Training-How To Walk On A Loose Leash

trusting paws

by Naomi Heck

In my previous post I talked about collars and harnesses that are designed to reduce leash pulling.  Some dogs stop pulling with them right away, but many dogs will continue to pull, just not as intensely, unless taught otherwise.   If you were to ask your German Shorthaired Pointer why he pulls, he would probably say “Because it works.  My owner is a little slow, so I have to pull her toward where I want to go.  If I pull hard enough, she follows me.  Sometimes she only takes a step or extends her arm, but at least I can gain a few inches and get a nose full of new smells.  You really have to be persistent in training humans!”

In my opinion, walking on a loose leash is the hardest thing to teach a dog.  How do you define polite leash walking?  Does your dog understand your definition and rules?  Have you made them simple and clear?  Or is your dog thinking he can pull sometimes (if you are not paying attention or in a hurry), he can cut in front of you (possibly tripping you in the process), and he can lunge at other dogs?

There are 2 off-leash games that are helpful in preparing your GSP for leash walking.  The first game is to get your dog to LOVE following you.  This is easy and natural for puppies, but the invisible umbilical cord that makes a little puppy so endearing gets severed when adolescence begins at about  5 months old.   That is why playing this game during puppyhood is important.  But even if your dog is already an adult, the game is worth teaching and will become fun if you make it so.

Start indoors.  Encourage your dog to follow you using a happy voice and body language.  Move away from him and be inviting: bend low, clap your hands, slap your thigh make kissy noises, and act excited.  Give tasty treats when he arrives, then change directions again, moving away from him.  Constantly encourage and praise as he follows close behind you.  Gradually increase the number of paces he must follow before giving him a treat.

When he is doing well indoors, practice outside in a quiet fenced area.  If you can’t get to a fenced enclosure, let your dog drag a lightweight long line with knots every few feet in case you have to step on it to keep him from taking off.  You are competing with the environment, so make it worth his while to follow you.  If he is too busy investigating something to hear you, run quickly away from him and BE EXCITING!  Use lots of praise when he moves toward you and be generous with great tasting food when he reaches you.  Change directions often.  If you need extra help, use a squeaky toy to entice him.

The next game to play is off-leash heeling (in a fenced area).  When your dog realizes it is great fun to follow you, start teaching him to stay on your left side (or right if you prefer) close to your leg.  Give treats only when your dog’s head is next to your leg.  In the beginning, it’s okay to lure your dog into position with a treat in your left hand as you walk.  Then stand still, put a treat to his nose and lift that hand upward, saying “sit”.  When he sits next to you, give the treat.   Say “heel” and take just a couple of steps.   Praise while he is walking at your left side, luring with a treat if necessary to keep him there.  Stop again and get him to sit, then treat.  Say “heel” and walk again, etc.  When he understands this game, be selective about when you give the treat.  Treat for excellent alignment at your side.  Reward faster sits or longer stretches of heeling, asking for a little bit before giving a treat as he improves.  Remember to use lots of verbal praise to give him clear feedback when he is doing it right!

Now that your dog loves sticking with you, introduce the equipment (see my last post for recommendations).  When you first start leash training, it is important that you have no agenda to go anywhere.  If you must go from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, it will interfere with training.  For the first week or so, potty and exercise your dog in the yard and leash train in front of your house.   Temporarily suspend walks around the block until your dog understands what is expected.

The first and most important leash lesson is YIELDING TO PRESSURE, no matter what kind of collar or harness you are using.   That means every time the leash tightens, your dog must take a step toward you.   You do not need treats for this because getting to explore the environment is the ultimate reward.  You may want to start this exercise at the front door and work your way outside as I will describe.

Stand still with your dog on leash (I like a 4 foot length).  When your dog hits the end of the leash, wait without saying a word or yanking the leash.  In the beginning, you might need to wait a few minutes if your dog is an expert at ignoring you and pulling.  But you don’t have an agenda, right?  So consider this wait to be part of training and let your dog figure things out.  When your dog takes that first step toward you and the leash starts to loosen, immediately drop all tension on the leash, praise profusely, then take ONE GIANT STEP forward and stand still again.   Repeat this wait-and-step sequence over and over.  Your dog’s reward for yielding to leash tension (taking a step toward you) is immediate comfort AND moving forward a little bit.  The lesson has to be perfectly clear: tight leash equals mild discomfort and no movement; loose leash equals comfort and walking.  If you are familiar with clicker training, marking the exact moment your dog steps toward you with a click before taking a giant step will make this lesson even clearer.  (Maybe I’ll do a post on clicker training in the future.  J)

Gradually increase the number of steps you take after your dog consistently yields to leash pressure.  Later, you can make this exercise more challenging by waiting for eye contact or a sit (or both) before taking a step.  Make sure you stop walking the instant he forges ahead and tightens the leash.  This means that you must pay attention to what your dog is doing and not be texting your friends while you walk.  It is only fair if you expect him to pay attention to you.  If you take the time to lay a solid foundation, your walks will soon be a lot more enjoyable.

You can incorporate on-leash heeling periodically on your walk.  Before crossing the street, have your dog sit at the curb, heel across the street, sit again, then resume walking leisurely.  I don’t expect my GSP to heel on an entire walk.  I can’t concentrate for that long, so I don’t expect him to either.  I wouldn’t want to go for a walk with my husband if I had to keep shoulder to shoulder with him.  It would be like high school marching band, which was fun for show back then, but hardly relaxing.  So let your dog explore and enjoy the walk as long as there is no tension on the leash, and occasionally ask for some obedience along the way to gently remind him that you are to be respected.



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11 Responses to Training-How To Walk On A Loose Leash

  1. Pingback: How To Stop Your German Shorthaired Pointer From Pulling on the Leash – Active Dog Breeds

  2. debby says:

    hello i have a mixed breed pointer/spaniel he is an adolescent of 3 years i have had him 12 weeks ( adopted)
    he has no self control whines and climbs on every wall as he snakes and lunges his way down the road
    i have adhered to the training regime outlined. i can get him to loose lead round the garden (and heel /sit with treats) but life is very different when the gate opens into the big world he is not interested in treats and he when he pulls and i stop walking he does not walk back towards me he sits thinking he is doing a good thing and gets incredibly frustrated that we are not moving forward … my question is should i move forward when he sits and should i just ignore his frustration or should i end the session…

    i do use a long line to give him some exercise i am able to get him to sit and redirect but i am concerned that the pulling on the long line will undo all the positives in the work i do with him in the garden and in the road progress has been made but i am struggling to carry out the good behaviour beyond my garden

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Debby,
      That’s great that loose leash walking has progressed nicely in the garden! There is a quantum leap between going from the garden to the world beyond the gate. You need to break the training down into smaller steps. Whenever you see frustration to the point where the dog is no longer learning, that is a sure sign that you need to make things easier for the dog to earn rewards and increase difficulty more gradually.

      For example, start with teaching a controlled exit through the gate, followed by walking nicely while staying just outside your garden wall or fence.

      The lunging, whining and pulling you down the road are behaviors that are being reinforced by the environment. As long as your dog is able to do it, those behaviors will be maintained. You need to teach your dog that there is great value in paying attention to you because you hold the ticket to exploration of the world outside the gate. The way to do that is to control access to what he wants. Control the reinforcers in order to control the behaviors. In other words, consequences drive behavior.

      Use a 5 foot leash (or hold the excess slack in the long line) and do the Yield to Pressure exercise but instead of waiting for him to walk back to you, reward a slight head turn toward you instead. If he can’t even do a head turn because he is too excited, wait for 5 seconds of slightly calmer behavior before allowing him to continue forward. Make sure you are very clear about what he did to earn that reward. Familiarize yourself with using a marker like a clicker if you aren’t sure how to pinpoint behaviors to reward. (There are lots of YouTube videos on clicker training). After you mark the behavior you want, run forward a few steps and let out the slack on the long line (but never let him pull you to go forward).

      Adjust your criteria (what your dog has to do to earn the reward) very carefully so it is easy for your dog to succeed. He should be earning rewards frequently enough that it does not produce frustration. Increase your criteria (in small increments) only when he is consistently successful at the step you have been working on.

      In summary, whenever your dog is frustrated or you seem stuck, break the lesson down into more achievable steps. Sometimes the baby step can be ridiculously tiny, such as waiting for the eyes to flick toward your direction if that is all he can give you at that time. But you will get from point A to point B faster this way rather than staying at something that isn’t working and hoping your dog will eventually get it.


  3. Naomi Heck says:

    Hi Carol,
    I understand your frustration with your GSP’s pulling, and your search for a piece of equipment that will stop the pulling. Pulling is a learned behavior: dog pulls hard, dog moves a few steps forward (even if it’s just a few feet), dog learns pulling works. I have seen dogs that have endured tracheal damage because the instinct to chase and the corresponding arousal level overpowers the feeling of discomfort or pain in the moment. The fact that you see chafing with the equipment tells me that the training part of the equation is lacking. A dog can learn to pull with any piece of equipment, whether it’s a head collar like the Gentle Leader, an Easy Walk front attachment harness or even a choker chain or prong collar. You must put aside your agenda to go for a walk until your dog learns that a tight leash means he goes nowhere (you stand firm like a tree, or even pull him in the opposite direction for a few penalty yards), and a loose leash means he moves forward). What helped me with my GSP when he was young and obsessed with squirrels and rabbits on walks was to use a clicker to mark the precise moment the leash became loose (because of what he did, not because I made it loose), signalling that I will start moving forward. As soon as the leash tightened, I stopped. EVERY TIME, no exceptions. Loose leash = green light, Tight leash = red light became the rule that I never broke. I did not talk; I let the leash tension do the talking. I purposely took my Chase to a part of my neighborhood that had lots of oak trees with squirrels running around. The first day of training, when he saw a squirrel and he tried to pull toward it, I held my ground for almost 10 minutes (I actually timed it) before he finally turned toward me as if to say “Why aren’t you moving?”, which loosened the leash. I clicked and ran toward the squirrel with him (his reward) until the leash tightened again at which point I immediately stopped for the next round. Those 10 minutes felt like forever, but each wait became less and less even on that same walk. After a few weeks of enforcing this new rule, the average time I had to wait until he offered me his attention (thus loosening the leash) was down to a tolerable 20 seconds or less in the presence of squirrels and rabbits. The opportunity to get closer to an object or location of interest is the most reward you can give your dog, so use that motivational “tool” to your advantage. I even do this when Chase is looking out the back door at a squirrel in the yard. I stand with him at the door and wait for him to shift his gaze up to me or to sit without being told (whichever he offers to me I will accept). When his eyes meet mine or his butt hits the floor (usually in slow motion because he is so tense from pointing), I open the door and he goes flying out.

    Back to your question about equipment, I like the Newtrix head halter made by a Canadian company. It works by applying gentle pressure to the back of the neck rather than pulling is head to the side and smushing the dog’s face and eyes like the Gentle Leader can. It looks like a tangled mess at first and takes more time to learn how to put it on that other devices. I didn’t like it at first because of the learning curve, but now it is my favorite walking tool that keeps me from having to get a second shoulder surgery. You still have to teach your dog the “Loose Leash/Tight Leash” rule, but it will greatly reduce the force of his pulling. There are instructional videos on the company’s website . Hope this helps!


  4. carol cooper says:

    Hi Naomi,
    I adopted a two yr. old GSP April 9th; he is very mild mannered, adorable & clings to me except when on a walk. I understand the breed & their strong hunting drive; (he is 43 # & all muscle, full grown)
    I have yet to find a collar that inhibits his pulling when on a walk. It is killing me!! I have tried many different collars, the one I have now is the “Gentle Leader”. The only way it works for me on a walk
    with him, is if I have taken him to the dog park & he has run off excess energy. We do that every morning. I have tried a special harness which is supposed to control the drive to pull but that just chafed him.
    I tried the prong collar with covering the prongs & that chafed him. I need your help, please. There is probably no magic answer but there must be something on the market that works. Does Cesar Milan
    have one that works? Can you suggest one that I have not tried? I really appreciate your expertise.

  5. Naomi Heck says:

    Hi Mark,
    When did your dog first get introduced to a leash? It should be very early, done by the breeder before the age of 8 weeks. Start with a very short lightweight rope about a foot long and let him get used to walking around with it hanging (don’t hold the end). Use a rope that you don’t mind getting chewed. Try spraying it with Bitter Apple or Bitter Yuck (it needs to be wet in order to work) if chewing is a problem, or use a very lightweight chain. Gradually increase the length until he is comfortable dragging a line that is leash length (6 ft). Always give him a treat EVERY time you attach anything to his collar for the next month or more. Start with brief lengths of time the line is attached (a few seconds, then gradually work up to 1 minute, then several minutes. Do this with each increasing length of line. Once he is comfortable with 6 ft, then start holding the end of the leash for brief times, giving treats while you hold it. If possible, don’t try to walk him during the 2 or 3 weeks that this might take. Good luck!

  6. mark says:

    my 4 1/2 month old HATES a leash, as soon as it’s on he is like a fish on a line, rolling all over trying to bite it whines the hole time, tries to nip you when go to take it off…I’m exhausted, but he is beautiful @ all other times and with other training.

  7. Debbie D says:

    Thanks! My 8 month old GSP puppy is in advanced obedience classes, and walks perfectly around the ring. As soon as we get outside in the neighborhood or on a trail, all heck breaks loose! He will be hanging and dancing at the end of the leash trying to get any bird, squirrel or chipmunk he can see. It is like trying to walk a Tasmanian Devil. The trainer doesn’t seem to believe me that this really happens. I think it is a GSP thing!

    These tips might be just the thing. I hope so. I’ve been considering getting a second dog just to have someone to take walks with!

  8. Britteny Bejarano says:

    Hi there, I found your web site by the use of Google even as looking for a similar subject, your site came up, it appears good. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  9. Michael says:

    This is a great post. We’ve been having so much trouble with our adopted GSP. We’re going to try some of these techniques.

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