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Ask a Trainer: How Do I Train My Dog for Loose Leash Walking?

“Loose leash walking” means the dog has learned to enjoy staying close to the owner on a walk. Here's my five-minute method to making it happen.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Sep 22nd 2015


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I recently received this question from a reader:

I keep hearing the term “loose leash walking” regarding walking a dog on leash. What does it mean, and how do you teach a dog this skill?

— Laura B., Aspen, Colorado

Terrific question! “Loose leash walking” means the dog has learned to enjoy staying close to the owner on a walk, and the leash stays loose — not pulled tight with the dog in front of the owner, pulling with all of his might. Trainers talk about working to get a “J” formation in the leash, like the leash in this photo:

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Annie and her client Armani demonstrate the J formation. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

That’s a much more enjoyable walk for the owner than having a tight leash and your arm nearly pulled out of its socket. Most dogs look more like gorgeous Armani, the young, male, long-haired German Shepherd who modeled for this column:

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Armani before mastering the “J” formation. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Because dogs pull for many reasons, they need to learn what’s in it for them when they don’t pull on the leash. Dogs go through their lives literally nose first; that very powerful tool creates an intense desire to follow the countless smells they smell but we cannot. Part of the reason a walk is so vital and can be so tiring for your dog is that he is busy sniff, sniff, sniffing as you walk. Dogs need quality nose time on an outing, but most people prefer their dog learns to sniff without yanking on the leash.

Here’s how I got Armani to that lovely “J” in the leash in less than five minutes.

1. Ditch pain-causing gear

The right equipment is key! I hate to attach a leash to ANY neck collar, and I never use those collars designed with the express purpose of causing a dog pain on his sensitive neck. Throw out your chain, choke, and prong collars. As you can see in the photo below, with Armani in a pinch collar, a strong, motivated dog can easily pull through the painful tools.

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Armani ignores the prong collar. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

So, what do you do? Step up your yank-and-crank skills? No. Besides risking injury and causing mistrust in your dog, using a piece of equipment designed to inflict pain does nothing to create a strong desire in your dog to stay close to you on a walk.

2. Opt for a harness instead

Attach the leash to a well-made harness. My favorites are the no-pull harnesses, like the Freedom No-Pull Harness and the SENSE-ation Harness. These harnesses remove any threat of injuring your dog’s neck. Look carefully at the photo below:

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Armani ignores the harness, too, at this point in our training. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

As you can see, I have removed the pinch collar and attached the leash to the harness. But check out Armani — he is still pulling me! What gives? Two things: I don’t have the right leash to go with the harness yet, and I have done nothing of any consequence — good or bad — to motivate Armani to focus back on me, much less to get him walking quietly by my side.

3. Get the right leash

Leashes matter. Check out the leash in this photo:

(Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

(Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

It comes with the Freedom Harness, and it has two clasps, one on each end of the leash. In the previous photos, I am using a harness but have only one clasp on the leash, and if I attach the leash to either the front or the back on the harness, I still get pulling. Here I attached the leash in two locations: the front and the back of the harness. It worked wonders! I always start teaching loose leash walking in this setup, and it stops a lot of unwanted behavior before it ever begins.

4. Motivate your dog!

Dogs are like most of us, and they want to know, “What’s in it for me?” Following their noses is likely way more fun than walking with a slow human who only has two legs.

Armani does not have a huge food drive; he can take or leave it. His owner knows this, so she brought out something extra special: lamb meat. I put some in front of his nose to let him know I had the good stuff. I got his attention — mission accomplished. Off we went, and I talked to him to encourage his attention and closeness to me. Every time he was in the position I wanted, I clicked a clicker to mark exactly where I wanted his body, and PRESTO! He received a piece of lamb. At first I gave out quite a lot of meat. As he stayed more and more in the right position, I encouraged him vocally and slowed down the delivery of the meat.

Here is the end result of five minutes of work:

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Way to go, Armani! (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Must you always train with meat in your bait bag? No. Once I have the skill fluent and the dog is capable of delivering when I ask for it, even with a great deal of distractions, then I randomize when the treats are coming. Begin the random delivery of the motivator only after your dog can do what you are asking of him in all sorts of new environments. I rarely take food on walks with my own dogs, but even though they are brilliant on leash, I still surprise them now and again with something wonderful to keep them interested and content. What’s a little high-quality meat between friends?

Read more by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, on Dogster:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.