Ultimate Dog

By Sara Seitz - Reading Time: 12 minutes
Dog leash walking

Ultimate Guide to Dog Leash Walking: Mastering the Loose Leash

During my years as a dog trainer, I worked with hundreds of dogs through my obedience classes and in-home behavioral modification training. And still, I think I can count on one hand the number of owners who didn’t need help with loose leash walking.

This issue is by far the most common problem dog owners face. So take solace; whether you own a pulling puppy, a yanking youngster, or a senior who insists on straining against the lead, you are not alone.

In this article, we’ll look at the mistakes people often make when trying to train a loose leash walk, the best way to do it, and some helpful tips for success. 

What Does a Loose Leash Walk Look Like?

Let’s start with what a loose leash walk is not. It is not a heel.

Heeling is when your dog stays stuck at your side for an extended period. Heel command training for dogs is a wonderful thing to pursue. It’s a great behavior for navigating crowds, getting past distractions, and general brain work. But dogs should not be made to heel for their entire walk.

Why? Because dog walks are about stimulating your dog’s body and mind.

That means you need to let them sniff and explore. Letting them do so will also benefit you, too. According to dog behavior experts, a 10-minute walk where a dog is allowed to sniff will burn as much energy as a 30-minute walk at a heel.

So when we're talking about loose leash walking, we are not talking about a dog that stays put at its owner's side. We are talking about a dog that is allowed to move about and sniff at will without pulling on the leash.

The Downside to Using “Training” Tools

There are many harnesses, head halters, and other leash-training tools and equipment out there that claim to train your dog not to pull. Let’s be clear: these tools do not train anything. They simply inhibit or, more often, take the edge off pulling.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it should not be confused with actual training. Once you take these tools off, your dog will still pull; I can guarantee it.

If these tools are not working well enough for you or if you just want a dog that can walk nicely on a leash in any situation, you can train a loose leash walk. But it takes patience and practice, not some miracle device.

The VERY Downside to Punishment Tools

While no-pull harnesses and similar items can be helpful for some dogs, punishment-based no-pull tools rarely provide more benefits than drawbacks. 

Prong collars, e-collars, and other devices that punish dogs when they pull can have a range of negative effects. In almost all dogs, they increase stress, which decreases the dog's ability to listen and learn. This is the exact opposite of what you want when you take your dog for a walk.

Worse still, some dogs can learn to associate the pain of the tool with unrelated things, such as people walking by, other dogs, or bikers. I have seen dogs develop severe leash reactivity and aggression because of these tools. The behavior modification training it takes to reverse these behaviors is much more difficult and time-intensive than loose leash training. 

This is why I only recommend using positive reinforcement leash training techniques.

How to Train Your Dog to Walk Nicely on Leash

Teaching a dog to walk on a loose leash isn’t complicated. But it does take a lot of time and patience. But more than anything, it takes consistency. 

Step 1: Reward your dog for walking near you in a low-distraction environment

It’s best to start leash training in the backyard, a large room in the house, or somewhere else that is quiet and doesn’t have a lot of interesting smells or distractions.

Start by putting your dog on a leash. With a pocket full of tasty treats, hold the leash and start walking around. Every time your dog comes up to your side, say “yes!” and give them a treat. 

You can also use clicker training for leash walking by clicking and treating each time your dog walks next to you.

This step introduces your dog to the concept that being next to you is a highly rewarding place to be. 

Step 2: Reward your dog for walking next to you on a real walk

Once your dog has mastered walking next to you on a loose leash in the house or yard, it’s time to take the show to the street.

Put your dog on a leash and go out for a walk. If possible, start in a low-distraction environment, such as in a quiet neighborhood. As you did before, say “Yes!” and treat your dog every time they walk by your side.

If they walk ahead of you or stop to sniff, don’t worry about it—they’re allowed to! But if they forget you and your treats and start pulling, stop walking immediately. Do not pull back on the leash or talk to them, just STOP.

It may take seconds or minutes, but eventually, they will look back at you (or, even better, walk back to you). At this point, say “Yes!” and give them a treat, then continue on.

This step reinforces that being close to you is good. It also establishes that pulling stops the walk in its tracks.

Step 3: Reward your dog by going forward

Treats are great for reminding your dog you are on the other end of the leash, but the truth is, walks are rewarding in and of themselves. Just getting to go is reward enough for most dogs. 

Because of this, you can stop using treats once you feel like your dog is good at checking in with you and coming back to your side frequently.

For this step, walk your dog on a leash in a low-distraction environment as you did before. You can still reward them with a “Good dog” if they check in with you, but your main focus now is going to be on pulling.

Every time your dog hits the end of their leash and pulls, plant your feet and stop. Wait until they either turn around or step back to create slack in the leash. When this happens, say “Yes!” and start walking forward again.

You may only get half a block down the street in an hour doing this. That’s fine! Your dog will start to learn that the only way they get to move forward is by not pulling. Over time, you'll be able to walk farther between stops.

Step 4: Consistency, consistency, consistency

The only way your dog will learn that they can't pull if they want to go forward is if you never let them pull and move forward! It's a simple concept, but it takes serious consistency to put into practice. Every time you put your dog on a leash, you must abide by the rule, Pulling Means We Stop.

(If this sounds impossible, don’t worry, there is a way to cheat. See below.)

Over time, your dog will learn that they must keep a loose leash if they want to walk forward. They will also learn that if you stop, they can quickly get you going again by stepping back to put slack on the leash. As they get more confident in this skill, you can begin training them in more distracting environments.

How to Cheat Using the Collar vs Harness Method

You must be consistent if you want your dog to learn how to walk on a loose leash. But, because life happens, consistency can be hard. There will be days when you don’t have time to spend an hour walking around the block because you have to stop every few feet.

If this is going to be the case for you, you need to use the harness vs. collar method of training. 

When actively training your dog, hook their leash directly to their collar. If your dog is a flight risk, use a martingale so the collar doesn’t slip off. When the leash is on the collar, you MUST stop every time they pull.

When you don't have time to train, hook their leash to a harness. This can be any type of harness, although using a no-pull style will help save your shoulder. When the leash is on the harness, don't worry about if they're pulling; just worry about getting the walk done.

Your dog will learn that when they are leashed by the collar, they cannot pull if they want to move forward. As their training progresses and they stop pulling as often, you can stop using the harness altogether because you’ll be able to take them on enjoyable walks with minimal interruptions using just their collar. And since they won’t be pulling, you don’t have to worry about them hurting their neck by yanking on the collar.

Extra Dog Leash Training Tips

Don’t Pull Back

One of the biggest mistakes people make when dog leash training is yanking back on the leash. This doesn't teach your dog anything except that a tight leash is a fact of life, and they should ignore it. What we really want is for your dog to pay attention to a tight leash and realize they have the power to loosen it.

The less pulling you do on the leash, the faster your dog will make the connection between a tight leash and not moving forward. It is only once they’ve made this connection that they can figure out that a loose leash means they can walk forward.

Retractable vs. Standard Dog Leashes

There are a lot of reasons why you should not use a retractable dog leash that I will not go into here. In the case of leash training, the only important thing to know is that retractable leashes put constant pressure on your dog's neck. And you can't teach a dog not to pull if it always feels like they're pulling.

The best dog leashes for training a loose leash walk are simple six-foot leads without elastic or stretchy fabric. These standard leads allow your dog to feel the difference between pulling and creating a tight leash and not pulling to create a loose leash.

Dog Age

Puppy leash training looks the same as leash training an older dog. The only difference is that puppies are likely to pick it up faster because they haven’t had time to learn bad habits. This is why it's key to start this training as soon as possible.

Older dogs can still learn to walk nicely on a leash using the method outlined above. But it will take longer since they're used to getting away with pulling. But stay consistent! They will eventually learn the new rule as long as you don't let them break it.

Dog Size

Leash training for small dogs is no different than what you need to do for big dogs. The only real difference is that small dogs tend to get away with pulling since it isn’t as annoying or dangerous for the owner. 

But it can still be dangerous for the dog.

Pulling on the leash can cause harm to the dog's esophagus, even if they are pint-sized. That's why dog leash training is still vital for small dogs. Or, at the very least, they should be walked using a harness, not their collar. 

Leash Reactive Dogs

Leash reactivity in dogs is almost as common as pulling on a leash, but these are two separate problems. If your dog lunges or pulls to get at other dogs or people on your walks, you need to address this problem separately. How you do this will depend on the type of leash reactivity your dog has.

The best thing you can do is consult with a local positive reinforcement trainer.

Loose Leash Walking Games

One way to speed up your loose leash walking training is to supplement it with some fun games that reinforce the core concepts. Here are three of my favorites.

Run Away

The Run Away game reinforces that paying attention to your owner and staying near them is a rewarding thing.

  1. Start in a fenced yard or large indoor room with your dog off-leash and with a pocket full of tasty treats.
  2. Walk with your dog, giving them treats occasionally as long as they stay near you.
  3. If they get distracted or wander off, immediately start running in the opposite direction.
  4. Once they catch up with you, reward them with a treat.

High Reward Red Light Green Light

This game plays with the same concepts we use to train loose leash walking on real walks, but it ups the stakes to drive home the lesson faster. Your dog will learn that the only way to get to what they want is to not pull.

  1. With your dog watching but tethered, place a high-value reward at one end of the yard or a good distance down the sidewalk.
  2. Now, with your dog on a leash, slowly walk toward the reward.
  3. Every time your dog pulls, stop and wait for them to give slack.
  4. Continue stopping and going until you get to the reward.

About-Face

This is a great game to play if you have a stubborn pup who spends minutes straining at the end of his leash, trying to get to a new smell. It's very similar to red light green light, but with an extra twist that forces patience.

  1. With your dog watching but tethered, place a high-value reward at one end of the yard or a good distance down the sidewalk.
  2. Now, with your dog on a leash, slowly walk toward the reward.
  3. When your dog pulls, give a verbal correction, such as “eh-eh!” then turn around while calling them with you and return to the starting line.
  4. Continue to about-face and start over every time your dog pulls, letting them get to the reward only when they can walk the entire distance without pulling.

It will take time to train your puppy or dog to walk nicely on a loose leash. But as long as you are consistent and put in the work, you will be successful.

Sources

China, L., Mills, D. S., & Cooper, J. R. (2020). Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7. 

Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9(2), 58–65. 


Sara Seitz

Sara Seitz worked in the pet industry for over a decade. In addition to being a certified dog trainer, Sara gained experience working as the general manager of a dog daycare and boarding facility, as the creator and manager of a pet sitting company, as a groomer, and as a dog behavior evaluator. She also has a bachelors in animal behavior from CSU. Currently, Sara works as a freelance writer specializing in blog, article and content writing.

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