Note: This article assumes that your dog is not reactively lunging toward other dogs, people, or other stimuli but merely pulling to get from point A to point B. For help in fixing reactivity, take our course, Your Reactive Dog: From Anxious to Zensational.
Have you ever been pulled down the street by a dog who acts as if he has no regard for you? Have you pulled and yanked your dog back or yelled with little success? Have you tried different kinds of tools such as shock collars, choke chains, and pinch collars that just hurt your dog instead of training him or her?
If you’re still reading, all of those methods have obviously not worked. Let’s change your dog’s behavior to achieve pleasant walks!
Why train it?
To make walking your dog more enjoyable for both you and your dog. You will spare your arms—and your dog’s trachea. It is not fun or safe for you to have a dog take you for a walk, and pulling while wearing a collar can actually damage your dog’s throat.
A front-clip control harness (such as Balance, Freedom, etc.), or head collar such as a Halti or Gentle Leader is recommended. They can provide safe control while training your dog to have better leash manners. No choke, shock, or prong collars, please! Use a 6’ nylon or leather leash. Retractable leashes are not helpful to train loose leash walking so avoid using one. They actually encourage your dog to pull.
Why do dogs pull?
It’s simple; to get to whatever is out ahead: Great smells, other dogs, open spaces, fun and adventure. Pulling gets dogs to what they want faster. As a strategy, it works. This is why it is best to teach dogs loose-leash walking skills as early as possible. Pulling is rewarding to the dog, so the more he does it, the harder it is for him to give it up.
To change this habit you must remove his reinforcement for pulling and never let him get where he wants by pulling. Your dog has an ingrained habit of pulling. It will take patience and the understanding that during training you may not walk far!
Start here: Getting your dog’s attention
If your dog is not paying attention to you and barely acknowledges your existence on walks, building this first part is critical. Watch most people walking their dogs and you’ll see what I mean; there are so few walks where the pet parent and the dog are engaged with each other.
You will begin training in a distraction-free environment such as indoors. If you do this in an environment with some distraction, you may have to increase the value of the treat.
Before every single practice session, start with reinforcing your dog’s attention. Do this 6x a week for two weeks then several times a week forever.
The following is done with your dog on a leash and you standing still. We are creating a positive association with eye contact, his name, and the cue, “let’s go” by clicking and treating as soon as those things occur. Your dog does not actually have to do anything or respond to the cues, they just need to hear the click (or the alternative word that you’ve chosen to indicate a good job), and eventually pair the treat with the sound of their name and the “let’s go” phrase. It’s called classical conditioning.
Practice each of these steps often.
- Wait for eye contact and click and treat. Remember, you are not saying anything, just waiting for your dog to look your way.
- After consistently achieving and rewarding eye contact, it’s time for the next step. Say your dog’s name and click and treat. Your dog does not even need to be looking at you at first. This sounds counterintuitive, but we are pairing hearing his name with something good, a treat. Your dog looking at you in response to you saying his name will come quickly.
- After getting eye contact, say “Fido, Let’s go” and click and treat. After pairing the phrase and the treat for several reps, cue him and then take a step forward. Click and treat as soon as he moves with you, which he should do because now he is anticipating the treat after it has been paired with a treat.
Watch the video below. Notice this dog is checking in with her pet parent (good dog!) but is ignored. Pay attention to your dog while on walks and reinforce her the moment she makes eye contact. The more it’s reinforced, the more your dog will offer the behavior. If she is paying more attention to you and less to the environment, less pulling will occur.
To build even greater focus and attention, take our mini-course, May I Have Your Attention Please.
Next: Understanding your dog’s Reward Zone (RZ)
The RZ is going to be key in teaching your dog to want to be at your side. To do that, you need to consistently reinforce them in a spot at your side, either side, where your pant seam would be. That is where you want your dogs to think of as the source of all good things … right beside your hip.
Right now your dog may pull and strain at the end of their leash. They are seeking reinforcement AWAY from you. Life is full of reinforcement out there and the dogs will strain to get it! An RZ at your side will help develop your dog’s drive to want to walk at your side (thus making loose leash walking much easier).
Teach what a loose leash feels like
What we want to do is let your dog know what a loose leash feels like. The leash snap should be hanging straight down. It is your role to pay attention to the J-shape in the leash (the shape the leash appears like when the snap hangs loose) and keep the leash slack. Keep ‘a smile’ in the leash!
If you keep tension on the leash, your dog is not learning that it’s important to maintain a slack leash, so quit doing that! You’ve already figured out that it doesn’t work.
- You must learn to maintain a high rate of reinforcement (lots of treats in a short period of time) to keep training motivating and fun for your dog.
- Train yourself to have soft hands. Try to act like your dog is not wearing a leash at all.
- The leash is a safety device, not a steering wheel!
5 Steps to Success!
(Don’t skip any.)
Goal: Your dog learns to stand calmly next to you on a loose leash without pulling away.
This is how to teach it.
- With your dog next to you in a stationary position, treat for one minute at the rate of one treat every 2 seconds.
- Stop treating him if he moves away and lure him back to your side to continue. If he keeps moving away or getting distracted, move to a quieter location, or use higher-value treats.
Goal: Your dog walks toward you as you back away. By starting with your dog facing you he has no need to pull. It’s easier for him and less distracting and he is building a strong history of appropriate behavior.
This is how to teach it.
- With your dog facing you, take a step backward and click and treat. Be sure you are treating in the Reinforcement Zone (at your leg). You do not have to have a specific pattern to the backing up. Quickly change directions to keep your dog’s interest.
- Do this for at least 25 clicks/treats. If your dog has any difficulty, continue with this step. You can say “Let’s go” every time you take a step backward.
- Keep your treat hand closed around the treat (so it’s not visible) above your waist or behind your back after each reward. No luring.
Continue backing but Increase the number of steps slowly.
- Continue as above but take two steps back before clicking/treating.
- Continue as above but now take three steps back before clicking/treating.
Goal: Both of you are now facing forward and your dog will learn to walk with you.
This is how to teach it.
- Begin with what you practiced in step 2, take a step back, click, and treat at your side. Then step forward so that you are both facing forward without your dog switching sides. Treat.
- Remember to treat with your left hand if your dog will be walking on your left (or treat with your right hand if your dog is on your right.) Deliver the treat to the spot where you want your dog’s head to be. Be clear and consistent in your treat delivery.
- To be able to treat using the hand nearest your dog, hold your leash and the clicker in the opposite hand. The leash will cross your body, but it will be easier to get treats to your dog quickly and effectively.
- It doesn’t matter which side you have your dog except that he should remain on the side you place him. Practice both sides in different training sessions.
- Say “Fido, let’s go” and take one step forward. He should follow and you should reinforce him (always at your side!).
- Practice this step many, many times so that your dog is never ahead of your body. Click and get the treat to the right spot immediately. Have treats quickly accessible.
- Be sure that you bring your hand back up to a neutral position at your belt or chest after every treat. Don’t leave your hand down luring your dog to walk with you. Instead, use the treat to reward correct behavior. Your dog will not learn if he is only following a treat.
Continue to add additional steps slowly, rewarding quickly and accurately. In the beginning, you’re rewarding every single step. Begin to slowly add additional steps before you reward your dog.
In this video, Mindy Cox is demonstrating some of the steps with Zander. Tip 1: Have a treat pouch and your treats on the side opposite your dog so that the treats are less distracting. Hold them quietly in a closed fist at your chest or belt until after you have clicked; then reward your dog. Tip 2: Watch part of the video and then pause it to practice one step at a time until it feels comfortable. (https://youtu.be/RarBC2584QU)
For all the steps practiced above, slowly add in distractions and different locations. If your dog is not listening well, adjust the environment and/or increase the value of the reinforcer.
If at any time your dog creates a tight leash, try any one of these strategies. Be consistent and persistent.
- Strategy #1: Return to the backing-up exercise for a few steps (step 2, above). As previously practiced, your dog is facing you and moving toward you on a loose leash. Be sure to reward in the RZ (at your leg). When you have your dog’s attention and he is responding appropriately, turn and walk forward again, quickly reinforcing the correct position, and increasing your rate of reinforcement.
- Strategy #2: Stop and don’t move even one step forward if your dog makes the leash tight. Patiently wait for him to turn and look at or towards you. Click the attention and then treat him in the RZ position at your side. Begin walking forward again being prepared to immediately stop forward motion every time the leash tightens. No yanking or jerking your dog! Wait patiently for him to turn toward you. If he can’t, practice in a different location because he is probably too distracted to think and make a good choice.
- Strategy #3: Try turning quickly and going in the opposite direction from the way he is pulling. Reward him at your side when he catches up. Continue to unpredictably turn in another direction at the precise moment the leash gets taut.
If none of these strategies are working:
- Move to a less distracting location.
- Try increasing your rate of reinforcement (how often and quickly you treat).
- Try changing the value of the treat (try real meaty food, not dry dog treats).
You are now ready for real walking! Your dog should be able to eat and walk at the same time. And your dog should be checking in regularly.
Is your dog allowed to sniff?
Absolutely! Give your dog permission regularly to sniff and enjoy themselves, but the rule always holds that they cannot pull you. After sniffing, direct them back to your side and continue your walk. Sometimes it’s easier to walk away from grass and other enticing odors to keep your dog’s attention.
How long will this take?
Of course, every dog is different as is your skill and devotion to making these changes. If you decide that from now on your dog will not be allowed to pull, and then your dog is strongly reinforced for appropriate behavior, you should see amazing results in a few weeks to a month. That sounds like a long time, but your arms will be aching for a lot longer if you do nothing! Remember, your dog has been pulling for longer than that and has created a strong habit. It takes time to change habits. Think of a personal one that you’ve tried to change; it can be challenging. But together you can do it!
- Add your warm-ups (beginning at Step 2) to every loose-leash walking training session and every time you start in a new location.
- Your hand should remain still until after you click; then you must get the treat quickly to your dog, and always at your side. If you reinforce him when he’s ahead of or behind you, you are teaching him that’s where he should be. That’s not what you want!
- If you can’t work on the loose leash training, let your dog potty in your secure backyard instead. To be successful at understanding a loose leash, your dog needs to learn that a tight leash is never reinforced (i.e., allowed). If you let it go because you don’t feel like training or don’t have time, it will take much longer for your dog to make the connection and adjust their behavior.
- In the beginning, it’s important to stop and treat. Being able to eat a treat and keep walking is a higher skill level for your dog.
- Initially, your training should occur on the leash inside your home. Nothing interesting to pull toward!
- Be sure to keep it positive and upbeat– no yelling and no jerking or yanking on the leash! This punishment is not instructive.
- Reward your dog whenever he looks your way outside. If he is paying attention to you, he is less distracted and less likely to pull.
- Stay connected to your dog. Don’t ignore each other; instead remain engaged, using your voice to help your dog know what to do and praise him when he does a good job.
- Yanking, jerking, or punishing your dog are not effective ways of educating your dog. Use your voice and reinforcement to help your dog learn.
- Add in additional steps on a loose leash before reinforcing your dog. Your dog will learn to keep the leash loose for longer periods of time before earning the treat.
- When you halt, ask for and reward a sit. After some repetition, your dog will begin to automatically sit.