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How to teach my dog to walk nicely on a lead

03/11/2022 - Puppy & Dog Training Advice

Do you find yourself watching your local neighbourhood dog walkers with envy as their pups trot calmly along beside them, on a loose lead? If so, you’re not alone! Loose lead walking is something almost every owner strives for and is notoriously tricky to get the hang of! Here at Best Behaviour, we know from experience that loose lead walking is top priority for almost all of the dog owners we work with and we also see how many you feel overwhelmed by the task. Having a dog who pulls on the lead can cause so much tension and make our walks together feel unenjoyable and stressful – it can even cause injury to human and dog! This is why we wanted to write a blog with our top tips for successfully training your dog to walk on a loose lead.
Let us first, though, preface this by saying that there is no quick, immediate, magic way to cure your dog pulling – not without compromising our ethics and, in turn, our dogs’ welfare. Unfortunately, there are countless “anti-pull” products and quick-fix methods being shared. While these may indeed stop or reduce your dog’s pulling behaviour, they do so by cause discomfort, pain and even fear, jeopardising your dog’s physical and mental health by restricting their movement and leaving them feeling frustrated, stressed and uncomfortable. At Best Behaviour we promise to always offer advice based on the most up-to-date science of animal behaviour and learning and to never condone or promote the use of unethical training methods. 
So, the below list won’t be a quick fix – what it will offer, though, is simple and actionable ways to apply your training effectively to get consistent, long-lasting results.

Pay Well
Loose lead walking isn’t just something our dogs refuse to do because they’re stubborn or naughty – it’s a HUGE ask to expect them to ignore all the incredible smells, sights and sounds around them and instead walk at our glacial human speed just to make sure we feel a bit more comfortable! It might seem a simple task but it truly is difficult for our dogs and we need to make sure it pays off well, especially while they’re first learning. This means feeding your dog LOTS in the early stages of loose lead training – you might need to keep a handful of treats in front of your pup’s nose and deliver treats like a pez dispenser! You’ll almost certainly need to feed at least once every step when you first start working on your heeling skills.

Don’t Be Stingy
You’ve got the ball rolling – your dog will walk along next to you on a loose lead pretty consistently while you feed them each step of the way. Here’s where many people start to trip up – by thinking their dog “knows” what to do and phasing out the food much too quickly. This is the WORST thing you could do – not only will you not get that focus and loose lead walking you were getting before but you’ll probably make it even harder to convince your dog to offer it next time.
Think about how it feels when you’re expecting something really good and it doesn’t happen – let’s say you’ve walked all the way to the shop for your favourite chocolate bar and, when you get there, they don’t have any. It’s a proper let down, right? Okay, so maybe next time you fancy a chocolate bar you’ll walk to the shop again – but what if they don’t have any this time, either?! What are the chances you’ll bother making the effort next time? You’ve lost faith that the shop will keep that product in stock and it’s not worth the effort for the supreme disappointment of absolutely nothing!
This is exactly what happens when we suddenly stop rewarding our dogs enough – they realise we’re an unreliable source of reinforcement and they check out and find something better to do (like towing us along while they take in all those great smells). If you try to space out your rewards and your dog loses focus and pulls, go right back to feeding as often as you need to for your dog to be successful.

Focus on Quality, Not Quantity
If you have a young puppy, they really don’t need to be getting out for long walks anyway. Even if you have an older dog, though – what’s a few weeks of shorter walks for the sake of instilling this important life skill in the long run? Eventually, our dogs will be in the habit of walking nicely on a loose lead and they’ll be able to maintain this for their usual length of walk – right now, though, it’s really hard work for them! Rather than a 40-minute walk where our dogs lose their focus and start pulling for the last 20 minutes, shorten your walk and focus on getting that quality lead walking. You can start to lengthen your walks again when your training is well underway. 

Get Professional Help & Join Classes
Getting consistent loose lead walking really is one of the most common problems and biggest challenges for so many dog owners – and for good reason. It’s not because you’re all rubbish! It’s because it is a mammoth training task. So, set yourself up for success the same way we strive to do with our dogs and get the help of a professional trainer. Attending group classes – whether they are lead walking specific or general training classes – will be hugely beneficial in allowing you to work on engagement around big distractions such as other people and dogs, as well as giving you regular access to a trainer who you can speak to for advice and guidance. Join a lead walking class here 

Be Consistent
It’s no good if, twice a week, you can’t be bothered to train and let your dog drag you to the park or woods before letting them off the lead to have an energetic zoom! Be consistent, train whenever you go out and don’t bother if you (or your dog!) are having an off day! If you’re feeling impatient and irritable or your dog had a bad night’s sleep, has an upset tummy or just seems out of sorts and a bit scatty today, you can always just do a five-minute practice in the house, garden, or even just in and out of the front door. There’s lots of other enrichment and training you can offer your dog at home to keep them happy and entertained and you’ll do far less damage – to your training and your relationship! – by simply taking the day off. 

Give Your Dog Outlets
It’s completely understandable that, both for convenience and for safety, we want our dogs to be able to walk nicely on a loose lead. However, this shouldn’t take away from the fact that our dogs’ walks are just that – THEIR walks. Dogs take in huge amounts of information about their environment by sniffing and anyone with a dog can probably attest to how much dogs love to use those noses out on a walk! Take regular breaks to let your dog sniff and maybe even play some scent games with them, like a simple “find it!” This will ensure your dog still gets their needs met alongside your training. You can even use this love of sniffing to your advantage, and immediately dart to a good sniffy spot after they’ve done some awesome heelwork as a brilliant, real-life reward!

Focus on Your Relationship
One of the best kept secrets about loose lead walking is that it isn’t actually about “obedience,” it’s about our relationship with our dog! Who gets a dog so they can plod along at our heels like an unthinking robot?! The best way to produce a happy, enthusiastic dog who also walks on a loose lead is to build a fantastic relationship with them and show them that sticking with us is fun! Don’t sweat the small stuff and try to have fun working together! This is another good reason to join classes, so you can work on a variety of different elements of training which you can use out and about to build engagement and make your walks together more interesting! If we can get our dogs checking in and engaged with us, then loose lead walking suddenly becomes so much more attainable – our dogs can’t pull on the lead if they’re busy keeping an eye on us!

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