Before we start:
This blog is outlining loose-leash walking, not heeling. The goal of this exercise is to teach your dog to walk politely by your side without pulling. This is not about competition heeling where your dog’s entire focus is on you. In this form of loose-leash walking, your dog is welcome to look around and take in the sights as you walk.
whatever collar or harness your dog usually wears on walks
a leash comfortable to handle that is NOT a retractable or bungee leash
yummy treats (not your dog’s normal food)
a treat pouch is handy for holding those treats!
A clicker to mark correct behavior (or a marker word)
Before you get started, you need to decide what loose leash walking means to you. What side do you want your dog to walk on? Traditionally dogs are trained to walk on the left side of their handler, but nothing is wrong with them walking on the right side. Do you want your dog beside you in ‘heel’ position? Do you want your dog slightly behind you?Or do you just want your dog to stop pulling? All of those are valid answers! Ideally, your dog should always be able to see you so they can follow you and your directions. My rule of thumb is – if I can’t see their eye, they’re too far in front. One of the keys to success is to choose an appropriate leash. A retractable leash teaches your dog that pulling is okay – they have to pull the leash to get it to extend out. A leash that is the appropriate length will also help. A 7 foot leash can mean that you dog will be able to get so far ahead of you they can’t see you before they start to tighten the leash. Choosing a leash that is 5 feet long is a good start for most dogs and sets you and your dog up for success. Don’t forget you’ll need lots of patience!
If you have a high energy dog, you should exercise your dog before starting a training session. A game of fetch or tug of war are great ways to burn off some energy and take off the edge! If you are new to clicker training (or using a verbal marker) be sure to practice your timing before getting started. There are lots of great resources online to help you perfect your technique. Timing is key. You should begin your training in a quiet, distraction free environment. This may mean in your living room (if you have enough space) or just in the backyard. If you are training outside, give your dog a chance to potty before getting started. As your dog learns and improves, you can slowly move on to different environments. Just remember, every time you interact with your dog you are training them, whether you mean to or not.
There are many ways to teach a dog to walk on a loose leash, but the following is my favorite way!
After you have gathered all your equipment and have your dog leashed up, begin standing in front of your dog, head on (START position). Choose a noise you can make to get their attention (such as a smooching noise). Make your attention sound, and once your dog looks at you click, give them a treat, and begin walking backwards. You may need to move back quickly to keep their attention, but don’t move so fast that they become overly excited.
Continue walking backwards in random patterns, circling, turning, slowing down, speeding up, and randomly stopping. Before any change in pace or pattern, make your attention noise to warn your dog. As long as they are following you and paying attention, click and treat them. It’s best to start with a click/treat (C/T) every 2 or 3 steps at first, then slowly work up to more steps before each C/T.
Once you feel that your dog is catching on and is having a great time playing this new game, you’re ready for the next step. Begin again from START position. Begin walking backwards. Give your dog 10 – 15 steps to engage – once they are engaged with you and following your lead, quickly turn your body as you walk so that you and your dog are now both facing and walking forward. C/T as soon as you and your dog are lined up. Continue moving at the same speed.
Once you and your dog are both facing forward, begin by only walking in straight lines. C/T your dog for being in position beside you every 2 or 3 steps. Keep those treats coming – this is the hard part! Many dogs need a little extra time to get used to paying attention to you by their side as opposed to in front of them. When your dog gets ahead of you, and BEFORE your dog starts pulling on the leash, make your attention noise and begin walking backwards in the opposite direction. As soon as your dog is facing you again, C/T. Move backwards 5 to 10 steps before again turning to face forward. Rinse and repeat! You can expect to spend the most time in this step. You will once again slowly build up the number of steps between each C/T.
Begin to add in turns once your dog can follow for 10 steps or more. Just remember to make your attention noise before any turn or change in pace. When you begin making turns, you should C/T as they successfully make the turn. If you lose them in the turn, start walking backwards making you attention noise and try again!
The last phase is to add pace changes. Slowly add these in. Begin by making your attention noise and slowing down. As soon as your dog slows down, C/T. Then make your attention noise and speed up, C/T when they speed up with you. Each time you add a new element to loose leash walking, you will need to return to C/T every 2 or 3 steps, and slowly build back up to more distance.
Lastly, don’t forget to reward your dog for being beside you, but not necessarily looking directly at you. I like to C/T for position when they are looking forward or to the side, and sometimes if they’re sniffing and still moving with me. This will help your dog to learn they are getting rewarded for their position beside you, not exactly for having their eyes glued to you.
The Next Step
After you and your pup have a good handle on loose-leash walking, you can begin taking your sessions to new locations with more distractions. Once again, any time you add a new element (this time an environment change or distractions), you should return to C/T every 2 or 3 steps and slowly work your way up. You may even have to start from scratch in each new phase, but generally your dog will progress quickly back to walking by your side. Dogs have a hard time generalizing training to new locations, so you have to help them along and remind them of the basics as you go.
Don’t expect your pup to get it on the first try. It can take several sessions before your dog catches on, but if you keep it fun and light, this will become their new favorite game! Try to keep your sessions short and sweet – usually 10 to 15 minutes is more than enough. If you have the time, do 2 or 3 sessions every day, spread out over the day.
I like to make every walk a game by changing my pace randomly (with warning, of course!) and by making random stops and asking for different behaviors like ‘sit’, ‘shake’, or ‘down’. Keeping your dog engaged will go a long way to make walks more enjoyable for both of you. One of the joys of loose leash walking is getting the chance to connect with you dog and walk TOGETHER. Leave the headphones at home and enjoy the moment 😉
Once you and your dog are loose-leash masters, you can begin to fade out the C/T. I try to always have my treats with me on walks (because you never know!) and give my dog random treats. I will randomly give a treat or two when they are walking in position, and occasionally give them a whole handful (jackpot!). This can keep them interested and engaged – and wanting more!
Foreman is a loose-leash pro! He’s only 10 months old and learned to
walk on a loose leash using this method.