Loose Leash Walking
In puppy training, loose leash walking is the behavior I use when we are casually walking somewhere. If I am taking my puppy on a walk around the neighborhood, I use this behavior versus the “Heel” behavior. It makes the walk more enjoyable for both of us if I do not constantly have to keep my puppy in heel position and my puppy doesn’t constantly have to think about where she is in relation to me.
My command for this behavior is “let’s go”. The most important thing to remember in teaching loose leash walking is to understand why a puppy pulls in the first place. A puppy pulls to get somewhere they want to go faster. If my puppy starts pulling and I follow her (allowing her to pull me), I am telling her she is in control and essentially, I am rewarding the pulling because ultimately, the puppy gets to go where she wants and I allow it to happen. So, in order to make pulling not rewarding, I must not allow my puppy to have her way.
I do this by instituting what I call “penalty yards”. It looks like this… My puppy starts pulling. As soon as I feel tension on the leash, I stop my forward movement (step one in not allowing my puppy to be rewarded). Make sure to keep your center of gravity over your hips because if you allow yourself to be pulled so that you are bent at the waist, you will have no balance or strength to counteract a strong puller.
Once I am centered and stopped, I begin backing up facing the same direction I was going when I was moving forward (penalty yards). I continue backing up until my puppy turns and returns to me under her own volition. I will not reel in the leash and drag my puppy back to me because then we are in a power struggle. I want my puppy to voluntarily return to me. When she does, I will verbally and minimally praise but she will not get a treat.
With her at my side I will again give the command “let’s go” stopping and rewarding the puppy when she is walking with a loose leash. She doesn’t have to be right next to me but I do want her leash to be loose enough that there is obvious slack in it and I do want her on my general left side so that she isn’t zigzagging in front of me and tripping me up.
Now, obviously this is going to be a very difficult behavior to train your puppy if you try teaching it on a walk around the block at first. You must first introduce this behavior in a quiet environment, like your living room, just you and your puppy. In an environment like this, you should able to reward your puppy frequently for not pulling you around the house.
This is great because the foundation you are laying is that walking on a leash close to you is rewarding. Keep the number of steps small; stopping and rewarding when the puppy is walking nicely every three to four steps at first. As your puppy walks nicely for a certain number of steps, you can begin to add distance by rewarding every six to seven steps or more.
If you find your puppy is beginning to forge forward after a certain number of steps (say eight), reduce how many steps you take by one or two (back to six) so that you are able to reward your puppy before they forge. Practice at this stage until your puppy is reliable (at six steps) then, add more steps to challenge your puppy.
The most likely reason for the forging is due to lack of reward and the puppy is getting frustrated so, they forge. Your puppy is also telling you that he isn’t ready for that big of a jump in number of steps and he needs more work at the previous stage. Once you have practiced this for several days, move to either another room in your house or to your backyard. Again, keep the distractions and distance to a minimum.
You may notice more pulling from your puppy in this environment. Embrace this and view it as, not a setback, but as an opportunity to enforce good loose leash walking position when it is obtained.
Once your puppy is successful reliably here for a good number of steps, introduce a distraction (like another puppy staying with its owner on one side of your yard or a child playing with your puppy’s toy off in the distance). Practice walking toward the distraction and correcting the pulling and rewarding the loose leash walking. Continue to add distraction and distance slowly as your puppy is successful and when you decide to go for your first walk, keep it short and be consistent with your reward and penalty yards.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and your puppy will not be a polite walker in a day either. There will always be places that your puppy will pull but if you never allow them to be rewarded, the behavior will eventually extinguish in all environments.
Obviously the biggest problem will be pulling. There will be times that you will be constantly stopping and backing up. In these situations, your puppy is telling you the distraction is too great and they may need a little more help and a whole lot more work in less exciting environments.
For these situations while you are perfecting your loose leash walking but still wanting to go for leisurely walks, I would suggest investing in a head halter called a “gentle leader” or “halti”. Both devices act as a head halter on a cow would, controlling where their heads go. It goes around their muzzle and up behind their head and helps prevent pulling. As the puppy pulls, the leash attached to the halter turns their head to the side essentially stopping the pulling.
Please read the directions carefully as to how to acclimate your puppy to this particular device and use caution with the leash as pulling too hard or too severely can damage your puppy’s neck.
Use this halter whenever you go for casual walks and occasionally switch your leash to their collar and work “let’s go” when you find a quiet place on your walk to practice. Try to avoid depending too much on the halter and never teaching loose leash walking without it. There will be situations where you may not have the halter but you will want your puppy to not pull your arm out of it’s socket so it is vital to have a solid “let’s go” behavior. Consistency is key.