Painless Loose Leash Walking For You and Your Dog an In-Depth Guide


Loose leash walking can be tough, it is the Achilles heel of many dog-owner teams. It can be really challenging for your dog to walk near you when he has soooo many things to sniff and explore. Generally the more distracting the environment, the more challenging it can be to get a loose leash walk. What constitutes as a distraction can be different for every dog. Some dogs might struggle when they are excited, some when they are scared, and others have a zest for life and want to get to where they're going as quickly as possible. 


What is loose leash walking?

Charlie demonstrates some very nice loose leash walking while wearing a front-clip harness.


Loose Leash Walking (LLW) can be described as your dog walking near you, and maintaining a slack leash during walks. LLW is easily identifiable because the clip on your dog’s leash will be pointed down toward the ground and your leash will be smiling.


These two images below demonstrate a loose leash. Notice how the leash clip is pointed down and the leash is loose and "smiling?"

These two images below do not demontrate a loose leash. See how the leash is so tight in both and the clip is pointed up?



Loose Leash Walking VS Heel

Dustin walks on a loose leash wearing a collar. He does not have to stay immediately next to me, but he does need to keep his leash loose.


Loose leash walking and heel are two different behaviors. Heel is a very intense behavior for both you and your dog. Your dog walks at your exact pace, looks up at you, is right next to your left side, stops when you stop, and moves when you move. It is a time when you and your dog are 100% connected with each other.  Your dog does not need to learn to walk in heel position as you walk for 1, or 2, or 3 miles a day. It would be too exhausting, for both of you. 


Your dog does, however, need to be able to walk on a loose leash for regular walks. Heel can be utilized for shorter duration things, like crossing the street, and passing someone on the sidewalk. LLW gives your dog a little more freedom than heel does but it does not give your dog carte blanche to do whatever they want.


Things that will make it harder for your dog to walk on a loose leash

  • Excitement, going somewhere he knows is super fun!

  • Fear, not wanting to walk towards something scary or pulling really hard to get away from something scary. 

  • Reactivity, many dogs who are reactive walk nicely until they see a trigger. For these dogs, it is important to work with them on counterconditioning and desentization to the trigger in conjunction with the loose leash walking skills.

  • Inconsistency in training. How is your dog going to learn what is expected if your expectations are constantly changing? They won't.


Loose leash walking Myths

Maui walks with a loose leash in a busy area of manhattan wearing a back-clip harness.


There is a common misconception that you cannot teach a dog to walk on a loose leash using a harness. This statement is not true. You can teach a dog to walk on a loose leash using any type of equipment. It is true that some harnesses and equipment do not do anything to prevent your dog from pulling but none cause or encourage pulling. The only thing that creates pulling on leash or loose leash walking are consequences. Consequences can be defined as something that happens within 2 seconds of a behavior happening [2]. When your dog pulls and continues to get to where they are going they will pull more often in the future because pulling is being rewarded. When your dog pulls and you ensure that they do not get to where they want to go you have just prevented pulling from being rewarded and it will happen less often in the future. 


There are even some harnesses that are designed to prevent and limit pulling. 


Loose Leash Walking Equipment

Sometimes it can be beneficial to change the equipment that you are using to walk your dog in order to help you achieve the loose leash walking that you desire. But, before doing so there are some things to consider. All equipment that is designed to stop pulling does so by making pulling on the leash uncomfortable and/or ineffective. If used, they should be employed to help manage pulling while you work on training.  Your most successful resolution will utilize equipment in conjunction with training. Alone, equipment does not solve your problem. The equipment is only as good as the training you implement with it.


Types of equipment that do little to discourage pulling include flat collars, properly fitted martingale collars, and back-clip harnesses. You can use all the above to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash, they just don’t function as any sort of deterrent. 


If you are looking for equipment that does help manage and reduce your dog’s ability to pull while on leash a front clip harness or a head halter are likely your best options. There are pros and cons to each, but both need to be used in conjunction with training. 

Willow walks on a loose leash wearing a front-clip harness.


A front-clip harness will work for most breeds and most sizes of dogs. It is a great tool to help reduce your dog’s pulling. Most dogs adjust to the harness quickly. When your dog pulls the clip in the front gently turns him to the side and slows him down. A “Y” harness is ideal, you should always choose a harness that restricts your dog’s natural gait as little as possible. The whole dog journal did a review of different harnesses and found that they like the Perfect Fit Harness (my favorite as well), the Balance Harness, and the Freedom Harness. They do not recommend the easy walk harness by Petsafe [2].


It is absolutely appropriate to use either tool to help you begin your loose leash walking journey. I generally like to start with a harness first. But remember, at the end of the day, loose leash walking is a skill that must be trained, it doesn't happen magically just because you have bought fancy equpiment.  

Coco walks on a loose leash wearing a head halter.


A head halter will work for any breed or size of dog but can be especially helpful for large breeds or reactive dogs. They are also appropriate when an owner feels like they cannot safely control their dog. A small dog who is constantly tripping you up, or a large dog who weighs half your size are both good candidates for a head halter. They allow the handler the most control of the dog.


One drawback of the head halter is that it sometimes takes a little bit for your dog to get used to wearing it. They typically do not like it, or just tolerate it at first. You will have to do some preliminary training to teach your dog to wear it and understand how to walk with it on. 


5 Keys for Loose Leash Walking Success

  1. Choose a reinforcer your dog likes. A reinforcer is anything your dog likes that makes a behavior happen more frequently [3]. Bring your dog’s most favorite treats on every walk. Things like boiled chicken and cut up hot dogs usually work great. Make sure the pieces are small- about the size of a pea. It might take some experimenting to find some treats that your dog likes, but don’t give up! 

  2. Avoid leash pressure. It only teaches your dog to ignore it and/or pull harder. Your leash can be a great communication tool, do not diminish this line of communication.  

  3. Ensure your dog only has access reinforcers when the leash is loose. 

  4. Remember, you and your dog are a team. You need to work together to learn loose leash walking. It is your responsibility to teach your dog the new skill, and it is your responsibility to maintain it. It is natural for dogs to pull, if they’re pulling they're not doing anything wrong. It just means you haven’t taught them a different behavior yet. 

  5. And lastly, the most important element of loose leash walking is to be consistent. No behavior can be learned without consistent practice. If you sometimes practice loose leash walking your dog will not learn to walk on a loose leash. If you always practice loose leash walking he will learn to walk on a loose leash. 


How to Teach Your Dog to Walk on a loose leash


1. Mechanics

The first thing to learn for successful loose leash walking is correct mechanics. Mechanics can make a huge difference in your success. Proper mechanics will set you and your dog up for success (remember, you’re a team!). It is important to learn how to properly hold the leash, and how to properly deliver reinforcement. 


How to hold the leash

  1. Hold your leash in your hand opposite to your dog.

  2. Put you hand through the loop.

  3. Pinch the leash with your thumb and pointer finger.

  4. Use your other hand to deliver treats and control how much leash your dog has access to.

How to Deliver/Feed Treats

It is important to deliver treats to your dog in the correct position. If you do not feed your dog in the right place they can start tripping you, or pulling, instead of walking on a nice loose leash next to you.


Do:

  • Feed your dog a treat from your left thand if they are on your left side, and from your right hand if they are on your right side.

  • Feed your dog when they are standing right next to you. Your feet and their feet should be facing the same direction.

  • Their feed should be parallel to your feed, not in front.

  • Feed the treat with your knuckles facing forward, and your hand touching the side of your pants, right down the seam.







Do Not:

  • Do not feed your dog with your fingers facing forward. As you can see on the left, Dustin is stepping on my feet when I feed from that postion.

  • Do not feed across your body. Your dog will cut in front and cause you to trip.


2. Training Exercises - Foundation Skills


Foundation Skill 1

The first thing you should start doing is bringing your dog’s favorite treats out on your walks. Every time your dog looks at you give him a treat. He does not need to sit, or stay or some for this treat. He has earned it for looking at you. This teaches your dog to pay attention to you while you are out on walks. Loose leash walking is basically a long exercise of your dog paying attention to your walking speed and direction changes. 

  1. Bring your dog to a quiet area and stand still. Wait patiently for your dog to turn his head towards you or look at you. The moment that he does, click, and reward immediately. Repeat until your dog is looking at you pretty constantly. 

  2. Now start moving, as you walk your dog click any time he turns his head in your direction or looks at you. 

  3. You will know your dog understands this when he is looking at you every couple steps- this is good! This is what you want! 


Foundation Skill 2

As you begin rewarding your dog for looking at your outside, you should simultaneously start practicing loose leash walking with your dog inside. Any skill that you want your dog to do outside, you should practice inside first. Grab some treats, leash up your pup, and go for a nice walk inside. Reward your dog for looking at you and when your dog pulls stop moving. Your dog will likely have better LLW inside than outside, so make sure you practice, practice, practice.

This video shows you how to lure your dog into a loose leash walking position.

  1. Get your tasty, small, treats ready.

  2. If you want your dog on your left side use your left hand for this exercise, and if you want your dog on your right side use your right side for this exercise.

  3. Put a treat right in front of your dog's nose. When he is interested in it, pull your arm behind you and step back at the same time. Then, without pausing, step forward and bring your hand forward at the same time. Your dog should be facing the same direction as you. Feed him the treat, right next to your leg. Your fingers should be facing backward, and your knuckles facing forwards. As long as he continues to stand next to you, feed him a treat, in that position, every 2 seconds.

  4. Your dog is likely to take one treat, and then move away. Repeat step “3” as many times as necessary until your dog understands that standing next to you will get him heavily rewarded. 

  5. Once your dog is standing next to you with duration, lure him forward as you take one step. Give him the treat immediately, and in position, for taking one step with you.

  6. Repeat taking one step at a time, while you lure your dog to walk with you, treating your dog for every step. 



Moving Outside and into more Distracting Environments 

Before moving to outside loose leash walking your dog should be able to easily respond to leash pressure inside, come back to your left side when prompted and be paying attention to you most of the time when out on walks. Additionally, it should be easy to get your dog’s attention when you prompt, or ask for it. 


Now, if your dog is not doing all three of those things with ease, don’t worry! Just practice them some more. If your dog is performing those behaviors easily you are probably ready to add in some distracting environments. 


The first, most important part of your loose leash walking success is to not add distractions too quickly! Your goal is to start small. Do not go from 0 to 100. Start in an environment that your dog finds mildly distracting and systematically work up to environments with more intense distractions. It is faster to progress slowly and steadily than it is to jump ahead to when your dog is not ready. 


As you get out and about 100% of your walk should be dedicated to practicing loose leash walking. If you cannot dedicate your walk to practicing it is better to leave your dog at home and practice later when you have the time and energy to implement your new training. 


An important key to successful loose leash walking is to avoid undesired patterns of behavior, such as pulling. To achieve this you always want to reward your dog for nice loose leash walking before they make a mistake. You do not want to wait for your dog to make a mistake so you can correct them. (then they get in the habit of making mistakes and that is not what we want)


When training any concept with your dog is it your responsibility to have a plan in place ahead of time so that you are prepared to deal with anything that might come up, good or bad. Here, I have outlined a loose leash walking plan for you:


Your loose leash walking plan


This video shows Charlie learning to walk on a loose leash. When he makes a mistake and tries to go into the store I remain calm, and use his lure to bring him back to my side. We had practiced this inside many times previously so it was easy for him to do outside.


1. What do you do when your dog does the right thing?

Reward! Generously! Lots of treats for nice loose leash walking. Rewarding at every step is not too frequent at first. 


2. What do you do when your dog is about to do the wrong thing?

Redirect by prompting your dog to come back to your side. Then take one step and reward them for staying right near you. 


3. What do you do once your dog has already done the wrong thing?

Stop walking and make sure your dog does not have access to any type of reinforcer. Never reinforce pulling. Not at all, not even once, never ever. Things that your dog can find rewarding are sniffing, saying hi to dogs or people, forward motion or attention. Your dog is not allowed access to any of these things when his leash is tight. This might mean you have to tell people they, or their dog, cannot say hi to your dog right now- that is absolutely ok!


As you can see from your loose leash walking plan, loose leash walking in the real world is a combination of all of the exercises you have been practicing. (that is why it is important they can perform them with ease before moving on to this step) If your dog is struggling it is likely that you have jumped ahead a bit. There is never anything wrong with going back a step and working at that level a little bit longer. 


Remember, have fun and be consistent! You and your dog are a team, and you both are learning new skills together.





© Leash and Learn 2020

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[1] ABC: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. (2020, January 29). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abc-antecedent-behavior-and-consequence-3111263

[2] Miller, P. C. (2020, March 24). The Best Front Clip Dog Harnesses. Retrieved from https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/care/the-best-dog-harnesses/

[3] Reinforcer: Definition & Examples. (2016, February 11). Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/reinforcer-definition-examples-quiz.html.