Of all the skills that you want your dog to know this is the one — loose-leash walking. A dog who is pleasant to walk gets walked more often. A dog who is difficult to walk might never leave the house. So, how do you get there? Read on, my friends.
First, let’s talk about equipment that can make this process easier. Dog equipment has seen major advancements in recent years, including the no-pull harnesses. These harnesses typically have a front connection. My favorite is the Freedom No-Pull Harness by 2 Hounds Design. This harness has two connection points, one on the front and one on the back. It comes with a double connection leash that virtually eliminates the leash getting caught underneath the front leg while walking, which makes it much more functional.
Next, I really like a waist leash for teaching early-stage walking skills. There are many versions out there, but I like the Kurgo Quantum Dog Leash best because it is easily adjustable. I am careful never to attach myself to a dog that could pull me down or is aggressive. For safety reasons, I use only waist leashes inside the home or in a fenced yard.
There are a few things we should decide before getting started. First, which side of your body would you like your dog to walk on? Think about your neighborhood and your personal preferences. Do you have sidewalks? Do you feel more confident with your dog on a particular side? Once that is certain and the family agrees, we can move on.
In the beginning stage of loose-leash walking I use a food lure. I use this because the dog gets a constant reward source when he or she is in the position I prefer. This also gives me the ability to encourage dogs to continue their forward movement. I use either a peanut butter treat tube or a Lickety Stik. For small dogs, a long wooden spoon dipped in peanut butter can help owners walk upright while still giving a reward source. A Lickety Stik can also be attached to the long wooden spoon with tape. Hold your food lure with the hand nearest your dog. Don’t reach across your body while trying to walk forward; it’s awkward.
When first using the lure, you can walk three to four steps forward while your dog licks the reward source and then continue to walk one step without the reward. When walking without the reward, bring the reward source over toward your opposite shoulder. That will encourage the dog to start looking up at your face. This is key. We want the dog to pay attention to us, so we can gently coach the dog when necessary. Gradually, use the lure less and walk more. So instead of three to four steps of licking and one just walking, move to two steps licking, two steps not, then eventually one step licking and 10 steps not. Change it gradually as you move through the process.
The first few days, focus on your skills inside the home only. Attach the waist leash as you are cleaning or doing other tasks around the house. This is a way to integrate training into your regular day so it doesn’t become another task that needs to be completed before bedtime. This makes training ideal for busy families.
When you feel confident inside the home, move to your yard or driveway. Don’t get ahead of yourself; slow and steady is okay. Go out at a time when there are few distractions. Be sure to adjust your rate of reward backward a bit because the distractions of being outside can create difficult transitions. So if you succeeded with 10 steps of not licking and one step with, go back to three to four steps licking and one step not licking for a day or so. You will get back to your original numbers quickly, don’t worry.
When you’ve reached this point, it’s time to make this more fun for you and your dog. I want you to pretend you are dancing with your dog. I know, it sounds a little silly. Just practice in your home or in your yard. The truth is, obedience training can get a bit boring for dogs. I think loose-leash walking is probably the one that is the least desirable for dogs to perform. Dogs want to sniff, they want to greet the person walking, they want to check their “pee mail,” and it takes a lot of restraint, on a constant basis, to avoid doing those things. So by “dancing” with them, you change the way they feel about loose-leash walking.
To do it, make your movements, speed, and direction unpredictable, rewarding as you go. Go backward, go forward, turn left, turn right, go in a circle — there are no rules. Just have fun. Don’t focus on perfection from your dog, focus on the leash remaining loose and the dog’s focus remaining on you. You will notice your dog will probably get a wagging tail and a spring in his or her step when you start this. Dogs love it because it adds the fun back into their training. You may even notice a smile on your face as you play this game with your dog.
Now it’s time to take it on the road. Pick a time of day when you aren’t likely to encounter a lot of dogs or other walkers, especially if those are distracting for your dog. You may even drive to an area that is not congested until you feel confident in your skills and your dog’s performance. Be sure to set yourself up for success by having rewards available for your dog — especially if you encounter a situation that previously would have been difficult for your dog. Your dog might surprise you and perform perfectly, and you want to be sure you have something great to show that you appreciate the new behavior.
Loose-leash walking is a behavior that we all want our dogs to have. It is a behavior that takes practice and patience. Don’t compare yourself or your dog to others, because each dog has a distinct set of challenges as well as areas of excellence. Just meet the dogs where they are at the moment and show them, positively, how you would prefer them to behave. Old habits can be hard to change, so remember to make practice fun. You’ll be amazed at how quickly dogs can make a change for the better.
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