variety of settings, under different circumstances.
In the early stages of training, keep your dog motivated by rewarding more frequently. Frequent rewards - a combination of treats, petting, play and praise - motivate dogs to stay interested, curious and engaged, rather than wander to the end of the leash looking for something else to do. If your dog is just planting his feet or dragging because he is bored, that’s a signal to increase the motivation. Keep in mind, when training in the great outdoors, it’s like studying for an exam at an amusement park.
Using additional cues can also help your pup want to stay involved in training games. (More opportunities for reinforcement.) If Fluffy knows a “watch me” cue (making eye contact with you), you can cue and reward it! Initially, capture every opportunity to reward Fluffy when she looks at you, whether or not you cued it. As she becomes more proficient, you can intermittently reinforce. Teaching your pup to check in with you while out and about helps remind her that you’re out together, which enhances the bond you share. To get the most enjoyment and connection out of your walks together, unleash the love!
Use Real-Life Rewards
Do you have a good sense of what your dog most wants to do when out for a walk? Sniff every tree and hydrant for minutes on end? Stare at cars as they go by? Rather than being challenged by these behaviors, you can use your environment as a source of real-life rewards! All you do is wait for a few seconds of the behavior you like (a loose leash), and then you can release your pup to claim the reward - a Sniffari, stopping to stare, etc.
If you are okay with it under certain circumstances, and it’s safe to do so, use greeting as a reinforcer! Ask your dog to do something first such as ‘watch me’ or ‘sit.’ Instead of a piece of chicken, the reward is getting to pull you towards friends to say, “hi!” (Keep in mind, everyone involved, including other dogs, need to consent to this first — you want to avoid doggy bowling!)
Or say you’re walking your dog on leash to an area that he will be let off leash. Unclipping the leash after some dynamite LLW is another wonderful real-life reward! As long as you use a release cue like “okay” or “free” your inquisitive (and intelligent) canine understands you are releasing him from the behavior you prefer so he can do the one he prefers.
Call in the Pros
If you and your buddy are struggling with leash manners, try your best to address any underlying issues. To help harness excess energy in more productive ways, try interactive food toys, sports, and other fun activities between walks. Even if your inquisitive canine struggles with leash reactivity (lunging, barking), it’s still possible to get more enjoyment and connection out of your walks together. For these more challenging situations, it is advisable to contact a certified, force-free dog trainer or behavior consultant for help. Avoid aversive equipment for the sake of harming your dog and your bond, creating a negative conditioned response. For more on this, please see our previous Edhat posts.
So next time you leash up your dog to embark on outdoor adventures together, be her hero with these pro tips that are rewarding to both pets and guardians.
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!