Troubleshooting Loose Leash Walking: Positive Pet Training Blog Hop

I’ve written about loose leash walking before–in fact, I did so for my first ever post for this blog hop!

But it’s an inexhaustible topic. It’s a notoriously difficult task to teach for so many reasons–it’s boring, frustrating, and has the kind of “I know it when I see it” criteria that spells disaster for dogs and handlers alike.

Here are some of the problems that Nala and I ran into as we tried to learn loose leash walking together and how we fought them. Hopefully they’ll be helpful to some of you, too.

Consistency

There probably isn’t a loose leash walking article in the world that doesn’t go on at length about this one annoying little word, and with good reason: if you do not have consistent rules and criteria for loose leash walking, you will probably never get it.

That got grim fast, huh? But it’s okay, because we can easily turn a common dog training weakness into a strength.

happy pup!
In this outfit, Nala may pull. Although these days, she generally doesn’t!

Let’s be real: sometimes I just cannot be bothered with being an effing tree every three steps, if that’s what Nala’s mood and the difficulty of an environment dictates. Equally importantly, sometimes Nala is literally incapable of loose leash walking–if the environment is scary to her, there is just no chance that she can keep her loose leash criteria in mind, much less learn it on the fly during a walk.

When this is the case, we can reframe the common dog training dictum that dogs are bad at generalizing and turn it to our advantage: dogs are terrific at picking up on contextual cues, and learning what the picture looks like for a specific set of rules.

When I don’t want to hold Nala to loose leash walking criteria, or I think she might be too stressed out by the environment to walk on a loose leash, I clip a leash or a long line to the back of her harness. This is a management solution, not a training one, but that doesn’t make it less important. And it absolutely works: allowing Nala to pull occasionally in these gear setups has kept her loose leash walking clean for those times when I need it and am willing to hold criteria.

Boring!

How am I boring and frustrating to Nala? Oh, let me count the ways.

“Walking at the pace of death” – This is the first half of one of my favorite quotes about the truly absurd (to the dog!) behavior of loose leash walking, first penned by Patricia McConnell in The Other End of the Leash. A fit human can maintain a steady walking pace indefinitely. Nala, on the other hand, prefers to cover ground at a canter or trot. It’s beautiful to behold, and it’s a lot faster than a normal human walking pace. Your dog is probably faster than you are, too! If she’s under 40 lbs (or so), you can probably just pick up your walking pace and already be on your way to easier loose leash walking for both of you (and Identity V + E’s tip to increase your speed when the leash is loose is brilliant!). Since I have a german shepherd, I’ve taken up jogging. Oh, the horror.

“…and ignoring everything interesting” – Nala and I see the world in totally different ways, and I have no way of knowing what will fascinate her and require a thorough investigation. And more than anything, our walks are for her–we walk to satiate her need to drink in novel odors, take in new sights, stretch her legs, and be a dog. Having her force-march alongside me would defeat the purpose of walks, and I never, ever require that of her.

Everyone’s ideal loose leash walking behavior looks different. For us, Nala maintains a loose leash and I keep a close eye on her and on the environment.  If I see her sniffing, I walk with her as she follows her nose. The leash never tightens, and Nala maintains a pace that I can easily follow. If Nala sees something that she really wants, forgets herself, and pulls, I slow down and stop. She checks in, and I reward her with food, then either let her go check out the thing or ask her to walk away with me (and I give her another treat or two for doing so, then release her to go explore once we’re far enough away from the distraction).

I also try to be considerate of her needs by giving her lots of time to explore new places on a long line, which allows her to not match my pace as closely.

Finally, if we’re in a busy or tight space like a store, or in Rally class, I pay very generously–both in food and in personality–because I expect nearly continuous attention from Nala. And when she needs a break from giving me her undivided attention, we find a quiet corner to chill out and relax, or we go somewhere that she can sniff and explore more freely. She’s a young, exuberant dog, and self-control is difficult, so I give her lots of breaks in addition to lots of reinforcement.

Too Much, Too Fast

For any training you do with your dogs, there are three components for raising criteria: Distance, Duration, and Distractions. To keep your student successful, if you raise the difficulty for one of these things, you should make the other two easier.

What does this mean for loose leash walking?

Distance: Probably irrelevant? Although it may be harder for your dog to remember that you exist if she is far away.
Duration: 1) How many steps of loose leash walking before getting a reward and/or a break
Distractions: This is one of the major reasons teaching LLW sucks. For an environmentally sensitive dog like Nala, every square inch of the outdoors is a low-level distraction. Then there are the big distractions she used to be very scared of (cars), distractions she finds worrisome (dogs pitching fits), not to mention the fun distractions (storm drains, pee-mail, cats and cat poop, squirrels and other prey, friendly dogs, kids, infinite smells).

You see where I’m going, right? As soon as you step outside, the duration of loose leash walking you ask for needs to plummet. If Nala and I hadn’t started out by training LLW indoors, we would have been very, very doomed from the start. That’s why it’s so important to treat this like any other behavior, start training it in a boring place, and gradually add distractions one at a time (consider: open windows, closed food containers on the ground, toys, tv sounds, and more), and to be able to get lots of steps of loose leash walking, before attempting it outside. That’s why “find a management solution” is tip number one. When you do step outside, you should be prepared to raise your rate of reinforcement drastically!

And, of course, I feel the need to reiterate: if your dog is scared of being outside, stop trying to get LLW outside. Deal with that first.

I am not a Tree: What I Trained and How I Did It

Alright, so clearly “don’t pull” isn’t a useful description for a positive reinforcement based trainer. On the other hand, the criteria for beautiful attentive heeling, while very clear, don’t meet my needs either–my main goal in walking Nala is to provide her with enrichment in the form of sniffing. Instead, I formed a clear picture of my goal behavior–Nala and I moving together with the leash always loose, and her dividing her attention between me and the environment–and then split that into component skills.

  • Skill 1: Pace Changes
    Nala needed to learn to pay attention to my pace instead of just charging around as soon as the leash was on. To teach her this, I essentially followed the advice in Patricia McConnell’s article on loose leash walking–but I added in sprinting away and then giving a treat when Nala caught up, or creeping along slowly and giving her lots of little treats, then freezing before taking off running again. I should admit that Nala got better at this after we started going for runs regularly.
    Making Leash Manners Fun for your Dog
  • Skill 2: Release to the environment
    You may have noticed that skill 1 could easily create a dog that watches you all of the time! Honestly, I don’t quite remember how I taught Nala what “Okay, go sniff!” means. It probably wasn’t very hard, since sniffing is one of her top interests. Sorry.
  • Skill 3: Check in when you hit the end of the leash
    "hello!"
    Nala demonstrates her fondness for positioning herself right next to my left leg, thanks to tons and tons of treats delivered in this area!

    I am of the opinion that the “be a tree” method would be much more effective for a larger number of dogs if you just taught dogs what to do when you are a tree instead of waiting for them to figure it out on a walk. For a dog like Nala, who could stay frozen at the end of the leash sniffing and staring and feeling confused all day, this was a crucial step
    Essentially, I used the first steps of teaching informal heeling provided by my lovely local trainer. I had Nala on leash, and alternated between tossing a treat behind me and to my left, and rewarding her in the “zone” around the pants seam of my left leg, until she was confidently and cheerfully offering the behavior. This can be built into multiple steps of attentive walking, but I think that establishing this pattern–hit the end of the leash and then check in–is the most important part. Now, instead of a dog who just stands there when you are a tree, you have a dog that remembers–hey! When my human stands completely still, I should turn around and return to her side.. Spending a week or two frequently turning in a weird circle on your walk is, in my opinion, well worth it–and I find it significantly less annoying than being a tree, for whatever reason. I think it’s also probably more fun for the dog than the other methods I’ve seen for teaching a dog to yield to leash pressure.

Are We Perfect?

No.

There are still environments and situations that are too much for Nala–I can’t possibly expect her to walk on a loose leash at a sedate pace next to a very busy road to this day. Sometimes she sees squirrels and I make the mistake of trying to “chase” them together–that’s never fun for me, and always makes me feel like I’m going to end up eating dirt, but Nala sure does love it. And I’ve made a pretty terrible behavior that I’m not sure how to fix–I’ve taught Nala that most streets should be crossed at a run, since we need to cross a busy street with no light on one of our favorite walking routes.

Still, all things considered, I think we’re doing pretty well. Nala maintains a loose leash 99% of the time in our neighborhood, even with the leash on the back clip of her harness. If I lose her to something in almost any environment, all I need to do in order to get her back is to stand still, and she generally returns to my side within a couple of seconds. I was also surprised to learn, recently, that my former freight train–the dog who once dragged me back and forth across a field, connected to me only by a leash and collar–is now incredibly attentive when I attach the leash to her collar, and doesn’t even attempt to pull.

As I’ve said before, it took about five months of diligent work–topped by a few weeks of diligent counterconditioning–for us to see sudden, noticeable improvements in Nala’s leash walking. Her overall attentiveness has gotten better again in the last few months, and with it her leash manners, although I couldn’t tell you precisely why and can’t really fabricate a training tip from it. Still, even if your adult dog has months or years of reinforcement history for pulling, don’t despair! You might just, like us, need time and some thoughtful tweaks to the typical leash walking advice. Hopefully the things I’ve offered here can help you, too.

What about you, readers? What methods are you using to make your walks enjoyable? How have you had to alter them for your own little weirdos?

This is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop! Be sure to click through and see what other dog- and human-friendly training ideas my fellow bloggers have to offer this month!


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14 thoughts on “Troubleshooting Loose Leash Walking: Positive Pet Training Blog Hop

  1. This post is so awesome. LLW is the bane of my existence! I hate it so much but we live in an apartment and leash walks are a multi times daily deal. I definitely agree with you that there’s more to “be a tree” than just standing there. I did a ton of silky leash training, leash pressure means you are pulling and you need to put slack in the lead, teaching them to back up to where they should be to maintain slack in the leash, not to mention “move with me” and everything in between. You name the LLW method, I’ve done it and they still pull. Pulling is a pet peeve of mine because when they pull, they are hurting me. I have nerve damage in my wrist. So not pulling is a huge goal. My perfect walk would be the two dogs on each side of me with slack in the leash. Some days we meet that goal other days I want to cry in frustration. We keep trying, though!

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    1. For real, one of the reasons I am afraid to get another dog is that I doubt I am physically capable of walking two dogs at once, especially if I get another large dog. We worked hard on LLW because I am a small lady–Nala weighs about 2/3 what I do–so it’s a safety/pain issue for us, too.

      I’ve been thinking about your struggles since I saw your comment last night! If you haven’t tried something like the toss-n-turn game I wrote about, it *might* help. I like it better than silky leash because it tells Nala exactly where to go. But obviously you can’t do it with both girls at once. Backing up will serve you better there. I am also guessing the CC you’re doing right now will help.

      Can they walk on a loose leash pretty well individually?

      And one more question: have you seen Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels approach to LLW?

      I also have a management idea for you. Maybe. I’m thinking about it.

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  2. I taught Mr. N with the be the tree method. It took me two weeks of agonizingly slow walks where if he pulled, we did NOT move an inch. It seems to have clicked in his brain after that. But I do agree it would be more efficient for most dogs if they were taught what we want when we stop! I actually have a “run” cue for Mr. N if we need to run across a street. Thanks for joining the hop!

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    1. Two weeks! Truly, being a tree is a leash walking method for saints. You are one. I am not. 😛

      Yeah…Nala doesn’t run until I release her, which is good. But she is *fast* and *frantic,* which isn’t. I’m sure her lingering fear of cars is part of the problem. I just don’t know how to fix it!

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  3. I used redirection with Blueberry when she pulled because the “be the tree” method wasn’t really working out – I don’t think it’s a method for every personality type. I would just turn in the opposite direction, say “Let’s go!” and she’d run back to me and we’d loop around (sometimes we’d loop around so often I felt a little dizzy!).

    I’m right there with you as far as walks being about Blueberry getting out of the house to explore and sniff to her heart’s content. I’ll pretty much let her lead the charge unless I see her about to get herself in trouble with a cactus or going off trail too far where snakes could be lurking in the brush. I always feel a little sad for dogs that are out for a walk and don’t get to sniff anything and have to be in a heel the whole time. How boring!

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    1. Yup–I think both dog and human personalities matter for what method you choose! Boy, they all suck a little, though–you can be annoyed and bored or dizzy. 😛

      I feel sorry for those dogs, too. And for their people! I am so glad that all that dominance stuff is malarkey, because trying to be alpha all the time sounds exhausting.

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  4. Excellent post. And a good reminder that management has a place too.

    I found that I had big problems with consistency because sometimes my husband walked Honey. He just could not remember to walk at a faster pace or keep her from pulling. So if there’s any chance he’ll be walking Honey, I put on the Easy Walk harness. I can walk her with just a collar and leash because I’m able to put the work in every time.

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    1. Yup, we had similar problems. That’s one of the major reasons we have an “in this outfit you may pull” setup, for sure! Except that since Nala can do a weird pulling crab-walk in a front clip harness, we use the back clip for handlers who aren’t willing to be consistent.

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  5. So sorry for my late reply on this wonderful post – you have compiled a lot of helpful information here. Like so many “factory installed” behaviors that Boca came with, loose leash walking is usually a breeze. She is more apt to drag behind to get a better sniff at something than pull. Walking Ruby on the other hand, feels very much like flying a kite, and am I ever glad she is only 18 lbs. Sometimes Ruby does, incredibly, get tired and then she prefers to walk behind me, like the little herder that she half is.

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