Updated: Jan 3, 2019
Does your arm hurt? Achieving reliable loose leash walking in distracting environments is possible, if you have a strategy.
I wish I had a magic wand to glue my dog to my side. Alas, I live with an impulsive and easily distracted terrier who lives to sniff and hunt vermin. Walking Timber felt like I was attached to a tiny, drunk 'Hulk'. She's not sure where she's going, she's in a serious hurry to get there, and she's going to follow the most random path possible.
Pulling is reinforcing for dogs because it gets them where they want to go. Walking with the slow and boring human is not inherently reinforcing. Achieving reliable loose leash walking with a dog like Timber was not a sexy process and it's something we will need to practice often to maintain. Training any behavior to fluency and reliability involves repetition, reinforcement, and the gradual introduction of distractions.
Achieving reliable loose leash walking involves repetition, reinforcement and the gradual introduction of distractions.
Your Dog Needs to Sniff and Explore
Is it reasonable to expect your dog to walk perfectly at your side for an entire long walk? Not really. If you demand that from you're dog, you're not meeting his basic needs.
Sniffing and exploring the environment is therapeutic for dogs and it's good for their mental and physical health. Your walk should include a combination of loose leash walking and allowing freedom off-leash or on a long-line. You can use freedom or sniffing as a reward for loose leash walking!
Cue Consistency is Important
First, the dog needs to understand the behavior of walking at your side and the cue associated with it. Give your dog the information they need to succeed. Teach a cue such as 'with me' to ask for loose leash walking and a release cue like 'free' to tell them they're free to move about. Giving the release cue is important. Your dog needs to understand that this behavior clearly has a start and finish.
People look at me funny when we start loose leash walking in their living room or hallway. A quiet, familiar environment is always the best place to introduce new concepts.
If I asked you to learn a new software in the middle of a busy dance club, could you do it? Maybe, but it would be frustrating and it would take a long time. Same goes for your dog.
Teach the new 'with me' and 'free' cue inside until you and your dog are confident and successful. Then, add distractions. Start with mild distractions and work your way up to more difficult distractions (these differ for all dogs).
Head Outside, But Not Too Far
Baby steps are important here! Start on your deck or paved yard. Grass might actually be too distracting for some dogs. Expect your dog to struggle and ask for only a step or two of loose leash walking. Reward with something that's high value for your dog. When ready, try adding some of the mild distractions you used inside.
Take it On the Road
When you're successful in the backyard with distractions it's time to hit the road. Select new, non-distracting locations to practice in. Pavement is pretty boring, so empty parking lots are a great choice. Gradually try more distracting environments. Adjust your expectations with every new location, be prepared to reduce your criteria and increase the value of your rewards.
Here's a tutorial video demonstrating just some of the steps involved in teaching Timber, the chronic puller to walk on a loose leash.