It’s one of the most common issues dog owners encounter, and one that often pushes dog owners to seek professional help for, it’s the star of all training problems, we’re talking about pulling on the leash. There’s no denial over the fact that leash pulling can really put a dent in the quality of walks, and dog owners at times get so discouraged, they totally give up walking their dogs altogether. On top of that, there’s no shadow of doubt that dogs walk much faster than humans, so what’s left to do? Fortunately, there is a solution to this common training problem: it’s called obedience training, and to be even more specific, loose-leash walking.
Understanding Why Dogs Pull
It’s a common misconception to think that dogs pull because they want to be the boss, so they can lead their helpless owners wherever they want. A better understanding of how dogs think has revealed that pulling on the leash has nothing to do with acting dominant and a desire to rule the roost. Rather, it turns out that dogs just pull because they are excited and eager to explore their surroundings and haven’t been taught any better. According to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, going on a walk is a fun-filled activity and dogs pull because they can’t wait to enjoy all the excited sights and smells. Also, if Fido wasn’t ever taught loose-leash walking, he’ll likely just assume that pulling is a normal activity.
On the other hand, it’s also important to recognize some dynamics. In the case of pulling, dog owners are dealing with the “opposition reflex.” This is a reflex common in many animals, and as any other reflex, the dog does it without thinking. Basically, the more a dog is pushed, the more the dog pushes back, and in the case of leash pulling, the more the dog is pulled, the more the dog reacts by pulling back. Loose-leash walking prevents this dynamic from taking place.
What Exactly is Loose-leash Walking?
In loose-leash walking, as the term implies, the dog learns to walk on a loose leash. Most dogs who pull don’t even realize how it feels to walk on a loose leash. Most likely, they are always straining against the collar making all sorts of gagging, choking noises. Not only does this make the dog uncomfortable, but it can be painful and even cause health issues such as collapsed trachea, damage to soft cartilage and increased ocular pressure.
In loose-leash walking, the dog learns how it feels to walk with the leash dangling instead of being tense. The dog learns the difference between a tense leash and a loose leash, and through training, he learns that great things happen when the leash is slack. Through positive reinforcement training, he therefore learns that walking on a loose-leash is rewarding and fun; whereas, pulling becomes boring and unproductive.
Choosing the Right EquipmentA good place to start is using effective training equipment that helps the dog owner gain more control. This equipment is highly recommended for owners of large dogs who have the potential to drag the owners on walks. Great training tools for loose-leash walking are front-attaching harnesses with the leash that attaches to the front of the harness. These harnesses encourage the strong dog to walk by the owner’s side; rather than pulling ahead. Small breed dogs prone to collapsed trachea do best with a harness; whereas, Houdini dogs who know how to slip through collars, or dogs with thin necks such as greyhounds and whippets, may do best with a martingale collar. An alternate choice is a head halter, such as those used for horses, but in this case made for dogs. These head halters though require some time for the dog to adjust as many dogs dislike wearing them. It’s best to consult with a professional to learn how to get the dog desensitized to wearing these and how to properly use them. The best leashes measure about 6 feet, and should not be harsh on the hands. Leather leashes are preferable as they’re durable, resistant and soften with time.
It’s important to point out that training tools are not meant to be used as a replacement for training. Dogs need to learn how to walk on a loose leash, and training tools alone won’t accomplish that. Once the dog has learned the basics of loose-leash walking and is capable of walking nicely even around distractions, the training tools can be gradually weaned off if desired, and the dog can be walked on a regular buckle collar again.
How to Train Loose-leash Walking
In order to train loose-leash walking, dog owners will need a collar or harness, a 6-foot leash, a treat bag and lots of small, bite-sized treats. The following is a step-by-step guide on training a dog to heel nicely on a loose leash.
- Dog owners should start practicing in a quiet area, free of distractions. The goal is to have the dog walking besides the owner in heel position and on a loose leash.
- Every time the dog advances out of heel position and causes the leash to get tense, the dog owner should immediately stop walking. This stops reinforcing the pulling.
- When the owner stops walking, the dog may look back to figure out what has happened. When the dog looks back, the dog owner should say “heel” and lure the dog to come back to his side with a tasty treat.
- The moment the dog goes to the side of the owner, he should be given the treat. The purpose is to reward the dog when he is in heel position so he’ll want to be there more and more. After some time, the dog will realize that not only when he is pulling he is no longer being allowed to walk ahead, but he also gets away from the “reward zone.”
- After some time, the dog should no longer need to be lured to the side of the owner. This is when the dog owner should start keeping the treat out of sight. Upon hearing the word “heel” the dog should automatically come to the owner’s side in anticipation for the treat which is given right when he gets there.
- Duration can then be added. When the dog comes to the owner’s side, the owner will raise criteria and start rewarding the dog for spending longer and longer time in the heel position.
- Distractions can also be added gradually by going on walks in busier areas.
One of the main problems encountered in loose-leash walking is inconsistency. If the dog is allowed to pull sometimes, and then at other times not, the dog will end up feeling confused and will never completely stop pulling because at times the pulling pays off. Training a dog to walk politely on the leash at times requires the dog owner to become more stubborn than the dog. If the dog pulls to go sniff something, it’s better to just turn around and then reward him for walking on a slack leash. Rewards don’t always have to be food: if a dog loves to sniff a tree or mark a fire hydrant, these are life rewards that can be highly appreciated.
- When training to heel, the very first walks may feel like they take an eternity, as dog owners will be repeatedly stopping and re-directing to heel position, but the good news is that things get better soon as the dog learns the new concept.
- Exercising a dog before a walk often makes the training session easier once most of the energy has been drained.
- To prevent the dog from taking the treat in heel position and then rushing to the end of the leash, it’s not a bad idea to start working on giving several treats in a row and rewarding the dog for staying by the owner’s side for longer and longer periods of time.
- If a dog pulls towards a distraction, it may be a good idea to stop and call him back to heel or if he’s too distracted, simply turning away from the distracting stimulus.
- Walking fast, then slow, turning around and then walking in a circle or in a zigzag line around cones helps make the owner’s movements unpredictable and teaches a dog to pay more attention.
- It’s best to enroll in classes so the dog owner can learn how to better manage the dog around other people and other dogs.
- Retractable leashes are not recommended as they teach the dog to pull and are rewarded for it.
The Bottom Line
It’s a known fact that dogs aren’t born knowing how to walk politely on a leash. Training a dog to perform loose-leash walking takes some time, but it’s well worth all the effort. There’s nothing nicer than enjoying a walk with a relaxed Fido who heels politely next to his owner.