There’s something about dogs pulling on leash that really grinds our gears, as humans.
Maybe it’s the discomfort of being dragged down the street, maybe it’s the stares of your fellow dog-walking neighbours as they and Princess Fluffy trot delicately past, gasping and clutching their pearls.
Getting your dog to stop pulling is one of those training problems that’s actually pretty simple – in theory. But in reality? Totally different story.
It takes a heck of a lot of consistency, patience, and time. There’s no doubt that loose-leash walking is one of the tougher training challenges, but! It’s also a goldmine for creating what you wanted from your dog in the first place: a strong relationship.
Good leash training is based on teamwork, care, and conversation. It asks your dog to understand you and to respect you – and it asks you to do the same for them.
This article will teach you how to start teaching good leash manners in a way that builds your bond, plus some tips and tricks for improving your training results.
What you need to know first
Why do dogs pull on leash? (And why is it so hard to get them to stop??)
A couple reasons:
Number 1. Pretty simple: dogs move faster than people. So almost all dogs will end up pulling on leash by default. They’re not thinking, “I need to show my owner who’s boss, so I’ll drag them down the street!” or anything like that.
Whereas NOT pulling is actually pretty difficult. Sparky would have to consciously slow their pace to match their two-legged walking partner. Which, as any human whose legs are longer than average can attest, is hard!
We have to teach our dogs what a leash is, and how to walk when they’re on it, just like we have to teach them Sit, Stay, Roll Over, or any other trick.
Number 2. Pulling on leash quickly becomes a habit, because it’s consistently and heavily rewarded. See, in order for a learned behavior to become reliable, it needs to develop a long reinforcement history: a long history of the behavior being rewarded in some way.
And that’s exactly what happens with pulling. It works to get what dogs want. Sparky wants to move forward? They pull on leash, they move forward. They want to sniff a tree? They pull toward the tree, they get to sniff it. They want to see what’s around the corner? They pull on leash, and they get to see around the corner.
So if you take a thirty minute walk with your dog, and they’re pulling the whole time, the pulling has been reinforced continuously for every second of thirty whole minutes. That’s a LOT of reinforcement! Very few other behaviors, either trained behaviors or problem behaviors, achieve that kind of reinforcement history.
And it can end up being a vicious circle: the more the dog pulls, the more the pulling is reinforced, so the more they pull.
None of this is the dog’s fault, and none of this is your fault. It’s just sort of the nature of walking a dog on leash. The whole experience tends to encourage leash pulling. The good news is that this makes it really easy to figure out how to reinforce the loose leash behavior we want: the reinforcement for pulling is forward motion, so we’ll use forward motion as a reinforcement for NOT pulling now.
Let’s define our goal behavior, shall we?
In loose-leash walking (LLW), the dog may walk next to you, or ahead, or behind. They don’t have to watch you; they can sniff and look at other things, as long as there’s a bit of droop to the leash. This is different from a Heel, where the dog walks right at your side and keeps their attention on you, no sniffing, until you give them the release cue.
(Heel and the beginning stages of LLW are almost identical, though)
The first step: abandon your baggage
At 3 Lost Dogs, we’re fond of emphasizing how much of good dog training is actually just sifting through our human baggage, and coming to terms with how we view and treat our dogs.
Many of us grew up with the notion that “good” dogs do what they’re told. They don’t cause their owners more than mild inconvenience, and if they do, it means that they have no respect for us.
A dog who drags us down the street in front of our friends and neighbors really shoves that idea in front of our faces, and tests our patience.
Leash-pulling might be really annoying, it might pose a genuine safety risk for some people, and it might poke and prod at some ego-fuelled notions about control and obedience that we didn’t know we had. But ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with a leash-pulling dog.
Your dog isn’t misbehaving. He’s not trying to dominate or disrespect you. His behavior doesn’t say anything about his relationship with you.
So the first step of good loose leash training is to confront our demons: our dogs aren’t our slaves, they don’t owe us anything, and their behavior isn’t a personal attack. They’re doing what’s natural to them, and despite it being really frustrating to us, a leash-pulling dog isn’t a bad dog.
Our training strategy
Teach the dog that pulling no longer works to get what they want, and teach them that keeping the leash slack WILL get them what they want.
We achieve this with roughly three phases of training:
1. Teach the dog what behavior we want, and start developing a new, strong reinforcement history of walking with you instead of pulling you. We do this in a low-distraction environment where the dog is not likely to pull anyway, like your living room. The primary reinforcement at this stage is food.
2. Once the dog understands that walking with you results in good things, we start increasing the difficulty of the exercise by adding distractions. Most dogs start pulling at this stage, so we teach them that pulling causes forward motion to stop. And that when they feel the leash tighten, that’s their cue to move toward you and loosen the leash.
This is where we start switching our primary reinforcement from food to forward motion, and sniffing. All the things that pulling USED to achieve, now we teach the dog that they can have those things by NOT pulling. This training is best done in “non-walk” training setups so that you and your dog learn the skills necessary for loose leash walks.
3: Finally, you start doing real walks and practicing your fledgling LW skills in real life.
All that would be a lot for one lil’ article to cover, so we’re going to focus on the first two phases for now.
The big problem with loose-leash training
One of the core rules for loose leash success is that pulling must never be reinforced. Every time pulling happens, forward motion stops. Consistency is key in dog training, as you’ve probably heard, and it’s especially critical in loose leash training.
And this is why LLW is so hard to achieve. Because it’s almost impossible for us mere mortals to be perfectly consistent at applying these “loose leash rules” 24/7.
Sometimes you just need to move your dog from point A to point B without stopping a million times to enforce the rules.
And then there’s the leveling-up issue. We always tell people to gradually increase the difficulty level of an exercise, and never level up before the dog is ready.
What if, for example, you’ve only been training at a low-distraction level, but then you need to take Sparky to the vet or groomer, and walking through the parking lot full of dogs and people and loud noises is a difficulty level you and Sparky aren’t ready for. What then?
Our solution to this problem: Have on-duty and off-duty times. We like to develop a clear signaling system between handler and dog that tells the dog when they may pull, and when they may not pull.
The collar and harness trick for loose-leash success
Jake says: This is my personal favorite approach. We formulated this plan for people like me, who have a hard time being consistent in dog training.
Sometimes I want to walk my dog without worrying about enforcing loose leash rules ALL THE TIME. Maybe it’s because I’m lazy, whatever. I know myself, and I know that if I need to enforce the rules every time I walk my dog, I just… won’t teach LLW.
So with this method, you don’t need to enforce the rules every time, and you still end up with a dog who has great LLW skills! Win win for everyone.
For this plan, you need two leash-connection points on your dog’s body.
This could be a flat collar and a harness, or the front clip of a harness and the back clip of a harness, or a head halter and the front clip of the harness.
One of these attachments is going to be used for on-duty times. We use our dogs’ flat collars. When the leash is attached to their collars, our dogs know that we’re playing the loose leash game, and if they play by the rules they’re going to get awesome rewards.
The other attachment point is going to be used for off-duty. For us, that’s our dogs’ back-clip harnesses. When the leash is attached there, they know that they can pull as much as they want. Loose leash rules don’t apply.
This lets us take our dog for walks where they’re free to run and play and sniff – all of which are important aspects of their enrichment which we happily respect – without ruining our training progress. The dogs don’t get the opportunity to pull when they should be loose leash walking, because we avoid attaching their leash to their collar and activating loose leash rules in situations where we aren’t confident they’ll succeed.
Using this technique, clipping the leash to the collar becomes part of the cue for our dogs to walk nicely on leash, and we’re able to slowly introduce them to more challenging training scenarios, knowing that we have a backup if things start going south.
THE STEP BY STEP PLAN
For best results, watch our video series Dog Training 101 to learn the terminology and basic techniques used here.
Step 1: Get the behavior
- A container of extra delicious treats, like real meat or cheese.
- A small area of your house with as few distractions as possible. Like a hallway or the living room.
Get your dog’s attention, put a treat in front of their nose, and lure them into heel position: by your side with their neck roughly parallel to your leg.
(We’re not teaching a formal heel, but dogs thrive on clarity, so having a specific position to put themselves in in order to earn their reward will reduce confusion and frustration at this early stage)
Then take ONE single step forward, using the treat right in front of their nose to lure them forward, and as they end up in heel position again, mark and reward them.
Toss a treat for them to chase to “reset” them, and then repeat. Do several reps of this per training session.
After a few successful training sessions, start to fade out the treat lure, and simply mark and reward once your dog reaches the heel position after your step forward. But stay at one single step for a few sessions. You and Sparky should get really good at the one-step heel.
After that, it’s time for two steps – mark and reward at the end of the second step. Then three steps, and so on.
When you and your dog can successfully take about 5 steps forward together, with your dog maintaining a nice, loose heel, it’s time for the next stage of the training.
Step 2: Gradually add distractions
You and your dog can now walk five whole steps together! It might not feel like much, but that’s a huge achievement, and you should both be proud of your work.
Now it’s time to take this show on the road. And by road, we mean a different area of your home.
Once your dog has learned the rules of the game, we have to show them that they can play that game in other places.
It’s important to move the training into a new environment before we add too many more steps, because we want to avoid one specific training location becoming part of the cue for the dog to do their trick.
So practice in a different room of your home each session. As your dog gets good at the five-step heel in each new place, you can slowly add a low level of distractions. Go from training in a completely-quiet living room, for example, to training in the living room while your kids watch tv, or your roommate cooks dinner in the kitchen.
If Sparky struggles at any point, you may be leveling up too quickly. Reduce your criteria from a five-step heel, all the way back to a one-step heel, and work your way back up.
Step 3: Add the leash
Start back at your original quiet training environment. Clip the leash to whichever attachment point you’ve chosen for on-duty times.
The leash can be highly distracting for a lot of dogs, so you want to start the session by reminding them to engage with you and stay with you. To do that, hold the other end of the leash, take a couple steps backwards, and excitedly talk to them to encourage them to come with you. When they get to you, mark and reward. Make a little game of it: encourage them to chase you around a little and give them treats every time they catch up.
Once their attention is fully on you, start doing the heel thing. First one-step heels, then two-step heels, and so on.
Don’t worry, this will probably go much faster than it did the first time. By now, your pup has started to clue on to what this game is all about. You’ll probably reach five-step heels (and beyond!) in the first session or two.
What do you do if Sparky hits the end of the leash? At this stage, just drop the leash. We’re not working on the leash-pressure aspect yet. If Sparky hits the end of the leash more than once or twice, it may be a sign that the situation is too exciting/distracting. So instead of you holding the leash, try letting it drag while you do heeling.
Once you can reliably do a decent lap of the training room together, you can move on to the slightly more distracting training room, and work up to a successful lap there.
Step 4: Start teaching that tension on the leash means they should come back to you
By now, your pup has a good grasp of the game. They know that choosing to be near you means they’ll get awesome stuff. They should also be starting to understand that being clipped to their loose leash attachment means that the game is on.
This is where we shift to the next phase of training: introducing the concept that pulling makes forward motion stop, and walking on a loose leash means we get to go forward.
It’s time to start layering in more and more distraction.
Take it to the backyard. Any move from indoors to outdoors is a huge step, so be patient and go slow: if you have to start at square one, that’s okay, and if your dog tells you that this is too much – by repeatedly and consistently hitting the end of the leash, or spending a lot of time sniffing and avoiding looking at you – take it back to a previous level.
Next, maybe try the front yard in off-peak time. Then it might be time for the front yard at a slightly busier hour.
Your dog may wander away from the heel position in order to sniff or investigate things, and that’s fine. We’re not actually training a formal heel, remember, The point is just for them to not pull like a maniac. As long as there is no tension on the leash, Sparky can sniff and investigate to his heart’s content.
What to do if the dog hits the end of the leash from now on:
We don’t want to set our dogs up to fail, but if they do, we want a strategy that enables us to reduce frustration as much as possible, and give them the opportunity to succeed.
When Sparky hits the end of the leash, stop moving. Call him back to you in a friendly tone of voice. When he’s back at your side, mark and reward, then keep walking.
This technique is often where people start their no-pull training, but starting here without doing the previous steps can result in a lot of frustration and probably won’t be very effective.
But because we’ve built a foundation of engagement and understanding with our heel-but-not-really-heel training, if you don’t level up too quickly, the dog should come back to you happily and easily when you encourage them.
Step 5: Proof it
“Proofing” is a stage that every trained behaviour has to go through, and there are three main criteria we manipulate to slowly introduce more of a challenge to our dogs:
Distance, duration, and distraction.
Increasing distance means asking the dog to perform a behaviour further away from us. That one doesn’t really apply to LLW.
Increasing duration means asking the dog to perform a behaviour for a longer time before they get their reward. To use that in LLW, we would ask for more steps forward before rewarding.
And increasing distraction means asking the dog to perform a behaviour when there are other things around them pulling their focus. To use this in LLW training, we would change the training environment.
The most important thing to remember about increasing any of these criteria:
When we increase one, we decrease the other two.
So, if we’re asking our dog to move more steps forward before they receive their treat, we would do this in a less distracting environment than where they had otherwise been training.
We keep doing this dance – increasing some criteria as we decrease others – until every criteria has been trained to a level that we want to achieve. For some, that may simply be that they want to walk through their own, quiet neighbourhood, rewarding their dog every few minutes. For others, this may mean spending the day walking through busy city streets with no food rewards for most of the time.
Step 6: Start using real life rewards
Now that we’re at the proofing stage, it’s time to put all those pesky distractions to work for you, by using them as rewards.
You can pay your dog for his good LLW work by giving him access to the things he normally pulls toward.
One of the bonuses of good loose leash training is that it teaches owners how to truly read their dogs. A big component of that is watching your dog to discover what in the world they want so much that they were pulling you down to get.
Because that thing that they want so bad? That’s your new reward.
That might be a tree they want to smell, the dog park gates, or watching a pigeon cross the street.
Obviously, dogs can’t have everything they want. And there are some situations in which their leash pulling (or barking and lunging) doesn’t actually mean that they like what they’re pulling towards.
But, within reason, we can use these distractions as a reward for performing a behaviour: maybe Sparky walks five successful loose leash steps and then you both run to the special smelly tree to check it out together!
Bonus: jumpstart your loose leash training with the Pot of Gold game
There’s this exercise we like to use to start the proofing and real-life rewards stage. It’s an easy way to introduce your dog to the concept of “loose leash means we get to go forward” with much less stress and frustration than this stage traditionally invokes in dogs and humans alike. Enter your email below and we’ll send the instructions your way:
Remember how we start off LLW training by teaching a heel, but we don’t actually WANT a heel?
That’s because heeling is a stationing behaviour. There are strict criteria, and the dog must stay in one location relative to their handler’s leg at all times.
But loose leash isn’t a stationing behaviour. Instead, what we’re really teaching is the absence of a behaviour, which is a much more difficult concept for dogs to learn.
Heeling is about dogs doing what they’ve been asked to do. Loose leash is about dog and owner knowing one another, requesting things of each other politely, and respecting each other’s boundaries and requests.
When we loose leash walk with our dogs, it’s our responsibility to look to them and watch for the moments they say “oh, I’d like to go over here please!”
And if they ask nicely, honour that.
The leash is there for safety, it isn’t there for compliance. Let Sparky go sniff the bush, and watch the kids at the park play with a football.
This is their time to interact with the world. And it’s also your time together. You’re two friends walking through the world.