Welcome back to the multi-part series on training your dog to walk on a loose leash. As mentioned in Part 1, it’s important for you to decide what your training goals are before you start training.
In many situations, owners are content to put their dog on special equipment, like a no-pull harness or a head collar to minimize pulling. Some owners would like to be able to walk their dog eventually on a regular collar, without any special equipment. If you fall into the latter category, then read on!
Before training begins, it’s important to review some training terminology. Positive training techniques often rely on the use of a behavior marker. A marker – usually in the form of a sound - identifies for the dog the exact moment that they did something correct, and signifies that some form of reinforcement or reward is forthcoming very soon.
This helps to clearly communicate with our dogs. If the dog doesn’t hear the marker, then whatever behavior they just offered in the training session was not the one that will earn the “payout.” Common markers that can be used are a training clicker, another easily distinguishable sound (like a beep) or a verbal marker, such as “Yes!” Read more about behavior markers and what makes them effective in training.
Just remember that the reward must always follow the marker, whichever you choose to use. If you accidentally mark, give the treat or other reward anyway. If you don’t, then your dog may not be as reliably responsive to the marker in the future, which will reduce the effectiveness of your training. For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to the marker as a “Yes!”
Now that you have your training goal established, and understand about marking and rewarding behavior, it’s time to get prepared to train. You’ll need a few things before you start training.
The easiest way to reward behavior is through the use of treats. Because you will be teaching behavior through multiple repetitions, it’s important to have a treat that is small (say pea-sized or smaller depending on the breed of dog) and something that is meaty or moist so that it can be easily swallowed. There are many commercial treats available or you can dice up some plain roasted, baked or boiled chicken. Small bits of cheese or other mild and lean meat will work as well.
You’ll also need a clever way to carry your training treats on you. This could mean purchasing a treat pouch from a pet store, using an old fanny pack, or stashing your treats incognito like in the pockets of a hoodie sweatshirt or in the deep pockets of some cargo pants. No matter where you stash your treats, it’s imperative that they are easily accessible without a lot of fumbling or delay.
Lastly, it’s important that you know how to hold the leash properly. You are going to be treating your dog for being in the correct location, which is adjacent to your leg without any tension on the leash. In order to treat effectively to keep your dog in that position, you will treat from the hand on the same side as your dog (i.e. dog’s on your left side, treat with left hand).
This means that you will hold the leash with the opposite hand. Watch this very short video on how to hold your leash properly for training. A hint… Never wrap your leash around your hand. It is extremely dangerous. For this article, we’ll practice training the dog on your left hand side.
Finally… We Start Training!
- Begin your training in a low distraction environment like a quiet room inside your home.
- Start with one deliciously high-value, smelly and yummy treat in your closed fist on the same side as your dog.
- Hold your fist with the treat in front of your dog’s nose and take 2-3 steps forward. If your dog will follow your fist with the treat, say “Yes!” and open your hand to give your dog the deserved treat.
- Repeat step #3 about ten times, then take a brief petting and praise break to tell your dog they are wonderful.
- Begin your training again, but this time, only pretend that you have a treat in your fist. If your dog can follow your fist for 2-3 steps forward, say “Yes!” and then deliver a treat from your treat pouch. Repeat, repeat, repeat while remembering to take a short break after about ten repetitions.
- Continue to mark and reward your dog for following your fist, which will be down at your side, close to your dog’s nose.
- If your dog is too distracted to follow your fist, increase the value of your treats or take fewer steps in between marking and rewarding.
- Once your dog is following your fist reliably in your training sessions without a treat in it, say “Let’s Go” before you present your fist. This is called adding the verbal cue.
- Over the next several training sessions, increase the number of steps you take in between marking and rewarding. Likewise, as your dog is successful, begin to work in higher distraction environments, like the back yard, then the front yard, then finally onto the sidewalk and down the street.
A Few More Notes
Why is this technique effective? It’s simple… Dogs are very much visual learners. They are quite adept at picking up our body language (whether we want them to or not!). When we present our fist down at our side and in front of the dog’s nose, they quickly learn that the fist is usually worth following, especially if that means they might earn a treat from it. On the opposite spectrum, humans are very vocal creatures and we like to talk to our dogs, which is why it’s to our benefit to add a verbal cue, such as “Let’s Go.”
Building on this idea that dogs are visual learners, this method of teaching loose leash walking to your dog can also be helpful if you would ever like your dog to learn off-leash walking. After all, it doesn’t really matter if your dog is on leash or off, as long as they are reliably following your fist cue. (Always obey leash laws!)
In part three of the loose leash walking series, I’ll discuss some alternative methods to teaching loose leash walking. All can be effective, as long as your dog is showing progress with the method and trainers are demonstrating consistency in training sessions.