On leash walks, dogs often pull to get closer to things they’re interested in – ‘terrific’ scents, new places, other dogs, people to meet. They might even pull to prevent leaving a desired location or to escape something that scares them or that they don’t like. This is all normal! But it can be frustrating for us humans who might have a different vision of a “walk in the park.” Happily, it is possible to take your inquisitive canine for a walk that is safe, fun and enjoyable for you both. A pawsitive approach to teaching loose leash walking is a step in the right direction.
Defining the Behavior
Loose Leash Walking (LLW) means your dog is walking calmly on leash while being allowed to explore, sniff, and enjoy the sunshine – within the length of your leash, without pulling, tugging, or lunging.
- Leash – We recommend a plain, 4’ – 6’ leash that feels comfortable in your hand.
- Comfortable harness with a front clip option – We highly recommend the TransPaw Gear Happy Harness, which has all the bells and whistles you and your inquisitive canine would want.
- Treats – A variety is nice to have. Low value, like your dog’s dry food, and higher value such as small pieces of chicken (or other lean meat).
How to Train Loose Leash Walking
How do we teach Loose Leash Walking? One step at a time – literally! Start your practice with the basics indoors or in another low-distraction environment. Here’s how:
- Once you attach the leash to Fido’s harness, begin by holding the leash at your waist, arms relaxed.
- Next, use a treat and your happy voice to motivate your dog to come into position next to you.
- When your dog gets to you, say, “good dog,” then deliver a treat. Be sure to reward Fido for sitting or standing next to you before you begin walking.
- Give a verbal walking cue such as “Let’s go.”
- Take 2-3 steps (using a food lure if necessary) and then stop.
- Give your dog a cue that requires him to stop. (‘Sit’ or ‘stand’ are good options). Reward the stop by saying “good dog” and delivering another treat.
- Continue to practice walking this way – you walk, your dog goes with you; you stop, your dog sits or stands – until your dog is consistently walking beside you for 2-3 steps without a food lure.
- You can then begin to take additional steps before stopping, as long as your dog is able to stay near you with a loose leash.
Extra credit: If Fido knows a “watch me” cue (making eye-contact with you), you can add it when you stop, along with saying it and rewarding it intermittently when walking.
Building to Advanced Levels
Once your inquisitive canine understands the concept of LLW in a low-distraction environment, you’re ready for the next steps:
- Increase the pace by walking briskly indoors with Fido on leash.
- Remember to continue to reward your dog for any eye contact.
- If pup goes to the end of the leash:
- Stop walking.
- Wait until there is slack in the leash.
- And then begin again.
- When he comes near you, on the side you want him to walk, use a cheerful voice to praise. Any time Fido gets into ‘heel position’ or puts slack in the leash, say “good dog” and give a treat.
- When you are having success with the steps outlined so far, you can begin to gradually move to more distracting environments. Training tip: Go slow here. Consider moving to the back yard first, then the front, then a street your dog is familiar with, before you venture out to that busy hiking trail together.
While honing and advancing LLW skills with your inquisitive canine, if you stumble, don’t worry. Instead, take a step back and consider the following:
Progressing with Red Light Green Light
The goal of the Red Light, Green Light game is to help your inquisitive canine figure out that when the leash is loose, walking continues; if it tightens, the walk stops. The rules for this game are simple:
- When you’re out walking, keep an eye on the leash. As soon as it tightens, STOP! This is the “red light.” Leash tightens, the light turns red, walking stops.
- The moment the leash loosens up, even the slightest amount, GO! This is the “green light.” A loose leash makes the light turn green and walking continues.
A Force-Free Approach
Using a dog harness with a front clip option for leash attachment will help decrease pulling while you work on building your dog’s LLW skills. Try not to pull or tug at your dog. The leash is used as a safety line, not for controlling your dog. Holding the leash at your waist with your arms relaxed, helps prevent you from inadvertently pulling back on the leash.
Use Real-Life Rewards
Do you have a good sense of what your dog most wants to do when out for a walk? Sniff every tree and hydrant for minutes on end? Stare at cars as they go by? Rather than being challenged by these behaviors while out for a walk, you can use your dog’s environment as a source of real-life rewards.
Once you’ve got a desirable (to you) behavior happening, such as intervals of LLW, and an idea of what activities your dog finds enjoyable, you’re good to go! All you have to do is wait for a few seconds of the behavior you like, and then you can release your dog to claim the reward. Let Fido go on a Sniffari, stare, whatever he wants. Or, say you’re walking your dog on leash to an area that the dog will be let off leash. Unclipping the leash after some dynamite LLW is another wonderful real-life reward! As long as you use a release cue like “okay” or “free” your dog understands you are releasing him from the behavior you prefer so he can do the one he prefers. For times when it wouldn’t be appropriate to release your dog in this way as a life reward, there’s an alternative. You can cue some easy behavior your dog knows really well, like Sit or a hand Target instead. Yes, you can actually reward a behavior you like by cueing another behavior you like and rewarding that!
Adjust Distance, Duration and Distractions (the 3-D’s):
- Distance: Reward what you want! In this case, it’s less distance between you and your dog. So, use an upbeat, encouraging voice and yummy treats to coax your dog to stay next to you. Since position is key here, be mindful about delivering treats where you would like your dog to be- at your side with the leash loose.
- Duration: Remember, duration is something that needs to be built up slowly. It’s not fair to expect three minutes of loose leash walking from a dog who has only ever done it for three seconds. So, in the early stages of training, keep your dog motivated by rewarding more frequently. Additionally, varying the loose leash walking increments (number of steps or seconds between rewards) that you request can also help prevent your dog from wanting to give up on this training exercise or wandering to the end of the leash looking for something else to do. The key is to avoid steadily and predictably increasing the requested duration. Mix it up and reward for longer and shorter durations of walking on a loose leash, creating many opportunities for reinforcement. This encouragement helps your dog to stay interested and engaged and you’ll soon find your inquisitive canine spending more time at (or near) your side, with a slack leash. If not, consider moving to a less distracting area.
- Distractions: Staying focused and motivated in the face of the many competing stimuli encountered on walks is hard for dogs! To make it easier for your inquisitive canine to learn, begin teaching LLW in a quiet, calm environment and be ready to return to that level if needed. As you step out of your dog’s comfort zone and into more distracting situations, keep up the treats, games, petting, and praise for polite walking on a slack leash. Remember to try to capture every opportunity to reward Fido when he looks at you. Training Tip: Teaching your dog to check in with you while out and about helps to remind him that you’re out together, which enhances the bond you share.
Walk a Mile in Their Paws
It’s a lot to ask your inquisitive canine to consistently maintain self-control around exciting and/or unfamiliar things while out for a stroll. When troubleshooting LLW, it’s essential to think about why your dog might be pulling. Is Fido frustrated, frightened, anxious, experiencing over-arousal or releasing pent-up energy? Is Fido getting enough mental and physical exercise between walks? Do your best to address any underlying issues. Even if your inquisitive canine struggles with leash reactivity, it’s still possible to get more enjoyment and connection out of your walks together. For these situations, it is advisable to contact a professional, humane, ethical dog trainer to help you and your pup.
To Sum Up
Keep in mind that the average dog walks at a pace much faster than our own. Knowing this can help us understand that our dogs do a great deal to accommodate us humans! The least we can do is repay them with enthusiasm, praise, love, and many wonderful walking adventures together.
With time, patience and consistency dogs can learn how to walk nicely on leash, making it more pleasant for us, and enjoyable for them.
Thank you for being a caring, devoted, inquisitive pet parent! Please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions about loose leash walking or any of the skills presented in the Fido’s Homeschooling DIY Training Program series.
Looking for more? Online dog training is a convenient way for you and your inquisitive canine to continue to enhance your lifelong learning together! Whether you’re looking to brush up on basics or want to dive deeper into behavior, virtual coaching sets you up for success – using the convenience of your computer or phone, no matter where you live. Certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant Joan Hunter Mayer, founder of the The Inquisitive Canine, guides you through more than just dog obedience — she’ll empower you with humane solutions for challenging real-life situations. Discover how a pawsitive approach for positive results brings out the best in your best friend.