The super-fun walks described in our “Walk This Way” article in last month’s issue aren’t always possible; there are times when dogs do need to walk in close proximity to their person’s side at a human’s relatively slow walking pace. When this is the case, we all too often see dogs who are either gagging and choking while being restrained on a very tight leash, dragging their humans, or looking bored and unhappy as they plod along next to their people.
There is a reason for this: Walking politely at a slow human pace is a very unnatural behavior for your dog. Dogs generally move slowly of their own volition only when they are very tired, old, ill, obese, fearful, tense, or sniffing.
The good news is that there are ways to make leash-walking at your pace a lot more fun for your dog and successfully achieve her happy participation in this necessary activity.
The key word here is “fun.” This means engaging with your dog as you walk – not texting, talking on the phone, or chatting with your spouse or friends while ignoring the dog. This process starts with taking the time to actually teach the behavior known as “polite leash walking,” and then continuing to use a high rate of reinforcement and variety of training techniques to keep your dog engaged with you while you walk, as you generalize the behavior.
TEACH LOOSE-LEASH WALKING
Loose-leash walking is a staple of every basic Good Manners class – or at least it should be. Here’s the basic force-free technique; no choke chains, prong collars, or leash-jerking allowed.
Keep your arm by your side and your wrist against your hip so the leash stays loose. Use a happy voice, treats, toys, and coaxing – not force. If your dog lunges forward and pulls on the leash, stop, and maintain gentle pressure on the leash. When she stops pulling and looks at you as if to ask why you have stopped, mark that behavior (with the click of a clicker or using a verbal marker such as the word “Yes!”) and offer a treat from the hand that isn’t holding the leash, next to whichever knee she normally walks beside.
If she doesn’t look back at you, wait 10-15 seconds, then invite her back with a kissy noise/happy voice. When your dog returns to you, give her the treat and start walking again, using a high rate of reinforcement (marking and giving a treat at nearly every step).
I walk my dog on my left side, holding the leash and clicker in my left hand, and feed treats from my right hand by bringing my hand across the front of my body and offering it behind my left knee. When I am walking, my treat hand is out of sight behind my right hip.
While dogs are traditionally taught to “heel” on the left side, there’s no law that says you have to. The primary reason for sticking with tradition here is if you want to compete in Obedience or Rally or other canine sports that require left-side heeling.
When you first start teaching leash-walking, begin in a low-distraction environment, such as your living room. Decide on the cue you want to use to tell your dog to walk and use that word every time you move forward.
Use a very high rate of reinforcement and be sure to keep the leash loose! Take one step and (as long as your dog is still right by your side and the leash is still loose), mark (click or “Yes!”), and treat. One step, mark, and treat.
It can help to frequently change direction. One step, mark and treat, and turn! One step, mark and treat, turn. Use your happy-voice praise to keep your dog engaged and attentive to you.
Occasionally, pull out a toy and engage your dog in a quick game of tug before resuming your step-mark-treat routine. Alternatively, squeak and then toss a small stuffer squeaker toy for her to catch and play with (see “Rules for Playing Tug,” WDJ December 2016). Then trade her a treat for the toy and walk on (see “How to Teach Your Dog to Trade,” February 2017). A variety of high-value reinforcers, including play, will keep the walking game fun and interesting for your dog. “Fun and interesting” is the key to happy leash walking.
It is also useful to do this indoors sometimes without the leash, still maintaining a very high rate of reinforcement and lots of happy-voice and play. Removing the leash ensures that you aren’t accidentally keeping tension on the leash – that your dog really is choosing to walk with you; it’s not the leash that keeps her close.
Whether on or off leash, as your dog begins to stay close and attentive to you, gradually increase the number of steps you take between your mark and reward. Remember to keep her engaged with happy conversation and praise as well as your mark-and-treat-or-toy reinforcer.
TAKE IT OUTSIDE
When your dog will walk with you politely in your very low-distraction environment it’s time to up the ante – take it outdoors! Set her up to succeed by starting in a relatively low-distraction environment – your private yard, a condo courtyard at a low-usage time – not the dog park, a city sidewalk during rush hour, or the school playground during recess!
Put her back on the leash to start (and plan to keep the leash on if you’re not in a safely fenced area). Return to your initial “one step, mark, and treat” protocol until you’re sure she’s with you, then gradually reduce the rate of reinforcement, increasing the number of steps between your mark-and-treat.
Practice increasing your speed as well, doing some short jogging sessions with your dog. If you’re in an area where it’s safe to do so, graduate to off-leash walking when you feel she is ready. Remember to use voice and play reinforcements as well as your treats!
When your dog can walk politely in a quiet outdoor environment, start increasing the distraction level. Ask your child (or borrow one from a friend if you don’t have your own) to play in the yard while you walk – quietly at first, then with more and more energy. Ask a dog-owner friend to bring her dog over to walk in the yard a distance from you, quietly at first, then with more energy, gradually decreasing the distance between you. Invite other friends over for a picnic and some lawn games while you and your dog walk around them. Get creative.
TAKE IT ON THE ROAD
Now that she’s a polite-walking star in your yard, it’s time to take your dog out in the real world. Again, start at low-activity times at first as you head down the sidewalk, practice in shopping mall parking lots, walk past schools, and leash-walk outside the dog park. Each time you increase the distraction level, go back to your one-step protocol, then gradually increase the number of steps between reinforcement as she shows you that she can stay tuned in to you while you move together.
OTHER HELPFUL HINTS
Here are more things that can enhance your dog’s leash-walking success:
*Use the Premack Principle. This can be a useful option for delivering a high-value polite leash walking reinforcer. The Premack Principle says that you can use a higher value/more likely behavior to reinforce a lower value/less likely behavior. It’s also known as Grandma’s Law: “You have to eat your vegetables before you can eat your dessert.” Trainers have made the phrase a verb in training jargon, as in “Hey, you can Premack that behavior!”
For many dogs, sniffing is a much higher-value behavior than walking politely by your side. You can identify upcoming desirable sniff-targets as you walk with your dog, then Premack a stretch of polite walking with a happy “Go sniff” cue, moving forward quickly with your dog to the desired sniff spot. Be sure to stop and give her plenty of time to sniff to her satisfaction.
You can also allow your dog to “Go play!” as a reinforcement for a stretch of polite walking. This works best if you are walking with a long line, so you could let her romp around a while before asking her to walk with you again.
*Targeting. Yes, your dog’s much-loved behavior of targeting can be useful for leash-walking! (See “The Moving Target,” below).
*Putting on the brakes. If your dog stops walking and doesn’t want to move forward, you need to figure out why. If she’s worried and needs to look at something, let her look, then use your kissy noise and cheerful voice to invite her forward. Pull out your cheerful voice and toys and invite her to have a party where you are! Or ask her to target to your hand and use her happy association with targeting to get her moving forward. Then start walking again.
You can also suggest movement by briefly putting very gentle pressure on the leash, but if she resists do not maintain pressure and definitely do not drag her forward! If she happily walks when you start out but puts on the brakes when headed home, it’s probably because she doesn’t want the walking fun to end. Get in the habit of doing something very reinforcing to her upon your return so she looks forward to going home as much as she looks forward to walking.
If she continues to be reluctant to move, it could be a medical issue – be sure to have your veterinarian check her out – soon.
*Keep it short and fun. Do several short practice sessions each day at first, then longer walks when your dog is walking well. Keep the outings exciting with lots of changes of pace and direction, voice, play, sniff and treat reinforcements to keep your dog interested.