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.


  • 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.