Loose lead walking can be such a tricky behaviour to teach. Often new puppy owners start working on this straight away and feel like they’ve cracked it. Suddenly, the adolescent phase shows-up and puppies seem to forget how to walk nicely on a lead. Or they head into a busy and exciting new environment and their dogs are too overwhelmed with emotion to be able to think and function properly. Most people give up at this point thinking their dog is just not capable of learning this skill and then carry on for the rest of their lives having their arms pulled out their sockets on every walk. Lovely loose lead walking IS a skill we can all train, it may come quicker to some dogs’ but with consistency and patience it is not an unattainable goal for anyone.
It took me around 2 years to get perfect loose lead walking in all environments with my own dog, Juno. “Whaaaaaaaaaat?!” I hear you say, “two years?!”. You heard the first part but hear me out, it took two years to get perfect loose lead walking in all environments. For background, Juno is now a 5-year-old Labrador/Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross and I adopted her when she was 7 months old. Juno’s lack of loose lead walking was one of the many points on a long list of reasons her original family needed to rehome her. Juno has incredibly high prey drive and so there were some environments for example, woodland, that took us a long time to master because the distractions around us were overwhelming, but with lots of games and rewards we got there and I am proud that my little dog now walks perfectly on-lead wherever we go.
Firstly, consider your expectations and lower them – significantly. Think about the reasons that cause your dog to pull; excitement, anxiety, fear, distractions – other dogs, new people, wildlife, litter, fresh scents and so on. They may have established that pulling on their lead is the easiest way to get to where they want to go. They may have learned that being in close proximity to their guardian is unpleasant, uncomfortable or met with punishment.
My first top tip would be to consider the environments you are trying to train in and what distractions are around you. Start off at home, around your garden or during the last five minutes of your walk when your dog is a bit more relaxed. If your dog is highly aroused through either fear, excitement or stress they are not in a position to learn.
You must reward often – at first every step your dog takes in line with you should be rewarded. Be ready to reward any moments of eye contact your dog offers because this behaviour will likely be repeated if it is rewarded often enough. If your dog is busy trying to make eyes at you while you wander along the pavement they can’t be pulling, can they?! Treat pouches are awesome tools for ensuring you can reward the correct behaviours as they happen.
Slowly increase the distractions around you – don’t expect your dog to be able to walk down North Berwick High Street on a sunny Saturday afternoon straight away, you have to work towards this goal. Ensure you allow your dog lots of distance from approaching dogs while you work on this so they can keep their attention on you rather than their new best mate-to be along the street. You might need to cross the road to give yourself sufficient distance to keep focus on you while passing the other dog. Over time you can slowly close this gap while your dog learns to ignore dogs in close proximity.
Keep sessions short while you build the duration your dog can walk on a nice loose lead. Be careful your puppy does not get frustrated and ensure learning is fun and rewarding for them.