Getting a dog sounded like so much fun didn’t it?
When you first thought about getting a dog you probably envisioned nice leisurely walks around your neighborhood on a beautiful sunny day. You probably didn’t think it was going to be an arm-jarring, hold on for your life drag.
Before you get too mad at your pooch, you need to remember that dogs are not programed to walk the way we do. Walking the way humans do is actually very unnatural for dogs.
Your dog is thinking, “Why the hell aren’t we running?” It just makes no sense to go so slow to them. And they also want to know, “Why on Earth would you walk in a straight line when there are so many awesome smells all around you?” Don’t forget the your dog’s nose is insanely more powerful than yours and there are an overwhelming number of interesting scents pulling at your dog’s sniffer, enticing hime to investigate.
It’s kind of like if you saw what looked like hundred dollar bills all over the place as you walked along. I’m willing to bet you’d go check them out, so let’s cut your dog some slack.
The good news is that even though walking in a straight line right next to us slow humans goes against everything dog, they can be trained to tolerate and accept our pace. However, it can only happen with time and training.
There are a number of different things you can try when trying to teach loose leash walking, and it may take some trial and error to figure out what teaching method works best for both you and your dog. Also, keep in mind what works for you may not be the best choice for someone else in your family. My wife and used two different techniques and tools to train my dog.
Here are a few techniques that I will typically use when working with dogs that pull on leash:
This is a simple one. As soon as your dog pulls forward and there’s tension on the leash, just stop, wait for the dog to from a forward orientation to a neutral one. Basically, as soon as you have some slack in the leash, then move forward again.
This technique is great because anyone can do it, however it can take some time for your dog to figure out it out and younger, high energy dogs don’t seem to get this too well.
When there is tension in the leash, gently but firmly pull up on the leash and immediately release it. This is not a “snap,” but more of a repositioning of your dog from a forward orientation to a neutral one. And the important part of this technique is not the pull on the leash from us, but the relaxing of it. We want a relaxed leash and need to get back to it as soon as possible so as soon as you give tension you must immediately release it.
You will most likely have to give a series of pulls and releases before you dog understands that he needs to go at your pace, so you need to be patient and persistent. Depending upon your dog’s size and strength you may get a bit of a workout with this one, which is when using a training collar/harness (see below) may be a good idea.
I recommend keeping your dog right next to you and not out in front if you’re going to be using leash corrections. The farther ahead your dog is the more strength you’ll need and the harder it’s going to be.
As soon as your dog moves ahead of you and you begin to feel the leash tightening, turn 180 degrees and go in the opposite direction, pulling your dog with you as you do so. When your dog catches up to you, if he now pulls in the new directions, turn and pull him back in the opposite direction again.
I call these “switch backs” and what happens is the dog will think that you’re nuts and will begin to look up at you, waiting for you to change direction again. And if he’s looking at you, he can’t be pulling.
I used this technique when I used to volunteer at a shelter. The dogs were so amped up to be outside that they would pull my arm off every walk. I would start them in alley outside the shelter and do about 5 minutes of switch backs to get them to pay some kind of attention to me.
One variation of this that works pretty well is to let your dog go out in front of you and as soon as there is tension in the leash (aka pulling) you call him and walk backward. Have a smelly treat in your hand (I like freeze dried liver), call him in to you and when he’s within arms reach lure him in close to you and give him the food.
Then continue on your walk and repeat this as you go. Over time and repetition your dog will start to equate the tension on the leash as a cue to come back and get a snack. So as soon as he starts pulling he’ll voluntarily turn back around and come back to you.
Walk & Train
A great way to stop your dog from being distracted by the world and pulling you all over the place is to give him some tasks to keep his mind occupied on your walks.
A simple way to do this is by having him sit every twenty feet or so. Just stop and ask your dog to sit and reward him with a treat. Depending upon the area you’re walking you can do every so many feet or use landmarks like driveways as an opportunity to sit. Soon, he will begin to anticipate the sits and keep looking up at you to see if it’s time for another one.
Simple sits work fine but you can have him do all sorts of stuff on the walks to keep him attentive to you. Use your walks as a training opportunity and ask him to do any number of different obedience skills or tricks.
You can even use the environment that you’re walking in and do some “urban agility.” Have him go up stairs, jump rocks, go around trees, etc…. Use your imagination and make it fun.
I’ve created two audio training programs you can listen to as you walk your dog that will talk you through some basic skills while you’re walking. CLICK HERE to check them out.
Teaching a Watch Cue
If you teach your dog a watch cue you’ll be able to ask for it often on the walk and if he’s looking at you, he can’t be pulling ahead.
This is a great tool for very distractible dogs who like to chase squirrels and birds, or who are reactive to dogs.
To teach watch start in your house with no distractions and make some sort of noise to get your dog’s attention. When your dog looks up at you, give him a treat. Then wait for him to look away and do it again.
After a short period of time your dog will realize that when you make any sound if he looks at you he gets a treat. How cool is that? Then once is consistently looking at you when you make a sound start saying “watch” (or whatever word you want to use) instead of making the noise.
Once you’ve mastered it inside with no distractions, start practicing with mild distractions (like if he hears something outside but is not reaction or even sure what it is). Then once he’s good there, try it outside with no distractions and start piling on repetitions.
This will take some time to get good compliances but is so powerful. If you have your dog’s attention, he can’t be pulling forward.
Using a Training Collar/Harness
If you’re dog is pulling like crazy you might want to try out some different tools to help you work on leash walking. Keep in mind though that the tool should only be used to aid you in training and not be a substitute for it. I see too many people becoming dependent upon the tool and then never getting off it. The goal is to be able to walk your dog with anything eventually.
One of my favorites is a front-attaching harness, which instead of attaching to the back of the dog like a standard harness it connects in front, at the chest. The cool thing about this kind of harness is that it’s self correcting – every time the dog pulls he gets turned back around in the opposite direction. All you have to do is hold the leash and wait for him to pull.
There’s lot of different leashes, harnesses and collars you can try out. Just keep in mind that every dog is different and it might take some experimentation to find the right tool that works for you.
How Should Your Dog Walk?
Some dog trainers will insist the dog always be at your side or only on your left side, but I don’t agree. Unless you’re showing your dog or doing competitive obedience, it doesn’t matter if he’s behind you, in front of you, or to the side of you, as long as the leash is relaxed. For large and/or strong dogs, it’s best to have the dog on your dominant side to give you a little more strength.
You’ll notice that I don’t have anything about teaching your dog to “heel.” That’s not a oversight, it was intentional. I don’t teach heel. I don’t what a robot dog that sticks to your side like glue – that’s taking the dog out of the dog.
Instead I like dogs to be dogs and enjoy the walk by taking in some of the magnificent scents that they pass. Instead of the heel, I prefer loose leash walking. As long as the leash is relaxed (assuming a six food lead), it doesn’t matter where your dog its – in front, behind or off to the side.
A relaxed leash is the ultimate goal. If there’s tension in the leash, there’s tension in the dog and he has no idea why the tension is there. Often, they will project that tension at whatever is directly in front of them, generally people, or dogs fueling reactive behavior.
Always keep in mind that walking on a leash is unnatural to your dog and is a skill that needs to be taught. It isn’t something that is natural for your dog or that happens overnight, but is a process. Some dogs are more challenging than others, but all dogs will require some time and effort to get the hang of it.
If you put in the time and effort, combined with some experimentation and practice, you’ll be enjoying those walks so much more.
I’ve put these tips on a single PDF so you can download and print it out for quick reference to try out. Just leave your name and email below.
Free Leash Walking Training Techniques Quick Guide
Get my list of 6 training techniques you can use to help your dog to stop pulling on leash.
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photo by: Daniele Nicolucci photography