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Teaching Dogs to Walk on a Loose Leash

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. I will describe several techniques and several tools.


Teaching Dogs to Walk on a Loose Leash

by Pam Green, © 2019, 2022

(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 (though you don't have to do it backwards or in high heels) 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. Indeed, just the fact that a leash is attached should become all the cue the dog needs to know that the dog's job is to keep the leash loose, ie to walk with the person holding the leash.

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 slightly ahead, thus 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.

The other goal is that 95% of the time when you need to make a "check" cue, ie to take tension off the leash, you can do it with just a twitch of your fingers or at most a "snatch" of your fingers. No need for a jerk and no need for your arm to move. Again, that temptation of squirrel or rabbit may require a stronger cue or correction. (Depending on the nature of this particular dog, of course.)

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.

(And I should add that taking a walk with your dog is highly valuable to your own health maintenance. It should also be quite pleasurable for you.)

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 (must be distinguished from other harnesses)

harness NOT intended to inhibit pulling

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. These are not intended to inhibit pulling. This is mostly for small dogs who have various physical problems and who are not really capable of pulling very hard. Some of these have wide cushioned webbing around neck and chest to minimize pressure and maximize comfort.

There's also the use of harness to hold the ID tags for a dog whose neck is larger diameter than his head, thus a collar would slip off. Likewise for the dog who has the knack of losing his collar. These are not intended to inhibit pulling.

There are a variety of harnesses that are intended to enable the person to lift a dog up to standing and / or to support part of the dog's weight as the dog walks. These are for dogs who are weak or injured or have some neuro-muscular problems. There is some kind of handle or sling-like straps. The dog pulling is not an issue. (The next best thing to using such a harness is a towel long enough to pass under the dog and the ends held in the person's hands.)

harnesses intended to encourage pulling

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

harnesses that ARE intended to inhibit pulling

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 "flexi-leash" is NOT an anti-pull tool

Because the flexi-leash gives the dog additional line when the dog pulls mildly, it actually encourages the dog to pull. So this would be counter-productive.

It's also a tool that has some serious safety hazards. That thin nylon line can give one a very nasty "rope burn" as it passes quickly accross flesh. The line can get tangled around obstacles or around legs. Also that freedom to dash away from you can let the dog dash up to another dog or person or some other trouble. (I see this sometimes in the waiting room at the vet's, which is a place where you want your dog unter tight control.) But the worst danger is that if the dog runs out fast and hits the end hard, the line can snap, thus setting the dog free in what may be an unsafe surrounding. If you must use a flexi, at least get one that has half-inch wide webbing for its entire length, not that thin nylon cord.

This may be OK for a very responsive and unimpulsive dog. My Velvet likes to be further away from the other dogs, especially when she's seeking that perfect spot to pee or poop, so sometimes I will use a flexi, but usually I just use a somewhat longer ordinary leash. (I'm also walking on farm roads where there's no one else around.)

the "lightening leash" (my own invention)

(in the UPDATE note at the end of this section, you will see that this idea proved not so good. I don't recommend it. But it's a good illustration of how one gets an idea and tests it and finds it works or does not work.)

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 I do not recommend this product. .

This gave me the idea of what I am terming the "Lightning Leash". It's really as much technique as it 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

UPDATE : "lightening leash" was not a good method
I tried the lightening leash for a while, and it somewhat worked, but not very well, and it was a punitive method. And it did not change Fox's attitude of wanting to "heel" the wheels. Time to re-think.

The "Sit-front and Focus" method

(added 2022, after I'd been using it for several years)

This one worked beautifully for Fox. It's a very benign method, a reward-based method. It is inspired by and based on the "Back Away" method that I learned at a Brenda Aloff seminar. It can change the dog's attitude.

I'm going to describe how it works for Fox, a dog whose "target" for lunging or pulling is a wheeled vehicle. But it's just as applicable for dogs that react (lunging, pullling, etc) to another dog , to a jogger, to a bicycle or skateboard. Brenda Aloff was teaching it primarily for use with a dog lunging towards another passing dog in an aggressive manner. It would be applicable too to a dog who was barking or bouncing at the "target". (Note : even though you are certain that your dog's excited reaction towards seeing another dog is simply desire to play, you still need your dog to be under your control and responsive to you. You cannot be certain that the other dog's behavior towards yours would be benign if they made contact.)

Starting off with the target object (wheeled vehicle in Fox's case) approaching from in front of us, the handler (myself) takes several steps backwards, swings (guides with leash) the dog to Sit in front and then focus on treats held in the non-leash hand, hand in the position that has the dog focusing upwards (head and neck into "howling coyote" position). As the dog is sitting , treats are tossed to the dog. Fox loves to catch a treat "on the fly" out of the air ; but a treat dropped to the ground near the dog's front feet works just as well. Initially several treats may be desirable in order to get and hold the dog's attention. Later on the dog has learned that the handler halting and reaching hand towards the treat pouch is a good reason to sit-front and focus, the treat can be delayed until just as the vehicle is passing.

The goal is to have the dog sitting in front of you with the dog's back towards the "target" and the dog's attention on you and your treat hand. So if the "target" is coming from behind you, either you can do a "double back away" or you yourself swing 180 so you are facing the dog. Signal the dog to Sit and Focus. If the target is approaching from the dog's side, you can do a "half back away", ie stepping to the side and bringing the dog to face you. Your dance step is whatever will bring the dog to face you with the dog's back to the target.

This was not a magic overnight cure for Fox. Her heeler instinct is very hard-wired genetically. But over time, over months, her "default" reaction to vehicles coming from any direction became sitting and focusing on me. (It probably helped a bit that her packmate Bug was also there and sitting eager to catch her treat.) Additionally, she became a calmer loose-leash walker. ( However I will never be willing to have her off-leash in any situation where a vehicle might appear within half a mile of us, because I will never be willing to risk her life. )

I've taught this method to others. The handler's dance step is easy to learn, and even though it has you "dancing backwards" you don't have to do it in high heels (indeed , high heels are not appropriate shoes for dog walking).

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.


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 sledboard

The need for "whoa" and for turn cues should be obvious !!! The dog must be totally responsive to the person and must not be even slightly likely to bolt off after a squirrel, rabbit, cat, deer, whatever. Unwise selection of the dog or inadequate training or unwise choice of environment could get you very seriously injured. Of course the rider must be skilled at balancing and controlling the skateboard or skies or sledboard. Lack of such skill could get you seriously injured.

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 of a dog with solid temperament.. 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. The harness and handle allow the dog to communicate with the person and control the person as needed to keep that person out of danger.

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created 11/24/2019 revised 11/29/2019, material added 3/12/2022
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