Loose Leash Walking
Before we talk about how to get a well-behaved walking partner, we will address why your dog walks the way it does on a leash. First, we will answer the question “Why does my dog pull??” The answer is because the outside world is so exciting and they can’t wait to check it out! Walking on a leash is a very unnatural thing for a dog. Dogs like to meander around exploring at their own pace, and we ask them to stay tethered to us and walk at our pace. Dogs also pull because they have been rewarded for pulling. As a dog pulls towards a tree to sniff it, they drag their human right along with them, and they get to the tree. They begin to learn that pulling gets them to the scent they are trying to explore and they keep doing it. You may also have wondered why dogs weave from side to side while on walks. This is how dogs track down scents. When odors come off of an item, they dissipate in a cone shape. Dogs weave within the scent cone until they narrow in on the item itself.
Now that you understand why your dog behaves the way it does on leash, we can talk about how to teach them to walk politely. There are two ways you can do this. The first way is called “becoming a tree.” When using this method, you are passively teaching your dog that pulling is not rewarding by stopping every time they pull on the leash. When you feel pressure at the end of the leash, immediately freeze. Don’t say anything or tug or do anything else, just stay still and hold the leash firmly. Wait until your dog takes a step back or turns toward you, so the leash loosens, then continue walking (you can offer a cheerful “yes” or “OK”). Do this every time your dog pulls and soon your dog will learn that pulling is not getting it what it wants. This method can be slow going at first, but if you are consistent, your dog will learn the association.
The second method involves actively teaching your dog where you do want them to be, rather than where you don’t want them to be. The easiest way to do this is with the clicker. Start this training in a small, familiar environment with few to no distractions, like your living room. Have your dog on leash, with clicker and treats on you (you may want to practice a little without your dog nearby to make sure you are able to click, hold the leash, and offer treats). Start by standing so your dog is right next to you (whichever side you prefer, just be consistent). Click and treat in this position a few times. Next, take a step forward, wait for you dog to take a step and is next to you, click and treat. Continue to take steps and clicking whenever your dog is at your side. Start off slow until you feel like your dog understands what it is being rewarded for. Next, start turning around and moving all over, and click and treat when your dog is right by your side. Once your dog is reliably moving into that position, you can start pairing a cue, such as “heel” or “with me.” Start adding more distractions, like going out to the backyard, or around the block. Don’t advance too quickly and revisit easy steps if your dog starts getting confused.
With either of these methods it is important to remember to let your dog be a dog. It is great to have a dog that can walk politely next to us when we need them to, but it’s also important to let them move around and sniff things. Pay attention to their gaze and lead them to items they are curious about. Let them sniff every other tree if they really want to. Walking daily is similar to us checking our email or Facebook. Your dog is exploring their environment and community, looking for new information. Give them the opportunity to interact with their environment and you will have a happier pooch.