Dog owners often have idyllic visions of relaxing strolls with man’s best friend.  Most of us learn quite quickly however that for the majority of dogs,  a leash walk is comparable to dancing the not-so-fluid Mamba.  Often we become the bump at the end of the leash, being taken along for a ride.

A lot of us make the mistake of  only speaking to our dog when they are doing something undesirable, like pulling or dragging behind. "No pulling. Hey! Stop it!" When they are walking nicely, we’re either hoping  that it will last and don’t want to jinx it; or we’re blissfully unaware of the desired behaviour because we’re just relaxing.  The doggy brain does not understand from these interactions what we’re specifically looking for him to do; like walk at our side without putting tension on the leash. It’s our job to be clear in our expectations by preventing undesired behaviour,  keeping our dogs on good walking equipment, and teaching them what we are looking for while on walks (instead of telling them only what we don’t like). We need to show them and  reinforce desired walking behaviour;  helping a dog learn to walk next to our side with praise, treat crumbs and access to fun games.  Bottom line, walking nicely on leash is a learned and trained skill.  

Here are my tips for finessing the fancy foot work of you and your dog.

1. Start early: While it’s never too late to train a new behaviour, teaching your puppy this skill early in life makes for smoother walks from the get-go. Young puppies are mentally geared to play follow the person, and this is the perfect time to start reinforcing nice walking skills.  This is particularly important for large breed dogs, that grow ever so quickly. Get your pup used to wearing a leash and collar right away. 2. Equipment matters: Flexible leashes or retractable leashes are not suitable when teaching your dog to stay near your side. Instead, use a non aversive no-pull device like the Sense-ation harness or Gentle Leader with a four or six foot leash.  Regular harnesses were designed for sled dogs to pull. So in this case, a regular harness works against you in terms of gaining control of your dog’s body. 3. Practice indoors: No matter the age of your dog, start training this behviour indoors. Hallways and lobbies can make for great training spaces. Teaching a dog to pay attention outdoors can be a daunting task. By starting your foundational skills indoors, where there are fewer distractions, and things can move along more efficiently for you.  

4. The dance: You and your dog are partners on this walk and you need to work as a team. Start off with a simple step, stop, sit sequence. I mean just what I typed. You take one step, stop and with a treat in your hand, lure your dog into a sit at your side. Mark the sit with "yes," and give your pup the treat.  Repeat this for 10 -20 reps. You’ll notice that after 3-5 reps your dog will automatically start sitting at your side when you stop.  Gradually increase to two, three, four, five, ten steps in between stop-sits, treats.  Soon your dog will learn that staying near your side and sitting when you stop pays off. 

5. Get a bit fancy: Once you have mastered step, stop, sit. Start changing up directions and your pace.  Encourage your dog to keep up, or slow down. Change a direction by turning away from or turning into your dog. For each direction change lure your dog to follow you and reinforce the behavior with calm praise and a treat or access to a toy. Your dog should really be paying attention to your body and where it goes and follow it!     6. Taking it to the streets: If while indoors your dog is reliably paying attention to your body and staying next to you, expect that most of this will fall apart upon your journeys outdoors. You are after all competing with a lot of exciting stimulus. That is OK! It’s natural and you just need to be aware it and learn how to address it.  You simply expect less. Take a few steps back (not literally, but in the process) . If you are reliably walking indoors for 15 steps – take that down to 2-3 steps and slowly build from that point. Don’t be stingy with rewarding your dog! Lavishly praise your dog and be exciting to compete with the distractions. To begin, you’ll really need to work quite diligently to keep your dog’s attention. Be sure you are always prepared on your walkes with a good attitude, lots of yummy treat crumbs and your dog’s favorite toy. Over time, your dog will learn that you are not just a leash weight, but fun to engage with while outdoors.   Warm wags! Colleen