Teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 3/30/14
By: Gail T. Fisher

A reader writes: I have an adorable 6-month-old puppy that just finished training. It was my hope that he would now come when he was called and walk next to me without pulling. He comes when there is no distraction, consistently yanks me down the street and has developed a new behavior of trying to charge other dogs, regardless of size. (He weighs 14 lbs.) When he does this he is uncontrollable.
I've watched other people walk one or more dogs and the dogs are well behaved. I'm not sure what I am doing wrong. I do go to a forest area and let them run off leash. They love it (I have two dogs) but I wonder if this contributes to the behavior.
My older dog used to be well-behaved but has since picked up the puppy's annoying behavior. I was told to keep the leash lose when I walk them, but I have no idea how this works when they are pulling my arm off. I'm really frustrated at this point.

Oh how I identify with the reader’s frustration. Larry, our nine-month-old Chinook, weighs considerably more than 14 pounds, and he wants to meet and make friends with virtually every person and dog he sees, trying to pull me forward to them. Plus, Chinooks are a “pulling” breed, so loose-leash-walking is a continuous work-in-progress.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed for a magazine column on the advantages of early puppy training. The author asked why I thought that behaviors trained at an early age are learned permanently. She specifically mentioned sit, down, stay, come and loose leash walking. I said that sit, down and stay can be taught early and well-learned, but the two behaviors the reader’s email specifically mentioned—recall and loose leash walking—take far more practice, and can easily break down. Loose leash walking deteriorates when pulling is reinforced.

Reinforcement occurs when the dog pulls and successfully gets to whatever he was pulling toward. That success reinforced his pulling. For example, your dog pulls you toward a tree he wants to sniff. Getting to the “sniffable” tree rewards pulling. The good news is that even a dog with a long history of pulling can be trained to walk on a loose leash.

There are three important elements in training your dog to walk politely on a loose leash. First is controlling the dog’s ability to pull successfully. Second is recognizing what reinforces your dog when you’re out for a walk so you can control your dog’s ability to reward himself by pulling. And finally, reinforcing your dog for not pulling. I’ll address the latter two aspects next week.

To control your dog’s ability to pull, there are several equipment options that can help. The two I prefer because they don’t involve employing physical pain, are head halters and “no pull” walking harnesses. A dog head halter is much like a halter on a horse. It gives the owner control of the dog’s head. Where the head goes, the body follows. If one can walk a 1000 plus pound horse with a halter, we dog owners should be able to control a dog on a halter.

The other option is a “no-pull” walking harness, which is different from pulling harnesses. The leash clip on a walking harness is in front of the dog’s chest. Some, such as the Freedom Harness, have connectors in front and in back for increased control.

It’s important to get a proper fit on whatever equipment you select, so check on-line for measurement recommendations, and make sure you can exchange the item if it doesn’t fit your dog properly. When using a head halter, introduce your dog to it slowly, using lots of treats as you put the loop over your dog’s nose. You’ll find some training videos on YouTube that can help (search for “Introducing head halters.”). It’s important to introduce it properly, or your dog may not become accustomed to it. With a little positive training, most dogs learn to walk nicely with a head halter.

Whatever tool you choose, it is just a tool. Next week, how to use equipment properly to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash no matter what he’s wearing.

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