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Monday, March 17, 2014

Painless and Fun Loose Leash Walking

I started teaching Brisbane to walk nicely on a leash when he was a baby puppy. This was easy because he had never had the chance to develop a habit of pulling. Walking with a loose leash is healthier for both of us, it saves his neck and throat along with my arms, shoulders, and back. When he is excited, Briz still needs to be reminded that he knows how to walk nicely. He is also clever enough to test whether the person holding his leash knows that he knows how to walk without pulling. Brisbane will pull like a sled dog if he thinks he can get away with it.


I feel that the trick to loose leash walking is to teach something other than "Don't pull." Teaching a dog to do something is a lot easier than teaching him to not do something. It's not unlike the way it is easier to think about purple cows than it is to not think about purple cows.

I've also taught several foster dogs how to walk nicely on leash, and the first step is, of course, don't let him do that. I think that teaching loose leash walking is more important than going for a walk, so for a few days that is all I am going to try to accomplish. It doesn't matter how far we get, or if we even make it out the front door.

I like clicker training dogs to walk on leash because clicker training makes pretty much everything easier. Whether I am using a clicker or not, I want a tight leash to be a signal to the dog. Every time the dog hits the end of the leash, I want him to be aware.

For dogs that have a long-standing habit of pulling on leash, I might need to use a tool like a head halter, a no-pull harness of some sort, or even a prong collar. For a dog that is very used to pulling on a flat collar or a choke chain, I like to use a harness. A body harness can encourage a dog to pull by taking the pressure off his neck and distributing it across his chest. However, a dog that is unused to wearing a harness will be unfamiliar with this sensation, and for a brief time I will have the opportunity to teach him that it means something. Different dogs respond differently to the various no-pull tools, the key is to find something the dog will pay attention to without fighting or feeling distressed. The plan is to wean him off of this cue as soon as possible.

Once I've got the dog fitted with the right collar or harness, it's time to start training. For some, this begins in the livingroom or the yard because outside on the sidewalk is just too exciting. I start moving and encourage the dog to come along, and then as soon as he hits the end of the leash he gets a click or a 'yes!' or a 'whee!' as I run backward while offering a treat. He very quickly learns that hitting the end of the leash means he should turn around because I am about to become very exciting while handing out food.

This training will continue for several days, moving from indoors to the yard and finally the sidewalk or park. We often don't make it more than a few feet from the driveway, and the dog might eat his entire dinner, one kibble at a time, as rewards for running back when he hits the end of the leash. Going for a walk can be very exciting, sometimes too exciting for the dog to monitor his own behavior. The trick is to get him very solid on this leash-pressure-means-check-human concept before moving to a more exciting environment.

When I can dedicate several days to cueing and rewarding the dog every single time he hits the end of the leash, the payoff is a dog that is sensitive to leash pressure and constantly aware of me. It seems like getting rewarded for hitting the end of the leash would cause a dog to pull more, but it has the opposite effect. I can quickly reduce the excitement and reward for hitting the end of the leash, and still have a dog that slows down and looks back insead of pulling ahead.

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