Boxer Central – Loose Leash Walking

Most people know that an effective reward in training is food – and while it certainly is for training most dogs most behaviours and cues, we can also use environmental reinforcers. A reinforcer is anything the dog (not the person) deems valuable enough for her to repeat the behaviour again, and if she does not increase the frequency or intensity of the behaviour, we know she didn’t deem the reinforcer we chose to be valuable. An environmental reinforcer is something in the environment that the dog wants, and it could be permission to chase a squirrel, going to say hi to their best friend, or even just exploring the world around them. When teaching leash walking, the reinforcer is simple; it’s moving forward!

Personally, I’m a not an obedience trainer in the traditional sense of the word, and I sometimes watch obedience trainers and competitors teach a ‘heel’ and in seeing the dog walk right up against the handlers leg without straying at all, I often think “gosh, that must be annoying”! For the average dog owner, we don’t want our dogs to walk right up against our legs without looking at anything but us for the entire walk; what we want is for our dogs to walk on a loose leash and not drag us down the block! This is pretty easy to teach, if you’re consistent, and provided your dog doesn’t have extraneous issues like leash aggression (in which case, you should seek out advice from a positive, professional trainer). Loose leash walking is most easily taught to a puppy, who has no prior habits formed, but in reality, we often aren’t concerned with teaching it until our dog is large enough to become problematic when he pulls on leash, and end up resorting to various types of equipment (choke collars, pinch/prong collars, harnesses etc.) and training ideas. What we fail to recognize is that our dogs are constantly learning, and we ignore what they’ve learned about leash walking already; typically, that they are supposed to be walking on a tight leash. We teach this inadvertently by trying to avoid pulling and keeping the leash wrapped around our hands or body and not allowing any kind of slack. The theory is proven when you do provide your dog some slack, and she immediately moves forward until the leash is tight again. Why does the dog think this is what we want from them? Because we’ve reinforced it by giving the dog what they want while the leash is tight – moving forward!

There are plenty of theories on how to teach loose leash walking, and today I’ll share my method. With larger breeds, like Boxers, I’ll begin by using a front leading harness to provide the handler some control and safety from being dragged, and prefer either the Sensation Harness by Soft Touch Concepts, or the No Pull Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds Design. Front leading harnesses have the leash clipped at the sternum, and are effective because if the dog does pull, as soon as tension is applied to the leash she will, by the laws of physics, be turned around to face you, and you can then communicate with her what you actually want. This also avoids pressure on the trachea, particularly resulting from collars that sit high on the throat, and are much less likely to cause damage to the dog physically as a result of pulling.

If we know that a dog’s motivation on a walk is to move forward, and that each step forward is a reinforcer, then we also know that if we do NOT move forward and remain stationary, this would be a form of punishment for the dog. Therefore, the best method for training a dog to walk on a loose leash is to provide the dog with enough leash slack to move around you, though not enough that they have the leverage to really yank on the leash. I like to allow enough leash that my dog could reasonably put his nose on the ground to sniff next to me, but no longer than that. The amount of leash I allow is always the same, so that my dog can predict how far he can move around me while walking. We begin this process as soon as the leash is clipped, and only move forward when the leash is slack. If the dog tightens the leash, we immediately stop moving. We don’t talk, instruct the dog, move him backwards with the leash, or ask for a sit – we simply let the dog think about why we’ve stopped, and what he’ll need to do to get us to move forward. In other words, the dog needs to solve his own problem by performing a behaviour that gets him what he wants. The key to this method being effective is timing – we stop the exact moment the leash is tightened, and move forward the exact moment the leash becomes slack (usually, when the dog turns towards you, with a look of ‘what on earth are we stopped for?’). The more precise our timing of stopping and going is, the faster the dog can figure out exactly why we’ve stopped, and exactly how he can get you to move forward again. It is a clear, simple, and highly effective way to communicate to your dog that you want him to walk on a loose leash. By incorporating leash jerks/tugs, asking for another behaviour (like sit), using words the dog probably doesn’t understand, or employing corrective measures with harsh collars, we are more often than not just confusing the dog, and he never really learns what it is that you’re asking for. When owners are consistent with the stop/go method (also known as the “red light green light” method), even when just walking down the driveway, going to the car, or using a leash in a store or vet’s office, dogs can learn within a week or two what is expected of them when attached to a leash. Yes, your first two or three walks may seem tedious, and you’ll feel as though you’re stopping and starting every few steps, but keep it up, and a couple of steps will turn into 6 or 7, then a couple of blocks, and then will become a constant and reliable behaviour. Note: when confronted with something on a walk that your dog really wants to get to, like another friendly dog, consider the reinforcer (greeting a friend) and that if you then allow your dog to pull towards the oncoming dog, he’ll learn that it’s ok to pull in those situations. If you practice red light green light with this type of powerful reinforcer, you’ll not only teach your dog a more solid loose leash walking behaviour, but he’ll also learn that patience is highly rewarded.


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