One of the most common goals our students come to class with is teaching their dog to walk nicely on leash. A dog who pulls their owner all over the place, tripping them and choking himself, is no fun to walk. Dogs who lunge and bark at people, bikes, cars, or other animals on leash make walks frustrating for all involved. These dogs may not get as much exercise as they need, because their owner finds walking them so aversive.
Many people expect their dogs to naturally understand that he’s supposed to walk by their side, but this is not a natural behavior for dogs. If you watch groups of dogs interact, they never walk side by side the same way that groups of people do. Instead, they form loose groups, zigzagging back and forth between points of interest. No one dog leads, and dogs come and go from the group as they wish.
I honestly think that many dogs believe that heel means “walk at the pace of death while ignoring everything interesting.” However, it is possible to teach your dog to walk nicely with you with just a little effort on your part.
First of all, remember that dogs do what works. If your dog pulls and you move forward, he learns that pulling works to get him where he wants to go. This is the biggest obstacle to teaching dogs to walk nicely. If you are inconsistant, sometimes following your dog when he pulls and sometimes insisting on polite walking, your dog will always default to pulling you because he will learn that it occasionally works. If you want to have a dog who walks nicely, make sure that pulling on the leash never works for your dog.
There are several ways to teach your dog that pulling doesn’t work. With young puppies, I simply stop moving forward as soon as the leash gets taut. If the leash is making a “J” shape, I move forward. If the leash straightens out, I stop moving until the leash loosens up again. Puppies are smart, and quickly learn that pulling is ineffective.
For older or stronger dogs, I oftentimes use a Gentle Leader headcollar or Freedom harness to prevent them from dragging me forward. For especially enthusiastic dogs, I start to back up as soon as the leash gets tight, so that pulling actually results in the dog getting further away from whatever he was interested in. As soon as the leash becomes loose, I start moving forward again. This method of walking forward and backing up quickly teaches enthusiastic dogs to control themselves in order to go where they wish to go.
Regardless of which of these methods you use to deal with pulling, it’s very important that you reward your dog when he gets it right. There are several ways to do this. First of all, I walk briskly when the leash is loose, since most dogs find a typical human walking pace incredibly boring. I also use a clicker or some other marker signal to tell the dog when he’s doing well, followed by a reward.
There are plenty of different rewards you can use to reinforce your dog for walking politely. I use a combination of tasty treats (chicken, roast beef, and string cheese are my typical go-to treats), tug toys, and environmental rewards for most dogs I work with. In the beginning stages, I reward for nearly every step to teach my dog what I like, then begin spacing the rewards out as the dog gets the idea. Reward right next to your side, with your hand touching your pant seam. Remember that where you reward your dog will influence where your dog hangs out. I usually teach dogs to walk on my left side, so I hold the clicker and the handle of the leash in my right hand, and leave my left hand free for treats or toys.
Environmental rewards can be very powerful, and I make ample use of them throughout my dog’s life. I walk my dogs because I want to provide them with enjoyable stimulation, and I think it’s very unfair to ask them to ignore everything interesting that they see or smell on our walks. If they see a squirrel, I teach them that we will chase that squirrel together as long as they look at me first to “ask permission.” Similarly, if they want to explore an especially enticing smell, they can earn that opportunity through polite behavior. I simply use forward motion towards whatever they find interesting as a reward for keeping the leash loose, and back away from the interesting thing if they forget to walk nicely and start yanking on the leash.
The biggest mistake I see new handlers making with untrained dogs is trying to take them for long walks right from the start. This is an exercise in frustration (no pun intended) for both parties! Instead, I start new foster dogs off in front of my house. We will walk for the same length of time that we would if I was going on our usual walking route, but we simply circle around in front of my house (or in the city, stick to the sidewalk on your block). The dog still gets the same amount of exercise, but by limiting the amount of stimulation I’m exposing him to, he’s able to be successful and to earn lots of rewards for getting it right.
Once the dog can walk politely in front of my house, I’ll start walking him back and forth on my block, gradually expanding to a 2-3 block radius, then eventually going on longer walks in the park. I never increase the distance I walk him until he’s shown me that he can be successful where we’re at. Think of the walk as a process, not a destination. Remember that he’s still getting the same amount of exercise, and in fact most dogs that I work with are more tired by these training sessions than by their previous long walks, since mental exercise is much more fulfilling than physical exercise alone.
Walking politely by your side is an advanced skill, requiring focus and self control from your dog, so be patient as your dog learns. Every dog can learn to walk nicely!
Do you require your dog to walk on a loose leash? What tips and tricks have you found the most helpful in teaching this skill? Please post your stories and suggestions in the comments below!