Loose Leash Walking with Distractions

We have all seen it, and many of us have experienced it ourselves – an owner with good intentions brings their dog out in public, but the dog is completely out of control. They may be pulling like a sled dog, barking (with or without ill intentions), or just bouncing around with no direction or purpose. Many of us really want our dogs to be able to come out in public with us, but we push it before they are ready. Or, we may accidentally encourage bad behaviors attempting to socialize. Puppy socialization without regulations, while great for creating confidence, can lead to an adult dog that desires to play with every new human and dog it sees. If this sounds like your situation, don’t be alarmed… you are certainly not alone, and this problem can be solved with hard work and determination.

Bailey, Colt, and Versailles demonstrating loose-leash behavior downtown.
Bailey, Colt, and Versailles demonstrating loose-leash behavior downtown.

REMINDER – with all training, you want to begin with no distractions and move up as your dog improves. Do not start any new methods in a “trigger zone”!!

  1. Engagement: When you take your dog out in public, sit on a chair or stand very dully, ignoring your dog completely. As soon as they look at you, mark the behavior (“BINGO!”, “YES!”, *CLICK*) and begin moving backwards and giving them a jackpot of treats. If they disengage with you during the jackpot or after, become dull and boring again – repeat, repeat, repeat. We want your dog to ask YOU to work and pay attention, not the other way around.
  2. Watch Me: It is important to teach your dog to give you eye contact on command. Try holding a treat out to your side and say, “Watch Me!”. Your dog will probably stare at the treat. As soon as they look to you for direction (or to say, what in the world are you doing???), mark the behavior and reward. Once they understand this concept inside, try moving to a new area. Enlist a friend or family member to walk past you as you keep your dog’s attention on you. Be very giving with your marker and rewards in the beginning, and decrease the frequency as your dog improves. The better they get, the higher the distraction we can ask for – have your friend clap their hands, jump up and down, squeak a toy, etc while still expecting focus. It is important that we do not rush this process – if you go too fast and your dog struggles, go back to what they know and try again.
  3. Go Seek: Begin with no distractions and your dog on a 6’ leash. The leash should be completely slack and you should not give your dog any direction with the leash. Say the cue, “Go seek!”, and toss a handful of treats on the ground. The treats should be high value, not something your dog gets every day, to keep them very interested. Once you can say “Go seek!” and your dog automatically looks to the ground, you are ready to begin this with distractions at a distance. Our goal is to be able to toss a high value treat on the ground with distractions fairly close and have our dog sniff around to find it, instead of getting overly excited about the new dog/person.
  4. Premack Principle/Grandma’s Law: Think of the classic line, “If you don’t eat your dinner, you cannot have any dessert”. If your dog is a social butterfly that really desires meeting people and dogs on leash, this game is for you. Practice loose leash walking past another friendly dog or person, keeping your dog’s attention on you by talking, encouraging, and feeding. From a random distance, release your dog to “Go say hi!” when they are giving you great focus and heeling. Essentially, we are teaching our dog that good focus sometimes results in the opportunity to actually meet the thing they so desire! Remember that dogs are creatures of habit, so if you do this too often or from the same distance away from the dog/person they will begin to expect it before being cued.
  5. “This Way!”/Emergency U-Turn: Inevitably, there will come a time where a new person or dog appears seemingly out of nowhere and we will not be ready for it. This is where a solid U-Turn command comes in handy! Begin with your dog on leash in a low-distraction environment. I usually begin in the front yard on the sidewalk during non-peak times. Your dog should be interested in moving forward, but not lunging or pulling (yet!). When they are at the end of the leash, lean down into their space, pause one second, and signal “THIS WAY!” in an upbeat tone. If they do not respond, make kissy noises, clap, snap, or do whatever you can to get your dog to turn its head your direction. When they do, mark it, pivot the opposite direction, and reward your dog. Very quickly you should see a snappy head turn on “THIS WAY!”. You can also use a toy as a reward; as soon as your dog turns its head, mark the behavior and engage in a game of tug. Gradually up the distraction level. Once your dog is very solid at the U-Turn without any leash pressure, we can begin to add it if our dog does not respond. Again, say “THIS WAY!”, but instead of making kissy noises for no response, add horizontal leash pressure towards your body until their head turns and then pivot away together.

Walking calmly through a crowd of people and dogs is a process that does not happen overnight. Remember to practice in low distraction environments first, and then enlist the help of friends, neighbors, or family members when upping distraction. The more control we have over the environment in the beginning the better so we do not have any unexpected surprises. As a general rule (and for many reasons), I do not recommend allowing dogs to meet strange dogs on leash. That being said, situations will occur where you desire to do so. In those situations, I would try to go for a neutral side-by-side walk until both dogs are bored with each other before allowing them to sniff. Additionally, the above methods are recommended under the assumption you already have taught your dog how to heel on leash in a low distraction environment. If they do not have that skill yet, go back to basics before attempting to tackle public settings. Remember – if in doubt, seek the help of an experienced dog trainer.

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