What’s Next After Loose Leash Walking?

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?

Honey the golden retriever plays fetch in the field next to Cambridge marina.

Perhaps a game of fetch?

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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.

Shadow was a beautiful mutt.

She looks so sweet, doesn’t she? But on a leash, Shadow became a terrifying she-beast.

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:

  1. Buying a no-pull harness (affiliate) that fastened in the front and stole her momentum.
  2. 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.

Which is…

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.

Ducks at Cambridge marina.

Or when you come to a crowded duck crossing.

That’s why I’ve taught Honey two cues we use while walking:

  1. “with me”
  2. “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.

With Me

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.

Honey the golden retriever is with me walking on a loose leash.

Okay, I’m with you. Are you going to bring something yummy out of that pouch you’re wearing?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Find a moment when your dog isn’t paying attention to you on a walk but also isn’t totally absorbed in a smell.
  3. Bring out your dog’s special treat and call her name to get her attention so you can show her what you’ve got.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Soon you can give the treat less often to reinforce the behavior.

Easy, huh?

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.

Honey the golden retriever walks on a loose leash.

Yep, we’re walking together but you’re sniffing your things and I’m sniffing mine.

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.

Honey the golden retriever walks off leash in Cambridge.

Even off leash, I stay pretty close. After all, there might be treats. Or games. Or sticks.

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).

Honey the golden retriever walks with me off leash.

See, I know what “with me” means even when I’m not on a leash.

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.

Looking back at Cambridge marina.

Looking back at the marina from a popular dog play lawn.

This post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian NomadsTenacious 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! 

Positive Pet Training Hop






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If you weren’t lucky enough to win, you can order your own cleanable and odor free collar from Kurgo by clicking the link in the sidebar.

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Your Turn: What’s the most advanced skill you and your dog have accomplished on a walk? Celebrate here.

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  1. This is such an important skill to teach, and probably one of the most common things people struggle with.

    Turning around and/or stopping when the dog pulls is a punishment. Punishment only works if the dog has a history of being rewarded for doing what you want.

    Dogs pull because the person is competing with the environment, and the environment is always interesting and worthy of the dog’s attention. People tend to be pretty boring on walks :) So like you said, the first step is to build your relationship and make it rewarding for the dog to walk with you.

    Even a well trained dog can sometimes give in to temptation and pull towards something. If the dog has already been taught to walk next to you, using a mild punisher like stopping or turning around is likely to be effective. Then it just becomes a reminder to the dog of what they are supposed to be doing, not a way to *teach* the dog what they should be doing.

    • Thanks for the clarification about the stopping vs pulling technique. I was very thankful that the trainer at the SPCA introduced me to clicker training which was the first step toward teaching Shadow to pay attention to me. :)

  2. Clearly all your training (and bloody hands) paid off. Wanna come train Sam? :) I’ve never had a standard that pulled like this boy does. When he has an agenda, I mostly have to hang on for dear life (luckily he isn’t into squirrels or I’d be one solid body scab). And you’re right, it is hard to believe Shadow was a leash demon with that face but only know too well how well dogs can camouflage the devil. 😉

    • Actually, the first improvement we made was buying a leather leash. It didn’t cut my hands up nearly as badly as a web one. Maybe you should ask for one for your birthday? :)

  3. I guess Mr. N did read those articles! That method did work for us but I understand it doesn’t work with every dog. What’s hard for him is working calmly past another dog on leash. We can manage squirrels and cats and bikes at this point. Still working on dogs! Thanks for joining the hop.

    • It really helps when you can find some really blasé dogs who don’t send out lots of playful or aggressive signals to practice with. I suggest some really old Saint Bernards. :)

      And some of it just comes with age. Some day you’ll miss Mr N getting excitable as he passes every dog. :)

  4. Nala and I have worked really hard on loose leash walking, and we did quite a bit of technical training to get there. But I agree with you–one major reason that our walks are so much more pleasant now is simply that Nala and I have a great relationship built on trust and fun. I notice that the most when I dismiss her to “go sniff” and, instead, she bounces back to me and asks to work. In that case, who am I to deny her? We always stop and play a little before continuing to walk. Nala can be challenging to work with outside because she’s so environmental–she has some prey drive, she loves sniffing, and she’s very cautious and anxious about novelty–so it’s especially rewarding for me that prancing attentively next to me and jumping up to touch my hand as a reward for heeling and any number of other silly things we do is fun.

    As an aside, we do Rally Obedience–and I’ve given a lot of thought to the aspects of obedience related dog sports that are designed as a power trip, to show how much “control” you have over your big, strong dog. Sometimes it bothers and annoys me, for sure, and I don’t want to be associated with it when Nala cues off of my body position, presses her head into my side, and prances next to me (I am lazy about adding verbal cues). But I think that there are movements within many of these sports toward making it about forging a strong relationship with your dog and expanding her idea of fun–as has certainly been the case for me and Nala. If I hadn’t decided to research dog sports training methods in my efforts to become a better trainer for her, our relationship wouldn’t be where it is today.

    • When you have a dog who wants to be with you, walks are so much more fun. I don’t understand why people whose dogs ignore them on the end of their leash don’t want more from their relationships.

      There are lots of interesting and old-fashioned attitudes in traditional dog activities that are slowly changing. I remember Honey’s breeders telling me that they didn’t train their show dogs because they wanted them to have a playful demeanor in the ring that “trained” dogs didn’t have.

      Isn’t that the saddest thing you ever heard?

  5. If you give it a few years, loose leash walking seems to happen on its own too 😉 Bailie hasn’t really mastered it yet if there is a critter, it is over with. I’ve mellowed with age and may give a quick pull for a critter, but then I back off. My problem is I don’t want to keep moving forward, which actually makes my mom a “puller”.

    • Well, with some dogs…

      Shadow was 8 years old when we adopted her and she was a holy terror. :)

      Here’s a suggestion for your mom. Carry M&Ms under your collar and slip one to your mom to reward her for slowing down. :)

  6. Great post!

  7. Some great tips!

  8. Boca is a natural loose-leash walker most of the time, but Ruby has all of the traits that make her a tough case: anxious/distracted, overstimulated outdoors, reactive and prey-drive-y. I’m thrilled if I get the slightest acknowledgment that I exist on our walks!

    • Baby steps are the way to go.

      I remember when our trainer told me that using a clicker I’d get Shadow to pay attention to me on the walk and I didn’t believe her. She was a hound whose brain turned off the instant she caught a scent.

      Look at how far Ruby has come so far. If only Boca could teach her to chill on a walk. :)

  9. I like the “with me” command concept. I think when those words roll off my tongue they are softer than the other choices. I shall give it a whirl. Thanks for a great post.

    • I think the sound of words is really important. I always try to keep it in mind when I’m thinking of new cues.

      We have to lift Honey to get her out of the boat and I was trying to think of something to say to warn her what was coming and to get her to stand in a better position so I could pick her up.

      Last night I came up with “Let’s Fly.” Doesn’t that sound better than the grunt I usually make when I try to pick up a 50 pound dog? :)

  10. I do something similar with Nola, though ours are called “to me” or “right here”, and “have at it!”. She’s great with LLW, and her biggest reward is being allowed to pull, lol. I let her do it on occasion, just to reinforce her!

    • I love “have at it.” I can imagine that saying it with gusto really communicates to Nola.

      And yep, I get the pulling as reinforcement. Very clever.

  11. Great explanation! Now that the weather is finally cooling off in Colorado, I need to go for longer walks with Richie on populated trails to practice this with him. When we go on hikes, I let him wander and sniff where he wants unless people or other dogs are approaching, then I use the command “follow” (my version of “with me”) to indicate he needs to stay right with me. I put him on either the right or left side depending on which way we’re walking. I also don’t like the term “heel” but I’m not sure why. He’s very good at this command but gets out of practice over the summer when we don’t get out as much.

    • We all need practice, don’t we.

      I think heel has been overused. And it sounds very harsh and clipped. I like something that makes being close sound fun.

      Follow is a good choice.

  12. I love the “with me” suggestion; I’m going to try it. I already have a “go sniff,” why I didn’t think of something to go along with it is beyond me. I have to admit Laika isn’t the greatest loose leash walker, I cheat and use the same harness you did with Shadow.

    And I don’t really know about the stop every time they pull advice either; sure it gets Laika to stop, but no matter how many times I do it she starts pulling again when we start walking.

    • Yeah, I think the “be a tree” technique has gotten lots of press but it only works for some dogs.

      We continue to use the harness with Honey. I use it when we’re going somewhere that I feel more comfortable with more control. But I also use it for my husband to walk her. He doesn’t have the patience to enforce a no-pulling policy. And the inconsistency is a killer.

  13. Interesting Pamela. I’ve tried using words to get the dogs to walk with me, but they didn’t always take to it. So instead, I just shorten the leash and I pull up beside my dog. It works great! Our dogs have been doing good with passing people, children, cars, bikes, squirrels, deer, etc…but dogs…dogs are still a tough one with these guys. Hoping to get more practice in with mixing the Front Dogs and the Back Dogs to help with reactivity this winter. Wish us luck!

    • It really helps if you can find calm dogs to practice walking by. And that can be tough if you have dogs barking behind fences or worse, loose dogs, in your neighborhood.

      And I’m not surprised to hear that words aren’t as effective with your dogs. Because they live around each other all the time, I’d expect that body language would work better. Sounds like you’ve found that too.

  14. So I have to ask…Did you listen to a lot of Christopher Cross while you were *Sailing* ? lol :)

    • In truth, I absolutely hate that song. I also dislike Jimmy Buffett (lots of cruising sailors love him) and the movie Captain Ron (another sailing fave).

      Weirdly enough, I just like sailing. :)

  15. Zora is pretty good at loosh leash walking now. The no-pull harness makes a big difference! I generally let her walk in front of me unless I see a distraction, then I call her to me. Once we get past the distraction, I’ll let her loose again. She responds pretty well to verbal cues – Come, Stop, Wait and Okay (our release word). I use “Stay Close” if I want her to walk beside me. It certainly makes walking more enjoyable when we work as a team.

    • There are some wonderful no pull harnesses out there. I wish everyone using a choke collar would get one.

      And yes, walking is always fun when we’re paying attention to each other. :)

      • Pamela, which no-pull harness do you use with Honey? And where did you get it? I’ve got three that I bought at PetSmart back when we first adopted Ducky, but I never could get them adjusted properly for any of the three girls. One of these days, I’ll take them back and get a gift card. Or maybe just take them to the shelter and donate them.

  16. This is great, Pamela. “With me” seems like a great alternative to “heel” and far more useful. I think the way I now use “heel” is really more similar to “with me”. I only use it to get them by my side, and only make them walk a few steps with me while I need them to, then I let them go again.
    Of course, we’re still working on the whole loose leash thing though!

  17. We use “close” in the way that you use “with me”! ”
    It took a long time to convince me to walk nicely on a loose lead. It’s fun to tow a biped along!