Loose leash walking; heeling, or in the reinforcement zone

How to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash:

Don’t walk if the leash is not loose. Only walk when the leash is loose (and not because you just made it longer).

“Ah but …  my dog is always pulling, I won’t be able to walk anywhere, he gets so interested in smells, so interested in people, dogs, everything.”

Don’t walk forward if the leash is not loose. You may go backwards or sideways or stand still, but don’t go in the direction the pup is pulling you towards. If there is no reward for pulling the pulling will stop, if having a slack leash is rewarded then that is what will be given (rewards are treats, games, praise and just going forward).

I was reading the 4-H literature and it suggests that you need a leash to teach your dog to walk next to you. Then it proceeds in teaching your dog to heel by putting on a choke collar and jerking on the leash to either get your dog to move or to get your dog back into place. Not great advice. And this advice makes it more difficult to have a dog that heels well off-leash because the reason not to pull was the jerk/punishment and if there is no leash there is no jerk to worry about.

The above paragraph advice is a fairly good way to make your dog not really like training, to only heel on leash, to possibly injure your dog’s neck or spine and to make you not like to train dogs. No need for a choke collar or prong collar or shock collar, no need to jerk or hurt your dog in any way. Loose leash walking is about the dog learning where to be – a positional cue (it’s not about the leash or applying pain).

Here’s what I would suggest: no need for a leash for a part of this training, start with no distractions, good treats, a toy and a straight wall (or any barrier). Position yourself a puppy’s width plus a little away from the wall, when the pup puts themselves between you and the wall, say “Yes” or click (to mark the behavior) and reward with a treat. Take a step, “Yes”, reward again if the pup is positioning between you and the wall. If the pup is with you try a couple of steps, “Yes,” and play a game of tug. If the pup isn’t with you, no rewards, get better treats and practice getting them to sit in the reinforcement zone (facing forward by your leg on the left, or right if you want, side), then add some movement.

Other strategy; teach hand target and use your hand as a lure to get series of heeling steps. Expand this to include different speeds and changing directions – this is called shadowing or shadow handling, as the dog is your shadow. Dogs like to follow movement, especially faster movement.

More strategy: Acclimate your pup to a head halter, then go outside on a leash. Keep leash long enough for them to be without any tension if they are in the right place (this is not very long), slow down (even stop) and keep leash the same length if they decide to pull. Proceed again if they have adjusted where they are so there is no tension on the leash. Note that all the tools to prevent pulling only work if you don’t reward the dog for pulling (continuing to walk is rewarding for pulling). Don’t go very far as they’re more likely to rush on the way back.

Why a head halter? Because halters work well and help keep the very front of your dog able to be turned toward you, instead of facing away barking, lunging or/and bouncing. You probably don’t want your dog barking and bouncing and ignoring you, with a head halter you can turn them and have control even if they have a tendency to be wild in certain situations.

Leash, Gentle Leader head halter (which will decrease pulling and give very good control) and back hook harness (which will increase pulling).
Leash, Gentle Leader head halter (which will decrease pulling and give very good control) and back hook harness (which will increase pulling).

No jerking, no yelling, no pain, just steady progress and fun and the ability to take your dog with you where ever you want to go.

Well then what about harnesses?

Most harnesses are made for pulling. They distribute the pressure so the dog can pull harder without injury. So if you want your dog to pull use a harness.

The exceptions are Easy Walk harnesses and any others with front of the chest leash attachments. I distribute these in my puppy kindergarten classes. They aren’t as effective as the head halters but need no acclimatization practice like the head halters do. Owners feel better about putting a harness on their puppy rather than something that loops over their nose. Easy Walk harnesses  kind of turn your dog away from stuff, but not your dog’s head and not nearly as well as the head halter.

Finally, if you want a dog that walks well on a loose leash, don’t walk if they are pulling. FYI this means you need to not keep the leash tight when the dog is next to you (nobody gets to pull on the leash).


Please click Liked if you did like this article. Still not sure what to do? Ask me a question and I’ll try to answer the best I can. Did you have some break through in training your dog, tell me about it!


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