When a dog pulls on a tight leash this makes for a very uncomfortable and highly-frustrating walk. Exercising your dog should be a pleasure and having your dog walk beside you on a soft leash definitely makes for a much more relaxed and enjoyable outing.
In this article you outline the principles and methods that encourage a dog to walk beside you on a soft leash in the ‘‘heel’’ position.
The leash and collar
- Firstly, it is a good idea to review your leash and collar, and the set up that you use to take the dog for a walk. If the current set up is not working it is a good idea to look at other options. There is no one size fits all for dogs. Some dogs react nicely to a slip chain, some dogs are calm and submissive on a halti and some are fine using a normal flat leather collar. When choosing a leash it’s important to choose a system that works for both you and your dog. If one option isn’t working then try another.
- It is also worth considering the effect your current leash has on your dog when they see it. The lead can be a cue or stimulus for the dog to lunge ahead and rush out of the house. This behavior then continues throughout the walk. Your dog is so accustomed to behaving in this manner when the lead appears. The dog’s behavior then becomes a conditioned response to that lead.
The key to a fresh start and being able to effectively develop your dog’s on-leash manners from a dog that pulls on the lead to a dog that walks beside you on a soft lead is investing in a new leash and collar.
You can then create a new response and history with your new set up and equipment. The new rules start immediately with the new gear. You eliminate the conditioned response of over-exuberant, undesirable behavior with the old leash.
The number one rule for good leash manners is: ‘Never go with a dog that is pulling on a tight lead’.
When you break this down and think about it:
- The dog is pulling on the lead
- You then carry on walking behind them while they have that tension around their neck through the collar
- Therefore you are reinforcing that behavior and signaling to the dog that the tension around your neck is the indication to proceed. The dog will then continue to pull on a tight lead.
The dogs that you see walking down the road on a tight lead with the owner behind them having their shoulder almost pulled out of their socket are doing this because this behavior has been reinforced by the owner continuing to walk behind them when they are pulling. The pulling behavior has a purpose and a function for the dog - it signals that it is walk time.
You want to create the opposite effect. You want to create an environment where whenever the dog feels tension around their neck they stop or correct themselves so that the tension is removed. You want the dog to have sensitivity to this tension.
How do you implement loose leash walking?
Have high value rewards (like ZIWI Good Dog Rewards™) and a clicker on hand (or a verbal mark such as ’yes’), so you can mark the desirable behavior.
Start with the dog beside you in the ‘‘heel’’ position on the left side. The ‘‘heel’’ position is where the dog’s front legs are level with your leg and their head is slightly in front of your leg. When they are in this position the lead will be soft. Hold your leash and clicker in the hand closest to the dog (left) and your food rewards which you will use as a lure in your right hand.
Follow this 10-step process to introduce good leash manners:
- Use a new or different leash and collar as outlined above if you have an established leash-puller. Remember you are creating a new history and new rules with the new set up.
- Place the leash and collar on the dog and give the dog the ‘‘heel’’ command. Walk off with the dog beside you.
- If the dog walks beside you on a soft lead mark it with your click or verbal mark and immediately deliver your food reward.
- If the dog moves ahead and begins pulling turn away (if the dog is on your left turn towards the right) from the dog and start walking off in the opposite direction. When the dog is back beside you on a soft leash in the ‘‘heel’’ position mark it and immediately reward.
- Continue walking and again if the dog moves ahead of you turn away from the dog in the opposite direction, always marking and rewarding when the dog is beside you in the ‘‘heel’’ position. You have to show the dog what you want.
- If you have a dog that stays beside you on a soft leash in the ‘heel’ position, continue marking and rewarding the dog for the desirable behavior.
- As the dog starts moving beside you on a soft lead you want to start implementing regular halts. This involves coming to a stop and asking the dog to sit when you stop. If your dog is on your left side ask the dog to sit when your left leg is in mid-air as you are just about to plant it. The goal is that your dog has time to go into the sit as you are planting your left foot. Mark it and reward. Then step off with your left leg. A couple of steps later ask for another sit. Keep repeating this. What then occurs is the dog starts keying into your left leg and maintains the ‘heel’ position more readily in anticipation of coming to another halt.
- As you progress through this behavior adjustment and the dog is moving beside you consistently on a soft lead start turning back into the dog as well as away from the dog (figure 8’s). You are teaching the dog to move beside you on a soft lead no matter which way you turn. Continue adding in your halts always marking and rewarding the desirable behavior.
- The next behavior you may want to create sequence is called ‘checking in’. This refers to eye contact. Whenever the dog gives you eye contact mark it and reward as you are walking. Eye contact encourages the dog to engage with you and look to you for instruction as opposed to a dog being on the end of a tight leash making their own decisions.
- Practice these steps consistently over a week or two, marking the desired behavior of maintaining the ‘heel’ position, sitting when halting, and checking in. Become more demanding of the dog as you progress. Start the exercise in a sterile environment such as your backyard and as the dog progresses start incrementally taking these new skills out into the world i.e. the back yard, then in front of your house on the footpath, and ultimately out into your walks.
Aspects to consider when completing this exercise that make a significant impact are:
- Ensure that when you deliver your mark (click or ‘yes’) that the dog is exactly where you want them - beside you in the ‘heel’ position.
- It is important to deliver the food reward where you want the dog positioned. As above your mark should be at the correct moment and it is doubly reinforcing if you deliver the food reward while the dog is in the correct position as well. The dog learns that this is the place to be.
- Use highly palatable and reinforcing food rewards. You want something that your dog really likes which will make your rewards more reinforcing. Personally I recommend ZIWI Good Dog Rewards™ because they are natural, highly-nutritious, and they are relatively soft so the dog can chew them quickly allowing us to move straight onto the next reward.
- Mix your reinforcement schedule up to make it more interesting for the dog (i.e. don’t always just give one food reward). Give two, then one, then three etc. this makes it way more reinforcing for the dog.
What about when dogs get distracted and want to ‘investigate’?
In relation to leash manners, another issue commonly experienced is when dogs are walking nicely on the lead but then suddenly pull ahead and walk across their owner to go and sniff a tree or something they find interesting.
The way to avoid this is to set the environment up so that the dog has to go through you to have this sniff time:
- Walk up to a tree that your dog usually investigates.
- On this occasion stop short of it before your dog can move forward to investigate.
- Ask the dog for a sit and when the dog sits mark and reward.
- Then ask your dog to maintain the sit and wait for a ‘check in’ (eye contact).
- As soon as your dog checks in give them a release command such as ‘finished’ or ‘break’ which means you can go and investigate the tree this is your time now.
This simple strategy does two things. It gets the dog going through you to have access to the tree or interesting item which promotes your role as the mentor/leader, and it ensures that the dog remains in a calm learning state and earns the right to go and investigate as opposed to lunging forward and investigating when they decide too.
As with any training, you will be rewarded with the effort you put into it. Have fun with these strategies, be consistent and you will make great progress which will ensure that your walks are so much more pleasurable.