Everyone knows you walk with your feet (or paws, depending on your species), but did you know that the secret to successful loose leash dog walking begins with a mutual connection that comes from the head and the heart?
With any DIY dog training, you have to start with an understanding of inquisitive canine behavior. Put your pup on a leash, and s/he’s not going to stop doing what s/he’s wired to do: sniff, explore and investigate. The pull to examine everything that catches your dog’s eye is powerful… literally.
This is why so often we see dogs walking their owners, and not the other way around.
As a certified dog trainer, I appreciate when inquisitive canines trust their humans enough to be able to look longingly into their eyes. I also love to see dogs and pet parents trotting along, side-by-side, enjoying a leisurely walk. These two activities are not mutually exclusive; in fact, building trust through a loving gaze is the first step to training your dog to walk on a leash.
Here are step-by-step instructions to get your pup prepped to be the perfect walking companion:
“Watch Me” ~ Establish Trust
The first step is to get your dog to learn how to meet and hold your gaze. Eye contact is not “normal” doggy behavior so if your pup takes a while to warm up to this, don’t worry. The following instructions that start with the tiniest glances and increase from there is a process called “shaping.”
- Have your treats and clicker ready. (To brush up on the magic of clickers and how to establish a Click-Treat [C/T] pattern, click here).
- Your dog may be sitting, standing or lying down, with as few distractions around as possible.
- Begin to C/T the moment your dog makes any eye contact with you at all.
- If your dog doesn’t catch on right away, make kissy noises to prompt him or her or show a treat and then hold it up next to your eyes. As soon as your dog glances up, go ahead and C/T.
- Shape their behavior by C/T — go from the baby steps of glancing near your face to looking into your eyes.
- Gradually increase the time your dog looks at you before you C/T.
- Remember: Once your dog makes eye contact with you, complete each step at least ten (10) times before making it more difficult, such as adding in distractions or asking for a longer time of eye contact.
- It will be up to you if you want to use the cue word “Watch” or your dog’s name.
- If your dog seems bored or distracted, lower the bar of what you want and raise the rate of C/T. You can also try using a different kind of treat.
Once you’ve built that trust and your dog is looking to you for more information, you’re ready to move from watching to walking!
“Let’s Go For a Walk!” ~ Loose Leash Walking (LLW)
Taking your dog for a walk should be fun and enjoyable for everyone. LLW means your dog is on leash and calmly proceeding near you, within the length of the leash without pulling, tugging or lunging.
As we all know, this can be challenging for many dogs, especially where there are lots of new places to go, people to meet and other dogs to sniff. It can be challenging for us if we have a dog that enjoys pulling (either to get somewhere or to prevent from leaving a specific location).
With time, patience and consistency, dogs can learn how to walk nicely on leash, making it more pleasant for both of you.
- Begin by holding the leash with one hand at your belly button – like an ice cream cone – with your arms relaxed. This allows you to use your center of gravity as an anchor to help from being pulled over and to help prevent from pulling back on the leash accidentally.
- Next, prompt your dog to come to your side. Use a food lure, a happy voice, a verbal and/or visual cue. Say yes, then give a treat.
- Keep in mind that the leash is used as a safety line, not for controlling your dog. Try not to pull or tug at your dog. Also, it’s best not to wrap the leash around your hand or wrist (prevents injury if your dog does pull).
- Be sure you’re using appropriate and safe walking equipment, including a front-clip harness.
Practice Walking with Minimal Distractions
- You may want to do the first few runs indoors, where there are not as many distractions as outside.
- Give a verbal walking cue, take two or three steps (using a food lure if necessary), stop, have your dog stop (or sit, which is optional), say yes and treat.
- Continue to practice this step until your dog is offering on his or her own. Then begin to take additional steps, increasing the distance.
- Add in the “Watch Me” phrase when you stop and also say it intermittently when walking. This teaches your dog to check in with you on a walk and helps remind him or her that you’re out together. This enhances the bond you share.
- Once your dog understands the concept of LLW, increase the pace by walking briskly indoors with him or her on leash If s/he goes to the end of the leash, change direction and keep walking at a quick pace.
- When s/he comes near you on the side you want her or him to walk, use a cheerful voice to praise. Whenever s/he gets into heel position or puts slack in the leash, say yes and treat. Also, reward for any eye contact.
- If after a couple minutes you don’t find your dog spending more time at your side or with a slack leash, consider moving to a less distracting area.
- You may also reward more frequently, delivering the treat in the position you want. The point in doing this is to help motivate your dog to stay interested, as opposed to wandering to the end of the leash, looking for something else to do.
Once you’re comfortable with LLW and eye contact, make it more challenging by adding in one distraction at a time.
Before you know it, you’ll be watching your dog walking outside on a loose leash – and best of all, you trained him or her yourself!
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