The importance of a loose leash
Your walks with your dog may look different from other dog walkers you see. Why? Walking your dog is a personalized experience and depends largely on how the dogs are behaving and what each owner’s goals are. To some extent, it also depends on your dog’s personality. Some dogs (although it’s rare) naturally walk on a leash perfectly calmly without any training. The challenge is that many dogs do resist the leash a great deal. If you’re a “the walk is their time” type of person, there’s not a lot your dog will learn from the walking experience with you other than it’s okay to pull on the leash and focus on everything except you. This makes dog walking challenging for so many owners I speak to. That being said, I do believe it’s beneficial for dogs to be afforded the time to smell and explore things on the walk. However, for many dogs, these allowances can condition more undesirable behaviors, like heavy leash resistance, lunging, excessive vocalizing, overarousal, and sometimes more reactive or aggressive behavior.
In fact, it’s common for dogs to learn over time that these walks are not for prioritizing walking together with their person. This can be disastrous for so many people. I hear stories from clients all the time about a dog getting loose, the owner getting hurt, slipping out of the equipment, and lots of other problems. The parents usually end up avoiding walks altogether, because it is no longer a pleasant experience. They’re frustrated and their dog is frustrated, anxious, and out of control. Now, there are always exceptions, but this example is all too common in the conversations I have with parents about their dogs. So, if you want your dog to behave a certain way on walks, you’ve got to start teaching and practicing appropriate behavior. Unless your dog is one of those dogs that automatically walks like a saint with no practice, you need to make time to rehearse what you want your walk to look like before taking your dog anywhere.
A Better Approach
If this sounds like your situation, you must ask yourself, “Who’s walking who?” It’s not that allowing your dog the chance to explore, sniff, and have “their” time is bad or wrong. It’s just that for so many dogs, how they gain access to these “dog time” experiences is crucial— if they’re allowed to drag their owners over to an interesting smell with no correction, that signals to them that this behavior is okay by you. Again, I’m not referring to those dogs that are already walking pleasantly and are not causing problems for their owners or showing undesired behavior. I’m talking about those other dogs—the ones that do require a little more guidance, a little more expectation, and a little more predictable structure during their walks. What we’re ultimately aiming for is to teach these dogs that it benefits them to pay more attention to their human. We want them to know that it is always worthwhile to at least split their attention and check in with their human with periodic, frequent eye contact. They’ll learn that it gives them the freedom to better enjoy their walk, feeling safe and confident in your leadership. They know that if they can trust you to be in charge, and you’ve got things under control, then they don’t have to try to be the leader for the two of you.
Now for the real question: How do we communicate all this to our dogs? The short answer is that it all starts with the leash. Few families actually utilize the leash inside the home, when no “walking” is actually going on. The majority of pet families only pull out the leash when it’s time to go outside and walk. I believe this is the reason so many dogs struggle. I always encourage our client families to think of the leash more as a communication device. It is your “interpreter,” the bridge that lets you communicate with your dog. The leash should not something to resist, like a ball and chain. It shouldn’t be restrictive, the sole reason your dog can’t immediately act on whatever impulse might strike him. The leash should provide clarity for your dog about what you’re asking of him, which will bring your dog comfort. Using the leash often in the home will teach your dog how to better interpret what you want from him. It will give him a more solid foundation of good leash walking skills and make walks less of a challenge for both of you. The only way we can get your dog to this point is by using the leash at home.
Preparation and Techniques
Now that we’ve shifted our mindset on the purpose and value of the leash, where do we start with hands-on exercises? Remember, we want your dog to see the leash as a way to enhance communication with you. We want your dog to know that when he feels even a little tension from the leash, that it means there’s some message from you he needs to receive. That could be that you need him to turn, or slow down, or stop, etc. We teach this lesson by incorporating more frequent but short indoor, on-leash sessions throughout the day with him. The goal is to sprinkle the use of your leash throughout the entire day. Not only when it’s time to go outside. And before you do go walking outside, it’s a great idea to try to prepare your dog for a calm walk with a vigorous play session before you go. Burning off some energy before the walk helps your dog stay beside you and obey your commands while on leash.
Specific drills and techniques aside, simply using your leash at home more frequently will improve your dog’s walking skills. We want him to normalize regularly moving with you, turning with you, stopping with you, speeding up with you, and slowing down with you. These are basic but crucial skills many dogs need before they can manage a successful walk outside, with all the possible distraction and challenges. While many specific exercises are developed to improve walking behaviors, here’s how you’re going to get things moving in a good direction. First things first—plan daily on-leash tours around the house for your dog. Yes, I want you to literally tour your dog around the house. Every day.
You don’t need a lot of space for this, it doesn’t need to be all day, or all at once. Walk your dog around every possible space in your home. Walk around the living area, walk around the kitchen, walk up and down the hall—show your dog every area of your home, all on leash. The goal is to use limited space to rehearse a high volume of repetitions, where your dog is practicing walking with you and not against you. You can do this while you take care of other human tasks and chores. You’ll take your dog through necessary lessons like moving with you in a circular fashion, turning around sharply, randomly stopping and waiting, changing your walking speed, and other practical movements you may have expected him to already know as you take him on his “real” walks. He doesn’t already know. You have to teach him.
Your dog will learn that he can release the tension of the leash by looking to you and then moving toward you when he feels it. When he responds correctly, not only does the leash go loose but he also should receive a reward from you every time. That reward might be food, praise, or toys in the learning phase. Just make sure he knows he can count on it. In time, that reward might be changed to an environmental reward, such as gaining access to an area he wants to explore. We want your dog to acknowledge your every movement and be able to balance what he’d like to do with what you are asking of him. Slowly but surely, you’ll see the results of this trust you’re building with your dog, and that will help you tackle your dog’s specific walking challenge. Whatever it is, that challenge will be smaller and easier to overcome when you regularly make time for this activity at home.
Take the Show on the Road
It’s important to keep in mind that while you’re “at home tours” are taking place, you can still walk your dog outside. While on those walks, you can still allow your dog to “just be a dog” and have opportunities for exploring. As mentioned earlier, what it boils down to is access. How did your dog access the experiences he likes? And is that access becoming a catalyst for other undesirable behavior? When it comes time to practice your walking, a great way to encourage good behavior and provide outlet for your dog while walking is practicing what we like to call “permission-based experiences.” Instead of bowing to your dog’s will and allowing him to yank you around and do what he pleases, see to it that he looks to you for some kind of permission or signal that tells him it’s okay access what he wants. This could be eye contact, maybe some obedience position, or even just a brief pause. This simple shift will let him know whether he has permission to access what he’s interested in.
If you make time to rehearse routines of walking patterns at home, while at the same time practicing additional self-control skills by requiring permission to access experiences, you can begin to reverse your dog’s perception of the walk. You can teach your dog that walks are a team sport. He’ll learn that it’s faster and more beneficial for him to team up with and tune into you. When he does what you ask, he typically gets to experience what he wants. That could be walking in a direction he desires in exchange for a little eye contact. It could be getting to smell that tree stump in exchange for stepping toward you to release the tension on the leash. He’ll begin to understand that he usually gets what he wants if he remembers to be a team player and treats you like the leader on the walk. While it will take effort and endurance on your part before your dog behaves the way you want him to, the extra work will always be worth it. If you are a “let’s do it together” type of person and want the walk to become an enjoyable experience for you both, you must make time to practice at home. Remember to ask yourself, “Who’s walking who?” After reading this, that question should help remind you what work needs to be done to get the outcome you desire. Happy training!