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Teaching Dogs to Walk on a Loose Leach


 
One of the most basic requirements for a dog to learn is to walk on a loose leash with a person, thus not pulling or lunging or winding the leash around the person's legs, nor any other gyrations.
Fortunately this is not terribly hard to teach. The right tools and simple techniques will usually do it.
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Teaching Dogs to Walk on a Loose Leach

by Pam Green, © 2019

(I don't know why I didn't write this one much sooner. The desire for one's dog to walk on a loose leash is so very basis, something everyone needs. Even if you live in a remote rural area where a well trained dog can be off leash, sooner or later you will be going into town , eg to the vet's, where a leash is required.)

I am dealing with loose leash walking here, not with formal competition heeling. Formal heeling is like competition ballroom dancing and loose leash walking is like more walking with a friend. Most people are not aiming for competition heeling. Those who are wanting to train formal heeling but who will also be going for normal pleasure walks should use a different cue for "Heel" and for loose leash walking, such as "walkies" (that Barbara Woodhouse favorite) or any other cheerful word you like.

For loose leash walking the dog does not have to be in one particular position relative to your body. The dog might be a bit ahead of you or a bit behind you or off to the side, off to either side of you. If you have multiple dogs, some might be on one side of you and some on the other. I prefer to have the dog where I can see the dog's body language, as this can let me predict the dog's reactions. Also some dogs, such as my Fox, will "tell" me about interesting things I might not otherwise notice : birds, animals, etc.

The goal of loose leash walking is that 95% of the time the leash could be made out of a half inch of ordinary paper and wouldn't get torn. Ie both you and the dog have nearly the same feeling you'd have if there were no leash. But about 5% of the time there is a temptation such as squirrel or rabbit or perhaps another dog, such that your dog would dart foreward or pull. Or your dog may need to stop to pee or poop.

Until your dog will walk on a loose leash, you won't enjoy going for walks with him. If you seldom take him for walks, he will become more and more difficult to take for walks and more and more difficult to live with. A good walk unloads some of the dog's energy so he will be more relaxed at home and easier to live with.

Always remember the trainer's mantra : "A tired dog is a good dog."

the basic technique

Regardless of the particular tools, the variety of collars or harness that you use, there are some simple techniques that usually work.

"red light , green light"

The method for forging or pulling dogs is that the handler simply stops dead (becomes a tree) the moment the dog begins to pull. Then as soon as the dog loosens the leash (even if handler had to make a sound or use leash to cue dog) , the handler continues foreward in the original direction. Cessation of foreward is the "negative punishment" (loss of something dog wants) and resumption of foreward is the "positive reinforcement" (gain of something dog wants). Many trainers refer to this as "red light, green light". It's a very benign method. (Even trainers who claim to be "all positive" will use this method, conveniently ignoring that the "red light" part of it is an aversive, although an extremely mild one that should never arouse any fear or any other undesirable effect in the dog's attitude.)

This works well when you are walking only one dog, because that dog's own behavior is turning on or off the foreward motion that the dog wants. It's not so appropriate when you are walking two or more dogs, as the consequence of one dog's behavior happens regardless of the other dog's behavior. So give the new dog his "red light, green light" lessons on solo walks before adding him to your multiple dog walks. Loose leash walking is something I teach from first day in my home, so it's the first outdoor lesson, and the dog will get several solo lessons on this and on Sit before joining group walks.

"red light green light, traffic ticket"

In the "red light, green light" method, if merely stopping dead is not getting the message accross, you can instead do a 180 turn and go half a dozen steps or so in opposite direction. This is especially appropriate if the dog's desire is to reach a particular goal. For instance this is an excellent method for dogs straining to reach the dog park gate. It might take you an hour to get to the gate the first time, but it will take half as long the next day, and you may only have to do one or two turn-arounds on the third day. Dog learns that fastest way to reach the goal is to go politely at handler's pace.

Of course you can combine "red light" cessation of foreward motion with swiveling and doing "get back". Dog starts to pull. You halt. If dog doesn't loosen leash, then you go into the "get back" sequence. Once dog is back far enough for the leash to be loose, you "green light" into foreward motion. The two techniques blend together well.

teach "get back"

This is covered in Body Space, the Finessful Frontier. It is used in combination with "red light" techniques.

I teach "get back" as a cue for a dog that is forging ahead of me and pulling on leash to get back to a position at my side and not putting any pull on the leash. I want all my dogs to refrain from pulling when they are on leash. The leash should always be loosened by the dog.

So here we are, the dog walking on leash and now the dog pulls ahead. Let's assume the dog is on my left side (often I have dogs on both sides, and if the dog were on the right, these directions would be reversed). I swing myself up to 180 degrees counter-clockwise so as to bring myself right in front of the dog facing the dog. Then I step towards the dog, saying "get back" (some emphasis on the "aack"), and continue towards the dog. Some dogs will yield ground easily, stepping back. Others will need the added cue of a mild bump from my knee into the dog's chest (for a Bouv sized dog). That bump is usually not more than fly-killing force ; it's at most mildly uncomfortable , but mostly it helps the dog to understand what he has to do, ie to move away. For a smaller dog, the bump would come from my shin or for really small dog or puppy, a duck-waddle shuffling of feet would do it. Initially if the dog yields just a step backwards, that's enough and I release pressure (cease walking into the dog) and swivel myself back to face in the direction we were walking and we continue to walk. That release of body space presure and being allowed to continue walking in the direction the dog wants to go is the dog's reward. A word of praise as dog steps back would also give the dog the information that this was what I wanted him to do. I am NOT going to give a treat or toy or any other reward other than continuing the walk. I do NOT want the dog to get into a sequence of forging /pulling sets in motion events that lead to a big reward.

Now after the first few times, when one step of yielding is enough, I am going to correct forging and pulling by requiring the dog to make several steps backwards. From then on, the rule is the greater the pull, the greater the penalty.

But when the dog has caught on to the idea, he gets to the point where I need only begin to swivel myself just slightly towards the dog's front while saying "get back" and the dog will scoot back. Soon enough a quietly voiced "get back" is sufficient most of the time. Of course if there is a very strong attraction ahead of us, then I may have to go back to an earlier version and require a penalty back up of half a dozen steps.

The ideal eventual result would be for the dog feeling the leash tighten on collar or halter to be associated with the command to "get back", so that that tightening leads to the dog making his own correction by getting back. Most of my dogs do learn quickly enough to keep the leash loose. But some dogs, like my very pushy little Queensland bitch , Fox, are always wanting to go ahead and so will need to be cued to "get back" each time. Fox has been getting better because I've been getting more consistent about cuing her.

the tools

ordinary flat collar

This is the everyday collar you use to carry the dog's identification tags with your phone number. For some dogs it is all you need. The dog can certainly feel the difference between a loose leash and a tightened one.

slip collar or martingale collar

These are collars that tighten on the dog's neck when there is tension on the leash. A quick "pop" or jerk and release is a form of correction, but if the dog is already pulling, you must loosen the leash in order to give a pop. Many dogs will pull so hard and so continously as to impede their breathing.

The slip collar is often called a "choke chain". Never ever leave a slip collar on a dog when unsupervised, as if the "live ring" catches on something it really is possible to strangle the dog.

The martingale collar is a limited slip device, ie limits how much it can tighten. Again, don't leave it on an unsupervised dog.

"pinch collar" (also called "prong collar")

This is that ugly looking one with prongs that rest on the dog's

neck. Used for correction by a quick "pop". It looks ugly but it's actually less damaging to the dog's neck than a "choke chain" used over and over.

This used to be my main tool for teaching leash response to those rescues who came to me utterly untrained and wild. However 90% of these respond even better to a head halter.

See also In Praise of Pinch Collars for more information and warnings against misuse.

head halter

This is the one that looks a lot like the halter used on a horse (or cow or sheep), but the noseband tightens

when tension is on the leash. It works because where the dog's head goes, the body follows.

This is as close to a magic tool as anything in dog training and it takes less skill to use than almost any other tool. It works great with the "red light, green light" system. If the dog pulls, you just halt. Maybe take a step to the side, thus turning the dog's head slightly. Soon as the leash loosens by the dog response, you resume the walk.

I've been able to teach this to people who would not easily learn to give a leash "pop" correction. And it's really kinder to the dog.

Because it allows you to turn the dog's head and thus control the direction of his eyes, it can can enable you to disrupt a staring contest between dogs, thus prevent escalation of potential conflict

See also In Honor of Halters , article on use of halters in training and warnings against mis-use. includes illustrations.

By the way, you can get a temporary halter-like effect by just taking a half-hitch in your leash around the dog's snout. This is an old horseman's trick for leading an unhaltered horse with just a lead rope : one loop around the neck (at the throatlatch) and a half-hitch around the lower part of the head.

various "no pull" harnesses

There are a lot of different types of harness, only some of which are intended to discourage pulling. "Harness" means something going around the dog's body (torso) , rather than around his neck or on his head..

There's the harness meant for walking a dog who should not have any kind of pressure on his neck or his head. This is mostly for small dogs who have various physical problems and who are not really capable of pulling very hard.

The tracking harness is intended to allow the dog to pull as hard as he is capable of. Likewise the carting harness.

The type of "no pull" harness that has an attachment ring in the center of the front of the chest is one I've seen works well for some people (probably those who do "red light , green light") and not at all for others. I don't think it inhibits pulling unless you actively train.

Several types of "no pull" harness work by putting pressure into the dog's armpit (axilla) when the dog pulls. The risk here is that the armpit has a lot of nerves and blood vessels that could be damaged by hard pressure. At best it is working by pain. I have not ever used this type.

the "lightening leash" (my own invention)

There is a commercially available leash called the "Thunder Leash", which puts a loop of leash around the dog's girth area, just behind the elbows. I think this has the disadvantage of putting pressure on that vulnerable "armpit" area and perhaps impeding the dog's breathing. I have not tried using this product.

This gave me the idea of what I am terming the "Lightning Leash". It's really as much technique as ait is a tool. An ordinary leash is all you need, though maybe a bit longer than otherwise. The leash simply passes a loop , a "half hitch", around the dog's waist. So long as the dog does not tighten the leash, the dog is quite comfortable. But if the dog tightens the leash, there is some discomfort (possibly more so for a male dog than for a bitch). When the dog takes pressure off the leash, comfort returns.

The one concern I have about this method is that there might be a dog who would react by biting your leg. That would be a dog who is very reactively aggressive. If you have any doubts, try it first with the dog wearing a basket muzzle. The other concern would be that a dog might panic, gyrate wildly or bite.

I have only tried this on one dog, FoxTheWickedQueensland, a very impetuous bitch whose hard-wired "heeler" instincts cause her to lunge towards passing vehicle tires, a very dangerous game. She is also what a horseman would call "on the muscle", always wanting to go a bit faster, always wanting to go ahead. While using a pinch collar or halter and frequent "get back" cues does work, there's too much repetition needed. She still wants to put some tension on the leash. For Fox, the "lightening leash" technique has been a marvelously effective trick. Once she is walking politely on loose leash for a while, I un-hitch her waist and use the leash in ordinary manner. If she reverts to putting tension on the leash, I re-hitch it. Below is a view of Fox with the "lightening leash" in place. Notice that there is no tension on the leash, so no discomfort to the dog.

the lightening leash

times when pulling is desirable

There are some situations in which it is desirable that the dog pull , indeed pull strongly. For these situations an appropriate pulling harness is needed. For most of these situations safety requires that the dog reliably obey a halt command , such as "Whoa !", even under very exciting conditions. For some situations, it is desirable that the dog respond to "right" and "left" turn cues. And the pulling should be only on cue, ie a cue to begin pulling.

Tracking

In Tracking, the purpose of the harness and line is to enable the dog to tell the handler that the dog is on the scent and to demand that the handler will follow the dog. A large strong dog (most Bouviers) by pulling hard enough can say "on your feet or on your belly, you will follow me !". A smaller dog (or an elderly large dog) might merely pull against your one finger on the line. The dog is the controlling partner because the dog is the one whose nose knows.

I did teach my tracking dogs to "whoa" and "wait" so that I could negotiate obstacles or slippery slopes. Then "OK, there's more" to resume tracking.

Pulling a rider on a skateboard or on skies or sled

The need for "whoa" and for turn cues should be obvious

Pulling a wagon or sled to move a load

The person is usually leading the dog on leash.

Years ago I knew a person whose Bouv pulled a garden rototiller. I've known people living in snow country whose Bouv pulled a sled loaded with groceries or other load from where the car was parked to the house. Or pulling firewood on sled or wagon. Or a child's wagon with child riding

Pulling a wagon with a person riding and the rider directing the dog requires a lot more training. When I did it, my methods were adapted from horse driving.

Guide dog steering blind person out of danger

This one is way outside the scope of out topic. This is part of the very special field of Guide Dog training.

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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
Pam's e-mail address has changed tips on site use
created 11/24/2019 revised 7/27/2017
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