Loose leash walking 101 (Stop dog pulling on leash)

Walks should be enriching and enjoyable for you and your dog. Leash pulling/reactivity is frustrating. Dogs pull to reach and investigate new sights, smells, and sounds. The habit is reinforced and likely to reoccur if it’s successful;

The dog may also charge out the door as the walk begins.

Leash pulling when outside occurs because the dog is less likely to focus on you as the leader. The leash is more of a hindrance to his/her desire to explore and interact with the outside world.

Dogs don’t innately know proper leash etiquette and need to be leash trained for smoother walks. Leash training teaches your dog to focus more on you and that pulling is not acceptable. Start training as early as possible to build good behavior.

Training is not always smooth but when done right it improves communication with the dog while keeping him safe. This requires patience and consistency.

Read on to learn how. 

Tools needed

To start with, you need the right equipment for the job.

  • A non-retractable leash– I recommend a 6-foot leather or nylon leash and metal clasp. 
  • A light flat buckle or martingale collar– For stubborn leash reactive dogs, use a head halter (head collar) such as a Gentle Leader or Head Halti. 
  • A front clip harness for walks and a back clip harness for training exercises. 
  • A treat pouch of high-value treats that motivate your dog. Some absolute favorites include pieces of hot dog, grilled salmon, chicken, or cheese. Tug toys can also be rewarding for high-energy dogs used in combination with treats.

Introducing a leash to a puppy/dog

Some furry friends need to familiarize themselves and get comfortable with the walking gear. This prevents nervousness and temper tantrums. Get your pup used to touch around the neck and other parts of the body as you build a better relationship. 

Start with a string or shoelace around the neck when the dog is preoccupied with other things such as play. Gradually introduce the collar and reward and build a positive association. If the dog seems bothered distract him with interactions and play as you put and take it off.  Only remove the collar when the dog is calm and not trying to scratch and fight it out. No fighting=collar off. Do not reward taking off the collar since it’s better when the leash is on than off.

As you attach the leash to the collar, let him run around and drag it to acclimatize him to the tension. Engage him with play to allow him to ease and relax into its presence. Reward the dog as you put it on and as you make adjustments. 

Puppy biting on a leash?

Avoid rewarding your pup for biting on the leash by trying to wrestle it off the dog. From the dog’s point of view, the two of you are playing tug which is fun and rewarding in itself.

Instead, let go of the leash, hold the dog by the collar, stay still and be as boring as possible. Immediately the dog drops the leash, lets go of the collar, praise, and reward. Repeat this every time he bites on a leash. Biting the leash=boring + no attention and not biting on the leash=lots of praise+ reward. 

Using a dog taste deterrent (bitter apple spray) on the leash makes the dog less likely to bite it. Once associates the leash with the bitter taste, he is less likely to grab it moving forward.

Provide chew toys, extra play, and interactive toys such as a stuffed kong. Let your dog carry a chew toy on walks.

DogWalking training

Leash handling

Choose a side for the dog so he can habituate and gravitate to it with consistency and practice.

Lay the leash lay across your hand for an overhand grip like mime pulling to let out slack to control leash tension. The leash crosses your palm between your thumb and forefinger. Pin it in place with your thumb and exit the pinky finger side. 

Hold the leash end with your other hand at about your navel. Have some slack between the two hands to control leash length. One hand lets the leash slide as you slow and stop the dog for sensitive control. Don’t wrap the leash around your hand.

The leash should not drag on the ground but should hang above the dog’s knees with some slack for free movement. There should be no pressure on the collar.

Loose leash training

Loose leash training lets you control the dog in a humane, relaxed, and rhythmic fashion. The dog walks at his own pace with options to explore but remains aware of you as the owner.

It starts by teaching her to yield to leash pressure.

Lower your hand as you pull in a straight line to tighten leash pressure. Only use your hand with minimal body movement while using an inviting voice and eye contact. The instant he self-corrects to leash pressure while moving to you, release the slack, click/mark, praise, and reward.  Repeat several times, with variations such as using a different room, different body postures, and outdoors.

The goal is to have the dog respond to feather-light pressure when done.

Start in a distraction-free environment;

Before you begin leash walking exercises, use a play session such as fetch to burn pent-up energy. This makes it easier for him to focus and stay engaged with you.

Pick a neutral, distraction-free environment such as your living room. With fewer distractions, the dog develops muscle memory and motor imagery easier. The goal is to gradually transition to a more stimulating environment as the dog learns relaxed walks.

Keep the leash loose from the moment you pick it up. Draw eye contact, take 2 or 3 steps in a straight line then turn, take 3 steps, turn. Add a few steps as you progress, and turn from side to side and even in circles. Practice inside and outside turns and have proper timing. Let your hand drift back as you walk, let the dog drop back, stop, make an inside turn then proceed walking.

Use a clicker or verbal marker such as GOOD and reward each time the dog makes eye contact. The dog will soon offer consistent check-ins as you walk. Encourage the dog with constant GOODS and random food treats for polite walks. This makes being on your side an easy choice for the dog.

Resist the urge to forcefully guide the dog since he will pull in response. Use your body language, voice, and reward motivators for communication.

Let the dog realize that pulling on the leash ceases the walk and the leash becomes tight.

 but staying engaged with you gets him the opportunity to explore. If he pulls on the leash, say NOPE/Ah-Ah then come to a complete stop. Pull back the leash lightly and let go of the slack the instant he quits pulling, praise and reward. Only recommence the walk if the leash is loose.

What’s more, ask the dog to heel-sit by your side each time he pulls. Mark and reward for compliance. For dogs fixated on stimuli, turn in the opposite direction. Make an inviting body posture by leaning in and extending your arm on the leash as you back up, and come to a slow stop.  Let the leash slide through your fingers by about 1 foot as you come to a slow stop. 

As the dog learns to walk on a loose leash more confidently, introduce decoys. Ask him to sit, step on the leash, and throw a toy. If he charges toward the toy, the leash tightens and he is not able to get to it. Get him to come to you and sit, then encourage him to walk politely to the toy. Only give him a chance to play for relaxed walks. Variations like this, imprint what you want from the dog. 

Teach basic commands

Also, practice basic commands such as;

  • Let’s go
  • Heel
  • Wait
  • Back up
  • Free

Let’s go cue;

You can use this cue to let your dog know each time a walk is about to begin. With the dog in a heel-sit position, say Let’s Go, initiate motion with a food lure target, GOOD, GOOOD, 1, 2, 3 treats. Start with a few steps (3-5) at a time, before rewarding, and work to increase the number of steps be the rewards. 

Improve the cue by using it before your take a gradual 180-degree turn and having him follow you. Let’s Go, ease into the leash, 180-degree turn, the dog follows, GOOD, GOOOD, reward, reward. Do several repetitions until the dog learns to associate the cue with the beginning of motion.  Reduce the number of treats as you progress and up the difficulty with distractions. 

Focussed heels;

Heel walking teaches your dog to walk beside you with his shoulder glued to your leg. The dog has to pay close attention while maintaining eye contact throughout. He should move along with each of your steps within an inch of your leg without getting ahead. 

When a dog is heel-trained, you can expect him to walk next to you off-leash. This is handy for navigating tight spaces and distracting environments.

You will first need to shift your dog to heel sit using a food lure or leash movement. Have your dog sit in front of you and lure the dog outwards to the side of your leg then upwards into a heel sit position. Have the dog make contact with your body with his shoulder just behind your leg. The instant the dog’s bottom touches the ground, mark/click then reward, reward and reward. Repeat until the dog has mastered the position before naming it HEEL. Say HEEL, lure the position, mark then reward. The verbal cue should always precede the hand signal. As the dog improves, you will only need to use hand gestures for the heel sit. You will also use fewer and fewer treats after the dog performs the maneuver. The dog should never know where the treat is coming from.

Begin heel walking in the heel sit position. Hold the food lure just above the dog’s nose, take a step, reward, a second step, reward, and so on. Initially, reward for each step and scale back the dog gets better. 2, 3, or 4 steps, stop, mark then reward at hip level and use an exciting voice as a reinforcer. After a couple of training exercises, it will be easier to reliably heel walk.

As your progress, increase the number of steps while reducing the frequency of rewards. 

Build duration by maintaining the focused heel for longer. Add turns, and give constant verbal reassurance (GOOD, GOOD, GOOOD) to keep the dog engaged. If the dog pulls back or charges forward, lure the dog into the correct position before offering a treat. Correct him to watch every time he looks away.

As you stop, lift a food lure over the dog’s head and prompt a sit. Use a terminal marker (YES/FREE) and reward the instant his bottom touches the ground. ​Say YES, then reward as you move away to release. 

If the dog is jumpy for the treat, stay still and only reward when he is still. Soon enough the dog will learn to sit each time you stop. Take a few steps to come to a stop instead of making abrupt stops

Your dog may bend and bow behind your legs but straighten up as you walk. 

As the dog performs better, add distractions and repeat.

Loose leash walking Vs Heeling

The dog matches your speed, movement, and direction in both loose leash walking and contact heeling. They are both useful in walks

Focused heeling is hard to maintain for long as the dog has to make constant eye contact. Heeling is more precise and requires instantaneous responses to change in speed and direction with each step. What’s more, it does not require a leash to be involved as the dog should be able to heel walk off-leash until released.

It’s easier to hold relaxed walks for longer while focused heeling is more intense. 

Wait command;

The wait cue is effective when you want your dog to stop moving and focus on you. You can use it to ask your dog to wait and remain still after having his heel sit. 

Start by teaching him to sit and when you place a treat in front of him. If he tries to take it. say wait, block it using your hand and correct him into a sit position. Only let him have the treat if he waits for 1 or 2 seconds. Wait, Wait, Wait, Yes, reward. Don’t let him have the trigger treat each time. Instead, produce extra treats from the pouch without him being able to predict it. 

Repeat and build duration by having your dog sit and wait for longer and in different places.

Back up command;

The back command will teach your dog to walk backward next to you without turning.

Have a barrier such as a wall on the other side to sandwich the dog. With a food target, Say BACK, stay a step back, the dog follows, GOOD, reward, step back, GOOD, reward. Work to get more steps back and build duration. Turn, 3 steps back, GOOD, reward. Teach the dog to make back turns as he gets better and rewards for constant eye contact. The food lure maintains the dog’s attention and induces the dog to follow.

Repeat in a distracting environment such as a driveway as the dog gets more proficient.

Teach a release cue;

A release cue can be any word of your choosing such as YES, FREE, BREAK, and so forth. This cue tells the dog when an exercise is complete and that he is free to explore. 

Each time you are about to break, say the release cue, and take a few steps back to reward as the dog follows a food lure. YES, a few steps back, the dog follows, treat, treat, treat. 

Remember the verbal cue should always precede any body movement. This is because are likely to follow hand signals other than a verbal cue hence the need for separating the two.

Puppy_Leash training
Basset Hound puppy on a leash outdoors.

Adjusting speed;

This teaches your pooch to be more aware of you as you change pace (faster or slower).

Use the FASTER cue for speed increases and EASY/SLOW for speed reduction. FASTER, increase speed, lure the dog to follow you for 5-10 forward, GOOD, reward, reward. Repeat. EASY, reduce speed, lure the dog to follow, GOOD, GOOD, treat jackpot. Practice the exercises several times until the dog becomes more proficient. 

If he pulls, take a gradual stop, lure the dog into the correct position, release, and continue with the walk. The dog will check in with you more with practice with synchronized movement. You can also, move backward as you encourage the dog to follow with an inviting voice and body posture. As you move back allow the leash to slide through your hand at about a foot. Allow the dog to self-correct, release slack, mark, and reward then proceed with the walk. 

Increase distractions

By now you should have a good foundation in a less distracting environment. 

Repeat the exercises outdoors in a more stimulating environment and use better motivators. Practice when the dog is in a calmer state after an exercise or play session.

Set the tone as you exit the door by asking the dog to sit and wait before opening it. Don’t let your dog bolt out the door. He should follow you not go past you. If he tries to pass you, stop, leash tightens, and ask him to sit next to you. Once he offers to get closer, instantly release the slack, mark, and reward for obedience.

Things will not magically translate so increase the difficulty step by step.  Start with the driveway/sidewalk/walk, then a few blocks around the neighborhood, and so on. Be patient and take your time as you crank up the difficulty. Encourage the dog to walk on a loose leash at her own pace. Your dog will learn to walk in the presence of stimuli with several repetitions without fixating on them. This will include cyclists, children playing, skateboarders, cars, other dogs, and so on.

If the dog stops and does not follow, don’t pull as the dog will resist as a consequence. Instead, walk backward letting the leash slide through the hand by about a foot. Encourage the dog to follow. If he complies, mark and reward. Ask him to heel sit at crosswalks, as you meet people, at the market, before getting into an elevator, etc.

Training will take time, maybe a couple of days or weeks depending on the dog.

Essential Training Tips

Using treats;

Use small treats to lure the dog into intended positions, for motivation and rewards. With food rewards, it’s better to have your dog hungry as he is less likely to listen when full.

Hold treats between your index and middle finger with the thumb trapping it in place. Cup your hand and use it to power steer your dog into required positions. The dog will not be able to reach the treat before you offer it. 

Deliver treats just above the dog’s head at about knee level. 

The dog should focus on you not the treats by only rewarding him for checking up on you. He is less likely to pull if he is focusing on you. It should not be obvious where the treats are coming from. For instance, instead of offering the lure each time, use the other hand to produce hidden treats for walking politely.

Some dogs may be more motivated by opportunities for play, petting, sniffing, and exploring. These rewards can be alternated with food rewards depending on what the dog enjoys most.

Reward occasionally in the beginning for each eye contact and hold off rewards as you proceed. Build duration and extend the number of steps before dispensing rewards. Let your dog know a treat could come at any time for offering desired behavior.

Using verbal markers/clicker;

Verbal markers and clicks pinpoint the exact moment when a dog offers the desired behavior. The marker should precede a reward to build an association between them.  For instance, each time your dog makes eye contact, click/mark then reward. 

Have a duration marker (GOOD…), a correction marker (NOPE…), a punishment maker, and a release marker (YES, FREE…). The release mark should always be followed by a reward. 

Withhold reward to teach correction markers such as NO/NOPE each time she underperforms. This allows the dog to repeat the action for a reward.

Use a marker of your choice for each but be consistent with it and tonation.

Be consistent;

Being consistent with exercises and criteria improves the rate of success. Let the dog know what to do and make it a more attractive option for your dog to walk on a loose leash.

Dealing with leash reactive dogs;

Typically, leash reactivity stems from fear or excitement (chase/play). A nervous dog will feel constrained by a leash and inability to escape. Don’t pull or yank an anxious dog as it will worsen the nervousness. Instead, desensitize and change the dog’s response to the stimuli. 

When you come across a trigger, walk around the dog in an arc, block his view and walk in the opposite direction. Engage the dog and reward for calm at a safe distance from the trigger. Pay more attention to him when he spots a stimulant, distract, draw eye contact, and reward.

Also, walk your dog on quieter routes if he is too nervous and avoid “scary” interactions. You can also use a head halter to prevent him from fixating on a trigger and for sensitive control. 

What’s more, only let an excited dog say hello after he sits and waits calmly for permission.

Keep training sessions short;

Keep training sessions at no more than 10 minutes to keep them fun and enjoyable. Ideally, you want to end each session on a high note before the dog loses interest.

Start with shorter sessions (3-5 minutes) and increase the duration as the dog improves. Take breaks for the dog to play, sniff around, and potty.

To Finish up

Leash training is a process that takes time that will depend on the puppy and your abilities. Progress will be gradual but with time, the right steps, and consistency, you will be on the right track to success in the end.

Do not yank or jerk your pup for pulling on the leash and be smart with how you dispense food rewards.

Did you find this guide helpful? Let us know in the comment section below.

There you go, WOOF!