Guide to Loose Leash Walking

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Dogs naturally walk at a different pace from us, and they have different interests, so it takes time for dogs and their humans to learn about and adapt to each other. Walks are a time for you to bond with your dog and work as a team. You’re there to facilitate meeting their needs – remember to ALWAYS provide fresh, clean water immediately upon arrival at your destination, do a bit of food sharing and take your time before setting off on your walk.

 

Equipment you’ll need:

  • A good treat pouch (this one is a favorite among trainers)
  • Tasty treats (preferably soft, not crunchy)
  • A back-clip harness (why not front clip? – see below)
  • A long line (minimum of 30’ - don't use a retractable leash)

1. Practice inside with no leash. Get your treat pouch on! Talk, move in different directions, walk backwards, call your dog to you, and have fun. Reward and encourage the dog for being close by you. Verbal praise encourages your dog to stay near you. Always deliver the treat to your dog when they are just slightly behind your knee. It doesn’t matter which side of you they are on. You can toss the treat behind the dog too, so they run off to get it and then have to catch up with you as you continue to walk ahead. It's a good idea to practice outside in an enclosed area without equipment. Your fenced backyard, your neighbor or friend's fenced backyard, rent a Sniffspot, or find another safe, legal area you can take your dog to practice. This helps you rely on your voice and relationship instead of the equipment.

2. Talk and stay engaged. Talking to your dog is important. Walks provide many opportunities to capture new words and expand your dog’s vocabulary.

On the left is a well-managed, coiled long line. On the right, the girl has the leash wrapped around her hand which could lead to an injury.

3. Handling the long line safely. When you start loose leash training, the more space, the better. When possible, a 30’-50' cotton webbing line in an open space is ideal so your dog has more room to explore, make choices and get the exercise they need. If you want to practice walking on a loose leash, your margin for error is the length of the leash. The leash is a safety device, not a training tool. Keep the leash relaxed, but not so long that it’s tripping you up or tangling your dog.Don’t wrap the leash around your fingers. It’s best if you have two hands free to manage the leash: one to hold the extra length, and the other to guide the leash between your hands. The minimum length of your leash should be 8 feet.

4. Sniffing and functionality. When you’re walking with your dog, pay attention to them and let them engage with their environment. Give them plenty of opportunities to Drink, Eat, Pee, Poop and Sniff (DEPPS). For dogs who mark in the house this is a particularly important time to let them pee on as many things as they want and reward them for doing so! Observe your dog for these signs of functionality to help monitor stress levels.

5. Act before the leash gets tight. Your job is to avoid any tension on the leash. Watch your dog, give them more leash length if they’re further from you. If you’re almost out of leash, use your voice to get their attention while you still have slack.

6. Get their attention and then do any of the following:

  • Walk or jog backwards talking and encouraging them (make sure the path is clear!). When the dog reaches you give them a treat.
  • When the dog reaches you, promptly go in the direction they were originally headed in when you interrupted them. This is a great reward and doesn’t involve food!
  • Encourage them to come near you and walk for a while in a new direction – deliver treats when they are slightly behind your knee. You must be quick with your delivery.

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7. Capture directional changes. Remember to give your dog a head’s up when you’re about to change direction – say “let’s go this way” in an upbeat tone of voice. You can also start teaching “left” and “right” for direction changes!

Get their attention with a kissy sound (or whatever your conditioned attention getting sound is) and when they look at you say “left” as your turn left or “right” as you turn “right”. Using a pointed finger helps your dog to identify the direction you're about to go. 

8. Practice, practice, practice. If you are consistent, kind and engaging, your dog will learn. Be patient with yourself, too.

 

TIPS

  • The relationship comes first. The dog needs internal motivation to stay with you, not just food (we’ll use food, but the dog’s emotional welfare gets first priority, not their behavior). Address the dog’s lifestyle to make sure all of their needs are being met.

 

  • Give the behavior of walking with you a name (capture it). I also suggest capturing a different phrase for sniffy walk time.

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  • It’s a good idea to have a solid recall on hand, especially if your dog likes to chase. As always, know what environment you’re putting your dog into, practice good leash management skills, and pick your battles.
  • You might find it helpful to think of your leash as your “insurance policy” – it’s there for emergency purposes and should not be used to drag your dog backwards, forwards or sideways. Emergencies only!

 

5 Problems with Front-Clip Harnesses

1. If the leash becomes tight, the dog finds themselves being pulled off balance and turned to the left or right. How would you feel if you found yourself off balance and being inexplicably turned in another direction precisely at the moment when you really wanted to look at something approaching you? If the dog already has a negative emotional response to people or dogs, this experience of being turned against their will will only exacerbate that issue through classical conditioning.

2. When the leash is attached to the front of a harnesses it’s usually easier for the dog to pull out of the harness - so reactive and fearful dogs are especially at risk.

3. Front-clip harnesses can interfere with the dog’s natural gait or cause chafing. Common front-clip harnesses, such as the Easy Walk Harness by PetSafe aren't meant to be used for rigorous exercise like hiking, running or use with long lines.

4. If you use a longer leash than 6' attached to a front clip harness, there is a risk that the dog will be flipped over or hurt if they run and quickly reach the end of their leash.

5. Front-clip harnesses and head halters are designed to give more control to the pet parent, and less control to the dog. They are designed to discourage pulling. There is less risk of harm to the neck with a front-clip harness compared to a head halter, but the concept of “steering”, a “mechanical advantage”, “control over direction”, “redirect the dog’s motion” is the same as the purpose of a head halter, and it’s emotionally harmful to your dog. Head halters are not just aversive because they’re irritating to wear on the dog’s face – they’re aversive because they steer the dog and take away/limit their choice of movement. It’s what front-clip harnesses are also designed to do, even if that’s not how they’re intentionally used.

 

I understand why some trainers say that if you’ve taught loose leash walking well, there shouldn’t be any tension on the leash, so it’s okay to use a front-clip harness. However, couldn't we say the same thing about attaching the leash to any aversive walking device (choke collar, prong collar, head halter, etc.)?

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Even if you’re the best trainer or pet parent in the world, there is always some situation where leash tension can happen, even if it’s an accident, so it's best to diminish those risks by using the safest equipment possible.


Using a back-clip harness helps to mitigate these risks and concerns. Well-designed back-clip harnesses allow for the greatest degree of freedom and comfort where there are leash laws.

Harnesses I recommend: Chai’s Choice, BingPet, Puppia, Ruffwear, Blueberry, Copatchy

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