Loose Leash Walking: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Posted on September 06, 2022
Written by Cassie Cook

by Cassie Cook

Posted September 6, 2022

This adaptation of an ancient Chinese Proverb fits so perfectly when I think about teaching leash manners to our pets. There are so many adventures we can experience in life, from around the block to around the world; with a dog alongside us we are nigh unstoppable. 

BUT…

Sometimes these adventures become a chore.  Sometimes our dog’s excitement outweighs our own and we end up an unwilling passenger on an out-of-control sleigh ride.  Sometimes we worry that our dog’s exuberance in pulling towards their next grand adventure may end up inadvertently harming them because they are pulling so…dang…HARD!  

 

This is where that single step comes in real handy.  Let’s talk about loose-leash walking and how we should approach it like we approach training anything else: reinforcing for a particular position. 

When we train a sit, we begin by luring an animal until their hips start to hinge and they eventually put their bottom on the ground.  This is exactly how we should start when we are training leash manners.  Well not exactly, but we are rewarding them for the position of a sit, so we should start training leash manners by rewarding them for the position of standing just behind or next to us.  When your dog is in the position you would like them, give your verbal marker and drop a food treat on the ground.   

 

*If you do not have a verbal marker that your dog instantly recognizes as a “food is coming” signal, check out how you can easily train this vital tool HERE.     

*This can be done with or without a leash already connected to the dog, but if your dog gets super excited when they even see the leash, you may want to start without one.  

*It’s also best to make sure that what you are doing is the most exciting thing going on, so starting in your home or yard can be helpful.  

Once your pup understands where you want them to be, start to use a cue.  Cues work best when they are short and unique.  So instead of saying something like “Let’s go for a walk,” try using something like “Giddy Up,” “Heel,” or even “Blast off!”  These are likely not going to be phrases you use any other time in life, so there is less of a chance of you inadvertently giving the cue when you don’t need the dog at your side.

SO! You’ve got your pup used to the idea that they get rewarded when they are in position and you’ve added your super special verbal cue that tells them it’s time to get to that position.  Now we can start moving!  Give your cue and take one step forward.  When they follow you, give your marker and treat! You will likely do this a whole lot.  It may help to walk in a square pattern, taking one step forward, then do a one step turn to the side, then again.  Don’t get dizzy!  Once your pup is reliably following you in the correct position, you can start to increase the number of steps before rewarding them.  As you add more and more steps, be sure to vary how many steps they need to take before they get their reward.  If you give a treat every 5 steps, they may start to recognize this pattern.  Here’s a sample order:

3 steps…treat…7 steps…treat…2 steps…treat…5 steps treat…etc

 

Eventually the number of steps between treats will become larger and larger until few to zero treats are necessary for your walks.  When this happens, try adding the leash and doing the same thing.  When they are reliably walking where you want with a leash on in the house, it’s time to take it to the yard…then the neighborhood…then the world!

*It’s important to remember that every time we change the picture (e.g. add a leash or move outside), we should relax our expectation of how many steps they will take. 

But I don’t want to have to carry treats everywhere…

That’s fair, sometimes you don’t have the ability or the desire to carry treats with you all the time.  Putting in the time to train with rewards like treats will take you a long way and will make it easier to use real world rewards when you are outside.   When you have a strong foundation of reinforcing for position (best laid with the help of food, attention, or toy rewards) you can start to use things like a quick game of tug, or a nice long sniff in a pile of bushes.  

 

Hopefully this has given you a few helpful pointers on how to get started on loose leash walking…or as you now know…reinforcing for position!

By Cassie Cook

Cassie has been a technician at AAAC for 8 years and in the veterinary field for over 10 years. She has a special interest in animal behavior and training, particularly as it relates to veterinary care. She is a Fear Free Elite Certified Veterinary Professional and a Cat-Friendly Veterinary Professional. She is also currently pursuing a Master's degree in clinical animal behavior through the University of Edinburgh. When she is not at the clinic, she enjoys spending time working outside on her small "almost-acre" just south of Ames.
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