If you’ve ever had a dog that has pulled during walks (and let’s face, that’s probably most of us), then you know full well just how unpleasant the outings can be.
I have been dragged down hills by dogs, tripped over dogs, and have hurt my back at sudden lunges.
After working with my trainer, Ruben of Kindred Dog PDX, I learned a ton of super helpful loose leash walking tips that have changed the way I think about dog walks. After several weeks of dedicated work, Sitka is great on leash and I know how to manage him in various situations.
Teaching a dog to walk nicely on a leash requires patience and committment. It is a monotonous process that involves redefining what it means to walk with your dog. As tedious as the process is, it is temporary and the end result will make you swell with pride.
What is Loose Leash Walking?
Loose leash walking means that your dog is walking by your side and not pulling on the leash at any time during your walk. So many owners expect dogs to just know how to walk on leash out of the box, but unfortunately, that is not the case.
There are so many stimuli luring them in all sorts of directions like, dogs, noises, people, smells, marking opportunities, etc. Teaching loose leash walking not only makes walks more enjoyable, but also serves as a platform for building and eliminating many other essential skills and behaviors, such as:
- Leash reactivity
- Constant marking
- Trail Etiquette
Characteristics of loose leash walking include:
- No leash tension
- The leash is in a “J” shape
- Your dog is walking by your side
- Your dog doesn’t sniff or mark constantly, except on command
- Your dog ignores other stimulus like dogs, noises, and people
How long does it take to leash train a dog?
This all depends on how dedicated and how consistent you are with the training. I’ve been working with Sitka for about two months and we can go on normal walks for the most part.
We’re still working on leash reactivity to other dogs and loud vehicles, as well as distractions by other furry creatures like cats and bunnies, but the majority of our walks are pretty perfect.
This came after thrice daily 20-min walks, spaced out throughout the day. In between walks, Sitka was either in his kennel or in “place” on his cot.
Trust me when I tell you that these walks were plenty to tire him out for the day. We didn’t run. We didn’t hike. We didn’t play with other dogs. We did these three very mentally challenging walks daily and he was pooped.
Focusing on ignoring other distractions and following the handler’s lead is very mentally draining. Think about when you drive in bad weather versus a sunny day. By the time you reach your destination, you are socked.
Loose Leash Walking Tools
For a successful outing, you’ll want to bring along a few essential tools on every walk. You won’t always look super fashionable, but you’ll have the best trained dog on the trail.
This is where you will store the goods. I prefer those with waist belt because I don’t always have a waist band to which I can attach them. I haven’t yet found my perfect treat pouch, but any of the following are good enough:
- Hurtta Bounty Bag – I like that I can stick my entire hand in the pouch and easily reach treats. It also fits a few other accessories like poop bag and keys. The downside is that it doesn’t close fully and the rim at the top sometimes cuts my cuticles.
- Ruffwear Treat Trader – This bag is quite a bit smaller than I prefer, but my hand fits in just fine and the materials are high quality. I like the magnetic closure that seals fully shut when not in use. There is not much room for anything besides treats.
Mix a handful of high value treats and other not-quite-as-exciting-but-still-enjoyable-treats in with your dog’s food. This will keep them anticipating the arrival of the extra fun treat and will also give you the opportunity to reward your dog big when they do something that makes you extra proud.
Rather than feed your dog their meals in their bowl, feed them throughout the day during your training sessions. This will make them more eager to please.
If you feed raw, you can get a Goo Toob and fill it with their meals. Just squeeze out a small amount as a treat.
I personally use a prong and e-collar (and will be publishing more content on that soon) to train Sitka. I find these tools allow me to better communicate with him, opposed to a traditional flat collar or relying on treats alone.
These are the brands I use, as recommended by my trainer:
Herm Sprenger – Get them directly from your trainer or from Herm Sprenger. Amazon has been known to sell phonies and I would not recommend the risk.
E-Collar Technologies ME-300 Micro Educator – Again, I recommend purchasing directly from the source, not from Amazon.
I do not recommend nor advise the use of an e-collar or prong collar without the guidance of a professional trainer.
If you do not wish to use a prong and e-collar at this point, use what you are comfortable with, however I do not recommend the use of:
Harnesses – I do not find that they allow effective communication between handler and dog. They are also designed for pulling, (yes, even the “no pull” harnesses) and this is the exact behavior we are trying to combat.
Gentle Leader/Face Harness – We used one with Sora and while it does prevent pulling, it doesn’t actually teach your dog how to walk nicely on a leash. She hated it and would hide when we got it out.
Retractable Leash – just don’t.ever.use.a.retractable.leash.ever.ever.ever. They are dangerous, do not enable management of your dog, and confuse your dog due to the different lengths.
Clickers can work really well to mark behaviors. Just like using the word “yes,” they give your dog a signal that they did what you want. They’re cheap and you can get them at any pet store.
I love biothane leashes. They are lightweight, waterproof, mudproof, they don’t cause abrasions or burns, they are easy to grab. Every time I have to use a back up leash for training walks, I am reminded of how much better a biothane leash is. I love them so much, I put together an entire post dedicated to my favorite ones.
Loose Leash Walking Tips from My Professional Trainer
Loose leash walking was one of those skills that I was never really able to master with my dogs. After working with my trainer, I learned about the importance of taking very slow baby steps to get to where we wanted.
It’s excruciating at times because you want nothing more than to go for a hike or a run or a walk with a friend and you just have to say no because your dog isn’t there yet.
With practice and by incorporating these tips, you will get there. The more you work together, the faster the progress will happen.
Go on Structured Walks
Structured walks changed everything for Sitka and me. These walks serve a purpose more than just to get some exercise. They require a lot of thinking on the dog’s part and full attention from the handler. I guarantee your dog will be tired after this mentally exhausting exercise.
How does a structured walk differ from a regular dog walk? In a lot of ways, I quickly learned.
During a structured walk, your dog’s job is to walk, plain and simple. No sniffing, no greetings, no potty.
Allow your dog a few minutes to go potty at the start of the walk and if they don’t go then, then it’s back to structured walking. No marking. No sniffing. No stopping to look at other dogs or distractions. No greeting people or other dogs. You are simply walking.
You’re not walking and chatting with a friend.
You’re not talking on the phone.
You’re not listening to a podcast.
You are walking your dog. Period.
The point of a structured dog walk is to provide leadership for your dog and teach them to follow you. While the walk may seem restrictive, dogs love structure and thrive with boundaries.
During my month-long training classes, we never once set foot outdoors during a lesson with Sitka. Starting training indoors gives your dog the opportunity to practice walking on a leash with minimal distractions. There are no other people, dogs, noises, cars, or smells to compete for your dog’s attention.
Take note of when your dog becomes excited as you move around the house. Is it when you go toward the front door? The garage? These are the locations you need to practice walking in your home. Teach your dog that just because you open the door, it doesn’t mean that you’re going for a walk or that they are allowed to whine or throw a tantrum.
Until your dog is ready to greet the outdoor world, save the outdoors for potty and structured playtime in the backyard only.
Go by time, not by route
This was hands down the most important lesson I learned from my experience working with my trainer. By shifting the idea of what I considered to be a dog walk, I didn’t allow Sitka the opportunity to pull, react to other dogs or people, or be distracted by noises.
Instead of heading out for our usual morning route, I set a timer for 20 minutes and we would walk out the front door. Our walks were dictated by changing directions if Sitka pulled, walking back and forth in front of distractions, and avoiding other dogs.
In the beginning, we barely made it to the next block. For 20 minutes, we would simply walk back and forth and back and forth on the same street. Other days, we made it to the nearby busy street with lots of distractions and would just walk up and down and back and forth.
If I wanted to train Sitka around other dogs at a park, we’d get in the car and drive there, even if it was just a few blocks away. We never would have made it otherwise.
As my trainer put it, we were still getting a walk in, it just wasn’t based on a specific destination.
Walk in Circles
We spent a lot of our first weeks learning to walk nicely on a leash going in circles or figure 8 motions. This is because any time Sitka would put pressure on the leash, I would turn around. This is the reason that during our first training walks, we barely made it off our street.
I also do these just to change things up and make sure he’s with me. I’ll do a sudden right or left pivot with the goal of keeping him at my heel through the turn. Think of it like a dance.
Over time, you’ll be able to go on normal walks with your dog, but until then, be very diligent about not rewarding pulling by continuing in the direction your dog wishes to go.
This teaches your dog to focus on you and coordinate their movements with ours. The human leads the way, not the dog during these structured walks.
Dogs naturally want to move with rather than against pressure, so one way to teach them to move with you is to teach them to move with the pressure. I have been most successful teaching pressure-release using a Herm Sprenger Prong Collar (the only brand any good balanced trainer will recommend), but it is possible with a flat or martingale collar, it just may take longer.
When your dog pulls, stop, and gently pull the leash in the opposition direction, stopping once the leash is taut. You don’t want to actually pull your dog, just put some pressure on. When they give into the pressure, release, mark with “yes” or a clicker, and reward.
You’ll want to do this every single time they start to pull.
Tip: Make sure that you’re holding the leash at a 45° angle, with your hand no further than a foot or so from the collar, and are standing next to your dog. If you’re too far, then you’ll either not be able to get enough pull in the leash or you won’t be able to react quickly enough.
Varying your speed during structured walks demonstrates whether or not your dog is truly focused on you. Most of the time, we go about our walk at a normal pace. However, since I want Sitka to run at my side on trails, I pick up the pace to our running speed. When I slow down, I want him slowing at the same rate as I am.
Similarly, we often go on painfully slow walks. I do this because Sitka is a go-go-go dog. Slowing down forces him to really think about our movement and focus on walking together. I also slow down when we walk past “scary” things once I see that he can handle it.
Learn to Read Your Dog
Dogs speak dog and humans speak whatever language they speak. Too often, we teach our dogs to understand our language without even bothering to understand theirs. It’s pretty unfair of us!
Dogs communicate in many different ways, including through body language and sounds and it is your job as their human to learn what different expressions mean. This is how you will learn to diffuse any unwanted behaviors over time.
With Sitka, I look for the following during our walks:
- Ears and head perked
- “Whale” noises
I know what each of these signals means with him and therefore know how to mitigate any unwanted situations or behaviors by changing his state of mind before he reaches threshold the second I see him communicate.
Put a little stress on your dog
If you follow me on Instagram, then you know very well that Monday is Garbage Day and that we go hang out with the garbage trucks every week. Sitka hates the sound of the trucks, so we have been working on desensitization by practicing “place” and recall commands while the trucks are doing their thing.
We also walk along busy roads with loud trucks and cars. We walk back and forth in front of neighbors who are pressure washing their driveways. I make him sit next to the mail truck while the driver is loading the mailbox. We walk past other dogs.
Like with humans, the only way to get over a fear is to face it. The key is working within their threshold. If they flip out, then you’ve gone too far. You have to work with your dog over time. We’ve been hanging out with the garbage truck for months.
By putting some stress on Sitka during our walks, I show him that I will keep him safe from all of those scary things and that he doesn’t need to worry about them.
Here’s a tip: Make a list of all the things that stress your dog. Be very specific. Don’t just write “cars.” Write “motorcycles,” “garbage trucks,” “delivery vans.” Which are the worst offenders? Then go seek those opportunities to practice around those scary things.
So many pay thousands of dollars for a dog trainer and then wonder why the dog doesn’t act the same way with their handlers at home. A lot of the time, this is because the owners are softer and more lenient with their dogs than the trainer was.
I make mistakes of course, but I try to be consistent as much as possible during our walks. This means I dissuade pulling, lunging, sniffing, and marking every time it happens. I make sure he sits at my heel when we stop every single time and that he stays by my side when we walk or run.
If you don’t maintain consistency, it confuses your dog. They won’t understand what you are looking for, so when you have to correct them, that’s on you, not them.
If You’re Not Willing to Train, Then Don’t Take Your Dog
Stay at home orders during the covid-19 pandemic ended up being one of the best things that could have happened to us in relation to dog training. Since our trails were closed and we were resigned to our neighborhood streets only, the temptation to take him hiking or trail running before he was ready was removed.
We had no choice but to focus on training and we made serious strides in our loose leash walking skills as a result.
I asked my trainer if I could take Sitka to happy hour at a restaurant with friends. He said yes, as long as I am willing to work with him. Sitka and I made a few passes by the patio and I could see he wasn’t ready to enter, so he went back to the car.
I desperately wanted to go for a hike in between lessons, but that meant potentially walking back and forth along the first 100 meters of the trail so as not to regress with our training. I chose not to go.
I ran solo for the first few weeks because I wanted to run and not train my dog. So he stayed at home in his kennel.
If you are not willing or able to focus on your dog 100% during this training period, then don’t bring your dog. It will only cause frustration for the both of you.