Getting out and walking with your dog is a great way to enjoy your day and give your dog mental stimulation, a chance to connect with their neighborhood by taking in the sights and smells, and a great activity for exercise! It is important that we are also having fun while walking- for us on the other end of the leash too! That is why loose leash walking is a critical life skill that all our dogs should learn.
First, you will need to make sure you have the appropriate equipment. One option for starting out is a harness like the Freedom No Pull Harness. This harness comes with loops where you attach the leash, which will help dogs learning their loose leash skills to pay attention to leash tension and recognize when they are nearing the end of the leash.
If you prefer a collar option to a harness, martingale collars are another great choice. Martingale, also called Limited Slip, collars have the second loop that allows the dog to sense the same tension as the Freedom harness, but have a set point where they can not tighten any more.
A nice leash option for dogs that are learning these skills are a six foot leash with a traffic handle option. This will allow us to keep our dogs nice and close if we are passing other people or dogs, and are great for busy areas. For teaching dogs loose leash walking, we do not recommend a retractable leash. Retractable leashes keep tension on the leash so it is harder for dogs to recognize when you don’t want them to pull since it is pulling on them all the time! A treat pouch that you can wear will also help so you don’t have to fumble with treats when your dog is doing great and you want to reward them!
Next you have to have a clear picture for what you want your loose leash walking to look like. This may be a little different for each person, but our picture is a dog that is not pulling, but able to have the range of the leash to explore and sniff. The criteria is no pulling- not a specific place by our side or staring at us. This allows us to enjoy our walks by not being drug around by where our dog wants to go, but also allows our dog the freedom to sniff and enjoy being a dog on our walk. Keep this clear picture in your mind while you are on your walk will allow you to be more consistent in your training- which helps your dog understand what you are expecting.
While you are training loose leash walking, it is very helpful to get your dog’s energy levels down before the walk so they can focus on what we are teaching. A game of fetch or tug is a wonderful option to get the wiggles out!
Then get ready and head out to walk. Remember the picture of what you want- if your dog starts to pull, stop walking until they release the tension on the leash, then praise them and begin walking again. If during the walk your dog is near you or looks at you, praise them and give them a treat! This will teach your dog that good things happen near you, and not all around in the world, they will begin to check in with you and pay more attention to where you are, which will help them to stay close and not pull.
Remember to keep your picture clear and to be consistent. Dogs learn very quickly what does and doesn’t work, and if they get away with pulling towards something they will try to pull again- because it worked once and they think it could work again! But if you keep your training consistent, you and your dog will be well on the way to happier walks together!
Explorers: Start small! If you have a hard time enjoying a walk with your pup, identify where your biggest challenge is. Is it them having a hard time focusing on you? Are they concerned or overexcited around other dogs? Do they not feel safe in new places or are they shy? Work on these things first before heading out for a walk. If you are ready to head out, start in a more quiet area with few or far away distractions.
Growers: If your pup does pretty well on a walk but pulls when they get excited, try to be a step or two ahead of them! If you know they are going to pull (perhaps when they see someone coming near or you are waiting to cross the street), have your treats ready and ask them to look or sit. Add some distance between you and the thing they want to get to if you need to. Once you are ready to move on, say a word to let them know it is OK to move forward!
Challengers: Put your skills to the test! Visit a more busy or urban area. Monitor your dog for signs of stress. If they are starting to have a hard time coping with something, add more distance and help them calm back down (treats and praise are wonderful here!). Also try walking in places with more things to sniff or with bigger distractions. Still bring the treats and help set them up for success!