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