Introduction to Leash Walking

Proper leash walking is something that most dogs and their people need to learn, it often does not come naturally. Let’s begin by thinking about what a walk is. From the person’s point of view a walk usually means exercise (i.e., you want to keep moving forward at a reasonable pace), it is often squeezed in before work, at lunch time, and/or after work before moving on to other things. While it is something to be enjoyed, it often comes with time limits. Finally, humans are creatures of habit meaning that we often walk the exact same route for weeks, months, or even years at a time.

From a dog’s perspective, especially if you begin with a puppy, walks are all about running and playing and collecting the news of the area. I have friends that call this information gathering “reading the pee mail.” Dogs, like children, often run just for the joy of it. They stop frequently to investigate the most interesting things (as suggested above, many of the most interesting things can only be investigated through sniffing), and they frequently pause to play and chase lizards, squirrels or birds etc. And then, if you have a male dog they probably want to stop and pee on every tree or bush along your route.

So, what we have here is a human and a dog setting out for a walk together with completely different expectations of what the walk should consist of. When you put a puppy or dog on a leash without first setting the ground rules, you get a chaotic walk that consists of pulling on the leash from both ends, in different directions. The person wants to maintain a consistent walking pace while the dog wants to run ahead, stop to sniff, and dart off in different directions to play chase with smaller animals or to greet people and other dogs. It is important to understand that it is not just the dog who is pulling on the leash. It takes two, like in the game “tug-of-war,” to create the experience of pulling or being pulled, and both sides experience this roughly the same way: you are pulling to go in your direction and your dog is pulling you to go in their direction.

This is the point where the exasperated person often applies different mechanisms to change the outcome of the tug-of-war. Things like choke collars, prong collars, walking harnesses and/or various head harnesses that employ a loop over the nose, are all designed to shift the balance of power from the dog to the person. The loop over the nose is the only tool I employ because it does not hurt the dog at all and it is the only one I have found that consistently works well. However, I only use it as a training tool to slow a rambunctious dog down while we train.

So, the first step in leash walking becomes “How do I communicate to my dog what I expect from a walk”? For me, the first of these communications is the message that I am the leader. This means that I pick where we go, at what pace, and where we stop to sniff, play, or mark (this is what male dogs are doing when the pee on every tree or bush). In order to become the leader, you must have someone or something following you. In this instance it will be your dog. The best way I know of to get your dog to follow you is to go to a large open area – parks, game fields, and beaches all work just fine. If the space is not enclosed put a long leash (20 feet or so) on your dog and then simply hold your end of the leash and walk away. Stride quickly and confidently without looking back at your dog. As soon as they move to catch up give a treat and immediately change directions. By the way, I call this “walking like a drunken sailor” because you are basically weaving all over the field. The only rules are that you do not follow your dog (i.e. you turn and walk away anytime your dog chooses a direction in which they would like to go) and that when they turn to catch up they get a great reward when they succeed. You only stop for poops and serious pees. Also try to stay away from the edges of the field where there are likely more distractions. If your dog sits down and refuses to move turn so that you are at a 90-degree angle to your dog and begin walking again pulling him to his feet sideways. Make sure to have plenty of delicious treats help keep you dog on track.

Practice this for a few weeks and I will get into the finer points of leash walking in the next blog.

Part-2: Tips on Training. Forming Better Leash Walking Skills