“I’m trying to teach loose leash walking…” she pleaded, “But I’m struggling.”

Belgian Malinois pulling on leash

She went on to explain how, no matter the volume of treats she fed her dog, and regardless of what they were (at times she carried raw meat with her on her walks!) nothing really seemed to click. And when her dog wanted to sniff something, he’d inevitably drag her to it.

She was hitting a brick wall, and she was about to give up.

The truth is, loose leash walking is one of the more challenging behaviors to teach, especially if your goal is to do it without special collars, equipment, or force.

It’s not that it can’t be done…it can! It’s simply that it requires a significant amount of patience, and some serious consistency to get right.

That, and a willingness to admit that, simply put, we aren’t dogs.

Check it out…

We all have expectations about what that perfect walk with our dogs should look like.

Do me a favor…

Close your eyes and picture it.

What do you see?

If you’re anything like me, you think about a relaxing stroll around your neighborhood or on a local trail…

You and your dog move together…

You’re both calm, happy and enjoying your time outside.

Your dog isn’t a robot, marching emotionless at your side, ears slicked back and completely controlled…

But on the other hand, your dog isn’t dragging you into every bush, up to every tree, or across streets to meet other dogs…

Your dog WANTS to stick with you.

Now, think about this…

When your dog closes his eyes and envisions that perfect walk, he sees something far different than plodding along at a mind-numbingly slow pace as you dawdle and entirely ignore all of the amazing sights and smells the environment has to offer.

Belgian Malinois learning loose leash walking

Simply put, he isn’t hardwired to see your daily walk in the same way you do.

So what do you do?

Start by cutting your dog some slack, and adjust your expectations. Then, spend time teaching your dog how to walk calmly on lead.

That said, the entire endeavor can be easier said than done.

And if fact, many well-intentioned dog owners try day in and day out to teach and reinforce leash walking, only to have their family companion continue to drag them over to every tree, and bush they encounter on their walk.

They reward their dog for staying next to them, but those rewards don’t seem to be working…

Their dog might snatch the treat and race out to sniff immediately after…

Or they might not seem to fully grasp what those treats actually mean.

So here are a few tips to help you master that loose leash walk, without having to rely on special collars or tools…

No 1 – Reward what you want

This sounds simple enough. I mean, basic behavior science says that if you reward the behaviors you want, they’ll stick around. The problem is, we tend to focus all of our rewards on our dog when we are trying to fix a problem, rather than celebrating them when they aren’t doing anything wrong.

Do This: When your dog is maintaining slack in the leash, capture the behavior with a word (any word will do so long as you use the same word every time, and so long as that word doesn’t mean anything else to your dog) and then drop a treat on the ground, in line with your leg on whichever side your dog usually walks on. Use rewards your dog loves, and drop treats frequently – especially in the beginning. You can space them out once your dog gets the hang of things.

No. 2 – Punish what you don’t

Okay okay, the word “punish” can feel a little harsh. But stay with me for a minute. When you’re walking your dog, he/she wants to go FORWARD. So when your dog pulls on the leash, take that reward away (this is in essence, a punishment).

Do This: If your dog pulls on the leash, immediately stop and pretend you are a tree. Don’t move forward until your dog CHOOSES to alleviate tension on the lead. You can wait for your dog to back up a few steps or turn and look at you. Whatever criteria you choose, just be consistent with it so that your dog learns that pulling = STOP and not pulling = GO!

No. 3 – Make Your Dog Commit

It’s not uncommon, especially for those with a lot of get up and go, for dogs to figure out a pattern. You stop, they back up and then immediately surge forward. So before you “reward” your dog by resuming forward momentum, make sure your dog is committed to maintaining a slack leash.

Do This: When your dog alleviates tension on the lead or turns to look at you, praise them in a low, calming tone. In your head, count to 3 and make sure they maintain slack on the leash. If they do, you can start moving forward again.

No 4 – Don’t reward mistakes

It seems simple enough, but in practice, it’s quite common for dog owners to inadvertently reward their dog’s mistakes.

Here’s what it looks like:

The dog pulls, so the dog owner stops. The dog takes a step back, alleviating tension on the leash. The dog owner gives the dog a treat and then starts walking forward again.

The problem with this scenario is that the dog learns that the fastest path to a reward is through pulling. They think to themselves, “I ONLY get the opportunity to back up and get a treat if I pull.” So pulling becomes part of the behavior we are rewarding.

Do This: If your dog makes a mistake and pulls on the leash, and you freeze, don’t immediately treat your dog. Instead, make sure you can log a minimum of 5 steps with your dog walking on a slack leash before offering another food reward. This way the reward is far enough removed from the mistake so that your dog doesn’t form the wrong association.

————-

It’s not uncommon for us to hold perceptions about what the perfect walk with our dogs looks like. And far too often, we simply pop the leash on our dog and expect them to automatically think the same way we do.

But remember, your dog isn’t hardwired to have the same views of that daily walk.

So spend time adjusting your expectations. So that you can spend time giving your dog the skills he needs to adjust his too.


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    4 replies to "4 Steps to Teaching Your Dog Loose Leash Walking"

    • Dan

      wonderful article. I used to think these techniques were lame or didn’t work. That’s i should be in control. Well I learnt my lesson with those mistakes and had a dog that didn’t want to be with me, or only learnt how to shut off the prong collar. Yes there are a place for tools, we can help talk to a dog if needed that way. But don’t go there first. These techniques work, great advice.

      The idea of a walk is a great point too. I no longer want my dog to be head behind my leg, ignoring every single thing. I encourage the relationship and build on what is allowed when we walk. Then we can stop and the sniffing can go nuts haha. But I agree, having a dog that wants to be with you on the walk is a completely different looking dog than one who is forced to be there.

    • Penny Bodenhamer

      Your techniques absolutely work…thank you! Your advice to be considerate of the dog’s perspective was key to me. Dogs are smart and seem to understand when you are working *with* them rather than ignoring their instinctual needs. Another spot-on training article, Meagan!

    • Toni Lee-Beaton

      This is a very good explanation. I have been teaching dogs for years and sort of worked this out but to anyone who hasn’t done it you give a really good step by step (pardon the pun) instruction. The big about not treating immediately after a stop was especially on point. It’s so common for people to think the dog has stopped pulling so they must immediately reward and instructors don’t often cover that situation. like most of your other posts I find this so relevant, easy to understand and way ahead of most trainers.

    • Martijn

      Hey Meagan,

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge, it is very informative and helpful and fun to read.

      Today I discovered you because of your “Rainbows, Unicorns and Dogs that Bite” article and it really hit home. It is true that a Malinois is a partner and not a typical pet.

      I am in a similar situation like you where with Cyrrah but out of my depth. Little under a year ago I picked the “hardest strongest and most dominant” female puppy.

      I was gullible and naive with basically almost no dog handling experience and as a first time dog owner, also I didn’t do the proper research or spoke to the right handlers in preparation.
      My only real experience beforehand was with care taking an police trained adult female German Shepherd who already had solid obedience. So I thought raising a Malinois puppy myself wouldn’t be all that different, how wrong I was. It was a disaster waiting to happen if I did not step up my dog handling skills and knowledge by a lot real quick.

      So I’m sure you can imagine I was in for a big shock and a very rude awakening being completely unprepared for this intense high energy high drive incredible specimen of a working dog breed that the Malinois is.

      Some really huge mistakes I made early on is letting to many people pet her and letting her run and play off leash with other dogs away from me very early on, letting her socialize and often play with almost every dog we encountered (over-socializing). Not introducing a crate right away, not being extremely consistent and structured right away and treating her like a typical pet and puppy. Trying too hard to be her friend first instead of her handler and partner.
      I’ve made many mistakes that I could have avoided if I had prepared myself better and gained more experience as a handler, before I made the decision to work with such a challenging breed and raise a Malinois puppy myself. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but I am determined to continue to learn and improve myself as her handler and haven’t given up, we are now almost 8 months in our training and my Malinois she is almost 10 months old now. I thought my Malinois partner hated me.

      At 2 months old when I had just picked her up I saw a lot of red flags when she already showed signs of food aggression and object aggression/resource guarding, dominant aggression and territorial aggression towards me and other people and dogs. Also aggression towards very small children. She also turned on me a few times and really bit me through the skin repeatedly due to her resource guarding when I tried to take a shard of glass and torn tin can out of her mouth she tried to chew and swallow for example. Now she only growls at me when she has a bone or toys and I come to close.

      “Luckily” I recognized these behaviors very early on and started working on it right away.
      Feeding her out of my hand instead of her bowl and making her work and training obedience before dinner to tackle the food aggression and teaching her the out and leave it command to tackle the object aggression. The territorial and dominant aggression I am tackling by providing her with a lot of structure with her crate time managing her space and environment, protocols for walking through doors and not letting her on the couch or bed, establishing clear boundaries and rules for her and by involving obedience training into all our activities before, during and after. Teaching her impulse control with games to cap her drive. Socialization and verbal and leash corrections to stifle aggression towards small children and people and dogs in general.

      I live in a heavily urban area in the middle of a busy city in an apartment not with hiking trials nearby. It is about the most disadvantaged location to raise such a working breed especially with her temperament.

      She is a very leash reactive dog and a reactive dog in general so going on walks is very challenging. She will lunge and nip at random people and dogs and is obsessed with cats when she sees one her entire body stiffens up and she wants to chase them at all cost and is not receptive to leash corrections then completely fixated on the cat and she wants to engage with any dogs she sees (not aloof). She also lunges at anything that slightly interests her, that can be a stick on the ground or a leaf blowing in the wind or a waving hand or bag from a random passerby on the sidewalk.

      She has an incredibly difficult time following and walking with a loose leash and is basically pulling ahead with all her might all of the time which make walks very uncomfortable for both of us and is bad for her neck back and throat. Constant slight taps with the leash and taps with my heel to push her back seems to work best for us. With food rewards once it’s gone so is her attention and interest.
      Because she is so reactive she often chokes herself on a flat collar and pulls right through the slip leash it doesn’t faze or discourage her in any way she has a high tolerance and had a tendency to turn on me and try to nip at my hand with leash corrections. I’m not a big fan of choke chains or e-collars and pinch collars neither also they are illegal in my country.

      I could really use your advice and insight with your experience with this breed and temperament.
      Maybe you have some advice on how to go about it and insight on how I can deal properly with the different challenges we encounter.

      Regards,

      Martijn

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