Tips for Loose Leash Walking
Loose leash walking is one of the most common reasons pet owners seek the assistance of dog trainers. You can check out this video on youtube, which features me teaching Cuba some basic LLW exercises when he was a considerably smaller puppy:
You may also find this previous blog on Why Dogs Really Pull on the Leash helps you better understand why it is that training loose leash walking reliability can be such a challenge.
Recently, I received an email from a youtube viewer, which said the following:
Morning I have been following your clicker training guides on youtube - firstly thank you very much :-) they are great! I adopted a rescue dog about 4 days ago and he has already started with good(ish!) results! Just a quick question if I may - I understand that it is going to take a while before he walks on a loose leash all the time during walks, do I just continue to walk him normally whilst he is learning? I don''t want to mix walks with training time so I don't want to clicker and treat the whole walk - that would be a lot of treats for an hour walk!! He does pull slightly on walks but do I just let him continue to do so whilst he is learning?
I thought these may be questions that other viewers and readers had also, so want to answer this here where it can hopefully reach/help more people.
First, I would recommend doing brief sessions of the clicker exercises during your walks, once you have practiced them in a number of less distracting environments. I often see people whose dogs walk brilliantly in my classroom and then pull their arms off in the parking lot - this is because the dogs are allowed to pull the owner into the parking lot! Dogs will work in environments where training happens.
The dogs that pull into the classroom are VERY heavily rewarded for the behavior (my classroom is a fun place for dogs!) so they become gamblers - they pull often because sometimes it pulls off big. Also, owners who allow this find what trainers already know - it's much easier to start out with and maintain attention than to get it back once you've lost it. Once my students have attended a few classes and have LLW skills, I check leashes at the door - no dog enters my classroom on a tight leash. If the leash is tight, the owner has to return to her car and try again!
So I would definitely do some clicking and treating or otherwise provide reinforcement for appropriate loose leash behavior while out and about on a walk.
Equally important is removing reinforcement for pulling. Certain training equipment, like front-clip harnesses or head halters, can help achieve this goal in the training stages of this behavior. Basically, if the leash goes tight, you have two options:
OPTION A: Stop and wait the dog out. This means stopping immediately when the leash goes tight, not allowing the dog to take even one step on a tight leash. Keeping the leash anchored to your body (at your hip or navel) is important. The leash should be neutral here - you want your dog to learn that his behavior, rather than the presence of the leash, is what stopped the walk. If your dog is quite strong, placing your feet shoulder width apart will give you more stability. As soon as your dog chooses to remove tension from the leash (and initially this may take some time), you can tell him "good boy," turn your body 180 degrees, and begin moving with him in the opposite direction. When he is moving next to you nicely, you may offer him praise (if he likes that), or a click and treat. Make sure to avoid clicking and treating as soon as your dog takes tension off the leash as you can then get a "yo yo" type behavior of "pull then come back for CT (click/treat)." This exercise teaches your dog that pulling ends the walk temporarily and that it actually gets him farther away from whatever object was exciting enough to make him want to pull in the first place.
OPTION B: Meet pressure with pressure. This exercises is not recommended for fearful, reactive, aggressive dogs or other dogs that lunge on leash but works well for boisterous, confident, happy pullers. This exercise works best in combination with a front-clip harness and also should not be used on small breed dogs attached to a conventional buckle collar to avoid risk to their sensitive trachea. With the leash anchored at your body (your leash hand is at your navel, in your pocket, etc.), as soon as the leash goes tight, begin slowly backing away. This should NOT be a leash "pop" or correction, but a slow and steady application of minimal pressure. Back away until the dog is moving with you, tension removed from the leash, and focused on you. Then you can say "good boy!" as you resume forward movement in the direction you'd started in.
For dogs without established pulling histories, you often don't even need food to train this behavior - the reinforcement of continuing the walk is enough. Certainly even with these dogs, food can greatly speed the process along, but you don't technically need to use food to build loose leash walking reliability if you, the handler, can be reliable in teaching your dog that pulling never works on a walk!