Between working as a dog walker for years, owning two dog walking companies and teaching countless dog owners how to leash train their pups, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to solve leash-related problems and improve the walk experience. If your walk could use a little work, read on because this one’s for you!
1. Treat walks as a training session, not a free for all. Your dog is always learning – learning how to do things you like, or learning to do things you don’t like. But either way, learning is taking place. If you are not intentional about your walks and let your dog do whatever she wants, she is probably picking up some bad behaviors. Pulling, chasing, barking, stopping/starting frequently, zigzagging, jumping at other dogs or people, lack of focus – all of these behaviors can result from being lackadaisical in your approach to walks. A better approach is to make your walks a structured experience with clear instructions and rules. This means that you make decisions about what you want the walk to look like. For example, you want you’re to train dog to walk loosely on the leash, stop and look at you at the streets and sit before going to sniff something interesting. When you know what the rules are, you know exactly what you need to teach your dog or instruct your dog to do. And when you know what instruction to give and how to give it clearly, now your dog can start to understand the rules as well. Over time, you stop having to give the instruction because the behaviors have become habitual, and your neighbors will start asking you “What happened to that crazy dog you used to have?”.
2. Play Red Light/Green Light. This is really more of a rule than a game, but games are fun and rules aren’t, so let’s call it a game. Every time the dog pulls and the leash gets tight – stop abruptly. That’s your red light. Now do absolutely nothing and wait for your dog to slacken the leash on her own. This means no giving verbal cues, manipulating the leash or prompting in any way. Wait it out. The dog will eventually either shift her body back, turn to look at you, circle behind you or sit down, and the leash will slacken. The moment the leash is loose, mark the behavior verbally (“yes”) or with a clicker and begin moving forward again. This is the green light. The consequence for pulling is we stop and remove the reinforcer (moving forward). The reward for putting slack on the leash is we resume moving forward. This technique works wonders on even the worst pullers, but it does require a bit of patience.
3. Use life rewards. Life rewards are simply things that your dog enjoys and finds rewarding that are part of daily life. The life rewards that you may encounter on walks are things like greeting dogs and people, sniffing interesting smells, playing with or carrying sticks, or having the freedom to choose which direction to go in and what area to explore. One of my favorite life rewards combines sniffing and exploring. When I notice that the dog I’m walking is drawn to a particular area, I will stop, have her sit and give me eye contact, and then say “free” and point to the area. At first, the dog usually needs a little coaxing since they know I make decisions about where to go on the leash, but once they get the hang of it, they learn that ‘free’ means “OK, take a moment to sniff around and explore freely.” I make sure to follow the dog closely wherever she wants to go so that we keep the leash loose. After 30 seconds or so, I’ll give a command that indicates to the dog that free time is over and I expect them to follow me again. Usually, that will be a heel command. The beautiful thing about this is that we teach the dog that they can have their cake and eat it too. They can have what they want, they just have to ask nicely for it and earn access to it. In this case, the dog did it by sitting and giving me attention. Life rewards are everywhere. Use them.
4. Reward natural behaviors. Dogs are always doing awesome things that usually get completely ignored. When I’m training with puppies, I’ll make a huge deal about it every single time the dog looks up at me while we are working on the lead. Attentiveness on the leash is a wonderful behavior to reinforce, and when you do, you’ll get a lot more of it. If you notice that at times, your dog walks easily at the heel, make sure to let her know that you like what she is doing. You can praise, treat, and/or use life rewards.
5. Be decisive. This is a big one for many dog owners and it raises the question, who’s walking who? So often, it is the dog making all the decisions on the walk while the human trails along. This is no good. At best, it’s simply giving your dog the wrong idea about who is in charge and can lead a dog to ignore attempts at leadership in other situations. At worst, it could mean a dog being hit by a car or a fight that ends in a vet or hospital visit. So let’s make the decision to make more decisions! You will make the decisions about which way to go, where to stop, how long you wait, when the dog can greet, how the dog can greet, when the dog crosses streets and goes through doors, how fast or slow you move, and what behavior is acceptable on the leash. This is a far safer approach to walks and it is also an approach that teaches your dog that you are the decision maker. Our dogs need that from us – particularly the working breeds. Teach them to defer to you and to follow you, and life with your dog will be far easier and more enjoyable.
6. Use the right tools. The kind of leash/harness/collar combo you use is dependent on your particular dog’s needs. Pretty much any dog can walk nicely on a standard flat collar if taught how to do it using techniques such as the red light/green light game. Front-attaching harnesses and head halters can be helpful for pullers. And back attaching harness are good for small dogs with a delicate trachea, or for doing behavior modification work such as BAT. But no dog, I repeat – NO DOG – should be on a retractable leash. Please, if you have one, throw it in the can right now. I have seen retractable leashes snap in two more times than I care to recall. They are a major safety hazard. In regards to teaching your dog to walk nicely, they will do the exact opposite by encouraging pulling, lack of focus and disengagement with the handler. When it comes to retractable leashes, just say no.