As someone who has struggled with pulling dogs, I know what a big accomplishment it is to walk your dog with a loose leash.
But once you master that advanced skill, what’s next?
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Mastering Loose Leash Walking
I’ve never done anything harder than teach my dogs to walk without pulling.
Sure, there are lots of suggestions on how to do it. But every dog is different. And matching the right training technique to your dog takes time.
Many trainers recommend stopping the instant your dog starts to pull. And turning in the opposite direction. Eventually, they claim, your dog will get the message that pulling gets him nowhere.
I guess my last dog, Shadow, didn’t read those articles.
She pulled, hard, with the very first step. I turned in the opposite direction and she pulled immediately.
One day, I turned so many times in response to Shadow’s pulling that I became lightheaded and fell on my ass like a dizzy toddler.
Only two things worked:
- Buying a no-pull harness (affiliate) that fastened in the front and stole her momentum.
- Building a relationship that taught her that I was interesting too and worth paying attention to on a walk.
Eventually I was able to walk Shadow without bleeding (my hands became raw from clutching the tight leash). But we never made it to the next step.
Having Your Dog Walk With You
Most positive dog trainers say that loose leash walking does not mean your dog walks in lock step beside you every moment.
If they get a little ahead or behind, it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re not pulling and paying no attention to the meat bag at the end of the leash.
But it’s important for your dog to learn to come to your side when needed.
Like when you see unfamiliar off-leash dogs ahead, when cars pass by, or when you’re navigating through a crowd.
That’s why I’ve taught Honey two cues we use while walking:
- “with me”
- “go sniff”
Loose leash walking without these cues (or something like them) just keeps you from getting killed on a walk.
Learning these two cues keeps you and your dog in synch on a walk.
When I tell Honey “with me,” she knows to come directly to my side (either one; usually she can tell where I want her by the way I hold the leash).
Some smarty pants is reading this now and saying, “Well, duh. You’re just talking about heeling.”
But I think “with me” is a little different.
First, “with me” isn’t just an obedience skill. It’s a measure of our relationship on a walk.
I don’t command Honey to “heel” to prove she’s in my total control as if we were competing in a competition. I ask her to come to my side so we can manage something on our walk together in the safest possible way.
Secondly, the sound of the cue sends a different message to Honey.
Because I haven’t spent much time at dog competitions, I usually hear the command “heel” in one particular situation.
Picture this: An exuberant adolescent dog, perhaps a German shepherd or rottie mix straining at the end of a leash. At the other end of the leash is a burly guy shouting “heel” and jerking on the dog’s collar as he’s continually ignored.
I’ve seen it dozens of times. I bet you have too.
I can’t say I blame the dog. The man hasn’t put time into his relationship. And there’s nothing about shouting “heel” at a dog that communicates to him.
But when I sing out “with me” in a cheery voice to Honey, it’s already appealing. Before we even taught her what it meant.
So how do you teach a dog what “with me” means?
Teaching “With Me”
I’m assuming your dog already walks with a loose leash, even if they sometimes get over-excited by a squirrel or a friendly stranger.
Either you were just lucky with your dog or you put some time into your relationship by being the source of all good things for your dog.
To get your dog to come to your side on an interesting walk, you have to be absolutely fascinating.
- Fill a dog treat pouch (affiliate) or pocket with your dog’s favorite things—treats, a ball, a squeaky, or tug toy. A pine cone or stick I find on a path also works well for Honey.
- Find a moment when your dog isn’t paying attention to you on a walk but also isn’t totally absorbed in a smell.
- Bring out your dog’s special treat and call her name to get her attention so you can show her what you’ve got.
- If she comes to your side immediately, give her the toy or treat. If she doesn’t, return it to your pouch or pocket to try again later.
- Start holding onto your dog’s treat for longer times to encourage them to walk by your side for a few steps before earning their reward.
- Once your dog is coming to your side reliably and walking with you, add the cue “with me” just before you produce your dog’s favorite goody.
- As your dog becomes more consistent in following the cue, you can try it in more distracting situations (like when you see a squirrel up ahead). But don’t move too quickly.
- Soon you can give the treat less often to reinforce the behavior.
The path is different for every dog.
Dogs who are most highly motivated by people will learn this quickly. It’s a very advanced skill for a dog with a strong prey drive or sense of smell. But you’ll figure out what’s reasonable for your dog.
Releasing Your Dog To “Go Sniff”
Once you’ve passed whatever caused you to call your dog to your side, it’s time to release her to regular loose leash walking.
I find dogs get a lot from our tone and body language.
So I’ve never really had to teach a dog to stop walking by my side.
I simply say “go sniff” and ease up on the leash. If Honey looks to me to while still walking by my side, I hold my hands out to show there’s nothing in them for her.
It’s amazing how quickly dogs get that message.
Then Honey moves away from my side and continues sniffing her way on the walk.
I think it’s important to release your dog from walking by your side. Otherwise, he’ll decide when he’s done and that defeats the purpose of having him come to your side so you can walk safely together.
When “With Me” Is Really Important
We take Honey to concerts, festivals, and busy events. And the “with me” cue has been really helpful in helping us manage crowds.
But even more than helping with loose leash walking, it’s vital with no leash walking.
Personally I believe that if you’re going to walk your dog in public off leash, you need to be as connected with her by voice as you’d are with your leash.
There’s a big open field near the marina where we’re staying right now. Like many local dog people, we use it for games of fetch and off leash play.
If someone approaches, I call Honey to come “with me” so she’s paying attention to me and not the stranger. I can then put her leash back on if she looks tempted to go running off to make a new friend (a much bigger temptation to Honey than any squirrel or goose).
The Next Step After Loose Leash Walking
Your dog is great at walking on a loose leash? Good for you. That’s something to celebrate.
But don’t stop there. Take it to the next step.
Keep that relationship strong and teach your dog to come to your side. Once you do, you’ll wonder why you never taught a “with me” cue before.
This post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week – please join us in spreading the word about the rewards of positive training!
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Your Turn: What’s the most advanced skill you and your dog have accomplished on a walk? Celebrate here.