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Training Tips: Walking Nicely on a Leash

February 27, 2014

One of the most common problems people face with their dogs is pulling on the leash on walks. One of the reasons this is so difficult to address is that it is easy to undermine our own training; it takes a relatively long time for a dog to learn to walk nicely on a leash, and in the meantime sometimes we just need to exercise our dogs. This can set up an unfortunate situation where we sometimes allow our dogs to practice the bad habit of pulling before they are fully trained not to because the alternative is to not walk them at all.

There are several techniques to teach what is usually called “loose leash walking” or LLW. LLW is not the formal heeling that you see dogs performing in an obedience trial, but most of us do not want or need that level of perfection for everyday walks (nor, most likely, do our dogs). Rather, LLW is a middle ground where a dog is allowed some degree of freedom at the end of the leash to sniff or walk a little ahead of or behind as long as s/he is not pulling. Here are some tips to help teach LLW:

  1. First, realistic expectations are the most important key to success. LLW can be a long term project for which progress is often measured in small steps. Recognizing this is the key to preventing  frustration leading to giving up on yourself and your dog.
  2. It’s ok if on a given day you don’t have the time, energy, or patience to devote to training LLW. For most of us, there will be days when we do, and days when we just need to exercise our dog. One solution is to use other activities for exercising such as fetch or other games in the back yard, a play date with a doggie friend, swimming, or mental games such as trick training.
    If your only alternative is walking,  you need to clearly communicate with your dog when you do not expect LLW (by using a verbal release such as FREE DOGGIE!) and prevent your dog from practicing pulling while walking but not training. There are a variety of management tools designed to prevent pulling: For example, you can use a head collar such as the Halti or Gentle Leader, and there are a variety of harnesses designed for this purpose. The best harness for the job will depend on your dog’s body shape and energy level. If you choose to use something like a prong or pinch collar, please consult a professional trainer to have it properly fitted and realize that despite what you may hear or read the goal for our purposes is NOT to use the collar for corrections/punishment but simply for your dog to wear something s/he chooses not to pull against on walks for exercise, so please do NOT use it to correct your dog with “leash pops.”
  3. Even on walks where you will be working on training, start with very modest goals. A realistic first milestone might be for your dog to be able to LLW continuously for a single city block, and to reach that goal you may be working on only 10-20 feet at a time with FREE DOGGIE time in between. Train for a short distance, then walk for a short distance, then train for a short distance. Don’t try to LLW for an entire walk until your dog has mastered the skill or you are likely to exhaust and frustrate yourself as well as confuse your dog and set your training back.
  4. Reward generously while your dog is first learning. A high rate of reinforcement when a dog is first learning a skill is very beneficial; once they have a basic grasp of the skill changing to a “variable reward schedule” (eg, a “slot machine” approach to rewards) helps solidify the skill quickly. Rewards are not limited to food; as discussed below, you can even use what your dog is trying to pull you towards as a reward!
  5. When you are actively training, be consistent with your expectations. If you do not want your dog to walk more than a certain distance ahead of you, for example, make sure you never reward for going beyond that distance (or, if using the Penalty Yards method outlined below, you always return to the starting point for going beyond that distance). You are walking your dog, so you can set whatever expectations you like, but if you are not consistent with them your dog will learn to test you to see just what you might put up with today.
  6. Practice walking next to you off leash in your home and yard (as weather permits). The more contexts it is rewarding for your dog to walk near you, the more likely s/he will choose to. A technique called “choose to heel” is easy to practice and is discussed in more detail below.
  7. Consider providing outlets where your dog IS allowed to pull if you are interested and physically capable of doing so. Dog-powered sports such as canicross, dryland mushing, skijoring, carting, or weight pulling are good exercise and can be done with just one or two dogs. Because dogs are very, very good at making specific associations but relatively poor at generalizing, sometimes for some dogs having a specific context where a behavior is allowed helps diminish the behavior in other contexts. If you choose to try one of these sports, please find a mentor to help you begin safely (Dr. Christopherson can help with this).

Some specific techniques for teaching loose leash walking are:

Choose to Heel: This is an especially good technique to use as a foundation for puppies who are too young to take on leash walks and who often have a natural inclination to follow us, or a dog for whom pulling is so ingrained that you can’t make any progress at all on a walk. This can be done in a fenced yard or, if you have enough open space, as a rainy (or cold!) day activity in the home. Your dog is off leash and you are not directing or telling them what to do; instead, you simply walk around and if your dog chooses to walk next to you in or near the heel position you mark and reward. Gradually increase your criteria until your dog stays with you for longer and longer distances. Eventually, you can add the leash. This video gives a good demonstration of Choose to Heel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5il8ym0ymY

The Premack Principle: Not strictly a training technique, the Premack Principle nonetheless is a very, very powerful concept that allows us to use almost anything a dog might want as a reward. Also called the relativity theory of reinforcement, Premack is defined this way: More probable behaviors reinforce less probable behaviors. Put another way, it means that if an individual wants to do something highly desirable, they will do something less desirable to get to the more desirable thing or essentially, to get what you want in the long term, ignore or don’t do what you want in the short term. In people, this might translate as taking on a second job or giving up an enjoyable hobby or activity for some period of time in order to save up money for a big vacation. In dogs, it can translate into walking calmly with a loose leash instead of pulling in order to get to that tree they just saw a squirrel run up.

Penalty Yards is a technique that makes use of the Premack Principle. An excellent description of the Penalty Yards method can be found at:http://www.clickertraining.biz/nopull.htm but briefly, you choose a starting point (a crack in the sidewalk works nicely) and an ending point or “target.” The target can be another crack in the sidewalk, a tree, a yard where a dog your dog knows lives, another family member, or you can put a pile of food or a toy down the road as a target. The target should be ten to twenty feet away from the starting point to start and you can gradually increase the distance later.

Give your dog your verbal cue for walking nicely, and start walking. The moment there is tension on the leash (or your dog otherwise goes outside whatever criteria you have set), turn around and go back to the starting line. You do NOT need to say anything or give a leash “pop” or other correction, simply turn around and walk back to the start, wait for your dog to settle down, then begin again. Repeat until you can reach the target. In our experience, the notation in the linked article that it seems to take at least 3-4 repetitions before a dog responds to this method is very accurate, so don’t give up too soon!

One very nice feature of Penalty Yards is that you can use it regardless of what motivates your dog, even if it is simply the act of pulling itself. In accordance with the Premack Principle, literally anything can become a reward. For example, if your dog sees a squirrel run up a tree down the street, where you are right now becomes the starting line and the tree the target. If your dog finds pulling itself rewarding and isn’t trying to get to any particular thing, you can pick any object within a reasonable distance as your target and the act of moving forward at all becomes the reward. You may also choose to give your dog an additional reward such as food or playing tug with a toy when you successfully reach the target; opinions differ about whether this is strictly necessary or not. In the linked article it is recommended that you do give your dog another reward, but Premack purists do not feel it is necessary. The bottom line is to use what works best for YOUR dog, which may take some trial and error.

As always, if you have any questions please feel free to call the clinic to speak to one of the doctors.

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