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Teaching your dog to heel  (teaching your dog not to pull)

I would say this problem is one of the most common ones I encounter as a trainer. It is so unpleasant to be dragged around by your dog, and depending on the size of the dog, can be painful or dangerous. A dog that has learned to walk on a loose leash (think of cooked spaghetti, your leash should be hanging limp, not taut), is an absolute pleasure to walk with and enjoy life together.

Many owners inadvertently teach this behavior to their puppies during house training. When trying to house train a new puppy, most owner's main concern is that the pup potty outside. The fact that they might be pulling is often overlooked at that time. What I mean by "owners teach this behavior" is that it is allowed at that time. If your pup learns that if he wants to get from A to B, and pulling you along on his leash works, he is being reinforced (rewarded) for that behavior. So if pulling you from A to B works for the pup, he will continue to do so.

Training a dog to loose leash walk takes a lot of persistence and consistency on the part of the owner. It is not an easy behavior to teach, but of course, you can do it if you are committed.


Defining loose leash walking

The dog walks with the leash loose (cooked spaghetti), not taut. His head or neck is lined up with your leg that is closet to him. 

 First Steps

1. Start training in your house or garage, where your dog is not interested in going anywhere. At this point he is probably not pulling. Have your dog on a 4 to 6 ft. leash, and a flat buckle collar. With a six foot lead, take up about 2 ft. of the leash, so he can't go more than 4 ft. away from you.

2. Reward your dog for walking with the leash loose (cooked spaghetti). Do not tighten the leash at all yourself. Give frequent rewards while moving. I recommend every two to three steps to start. Make sure your treats are really special, either a high quality semi-moist treat your dog loves, freeze-dried liver, small pieces of cheese, etc. Your treats should also be cut up into very small pieces, no bigger than the size of your dogs dry food. It will be easier for you if you are wearing a treat pouch or fanny pack to hold your treats, thus freeing your hands. If you are familiar with the clicker and it's proper use (you can find links on clicker training on my links page), click when the dog is not pulling and then treat. If you are not using a clicker, praise enthusiastically while treating. Practice this for a few days, 3X a day for 10 minutes each time. You should see an increase in your dog's "looking at you", and "staying close to you", while walking. When you see this sign that your dog is getting it, you may start to label the behavior with a verbal cue. I use "let's go", or "walk".

 Train Outside

3. Time to go out and work some more. Start in a quiet place without many distractions. Use the same equipment as stated above, special treats, 4-6 ft. leash, treat pouch, and clicker if you are cognizant of proper clicker use. Start out by trying to reward your dog for the leash being loose, always try to catch your dog doing something right and reward it lavishly and often.  At this time your dog might start pulling as you are outside and that is a whole lot more interesting than your home or garage. As soon as your dog pulls (now the leash is like uncooked spaghetti), you can apply one of the following three solutions. Work with these solutions, trying them one at a time, to see which one works best for you and your dog. You can also alternate solutions, depending on the situation.

 The Solutions

 Solution A for loose leash walking: As soon as that leash becomes taut (and I do mean "as soon as", don't allow yourself to be dragged one single step). You are going to STOP WALKING. This method is often referred to as "be a tree". So when your dog starts to pull, you immediately and abruptly stop and become an immovable object, "be a tree". Wait quietly until your dog realizes his pulling cannot move you, and he notices the walk has halted. Make some kissy or other interesting sounds to get him back to you. When the dog slackens the leash by coming back near you, or if they turn to look at you (but the leash must be slack, remember) click, reward, and walk continues. Continue this method with consistency, don't get frustrated and give up, this takes time. Engaging your dog with some silly banter, "Hi baby, are we having fun yet?"," What a pretty pup you are", will help him to look at you more often, and keep him interested in you, (instead of his surroundings). This gives you more opportunity to reward him and catch him doing something right. If he starts to pull at any time during your banter, please zip those lips or he will think he is being praised for pulling.

 Solution B for loose leash walking: Leash becomes taut, dog is pulling, immediately back up a few steps. Be sure to engage your dog with some interesting sounds, I like to make kissy sounds. Do not drag your dog, get him to come back to heel position by enticing him back to you with food and silly high pitched baby talk. This is often referred to as "penalty yards". When dog notices your actions, and stops pulling and returns to your side through your actions, praise, click and treat & continue walking forward again. Continue consistently, same as above, and try to engage your dog to keep him interested in you, and to give you lot's of opportunity to click and reward him.

 Solution C for loose leash walking: Dog is pulling, leash taut, immediately make an about face turn and begin walking the other way. Engage your dog with kissy sounds, and get him to come back to you. Do not jerk on the leash at all, or drag him, simply about turn in the direction away from the dog (so you don't bump into him or the leash). At this point he will not be pulling, so praise, click, reward, while moving. Practice, practice, practice. Be consistent, and engage your dog. Remember to entice him back to heel position, which is at your side, his head or neck lined up with your leg that is closest to him.

Why these methods to teach loose leash walking work:

They are all based on the same principle, the dog learns he cannot pull you to have a walk with you or to get to wherever he would like to go. When he does pull, you are either halting, backing up, or turning, thus he is never being reinforced for pulling. He will come to learn that pulling simply does not work, that it actually stops the walk whenever he pulls. The dog is also being lavishly praised and rewarded for whenever the leash is slack and he is paying some attention to you.


 Always walk your dog, not the other way around. What I mean is you decide the direction, the speed, which bushes your dog can sniff and visit, what side of the road you walk on. Never let the dog lead the walk, he goes where you go, you don't just follow him. You can, however, let him have frequent stops to pee, poop, get his P-mail from other dogs, say hello to other friendly dogs, or to people. You are deciding to allow him to do these things, not him. You can use a release word, said in a really upbeat way, such as "Okay" or "free", to indicate your permission. Balance socializing with people and other dogs, by sometimes letting him say hi, and sometime not. If you let your dog say hi to everyone, he will think that this is always allowed, and cause him to pull toward the objects of his desire. All other dogs may not be friendly, and all people don't want to say hello to your dog, so it's important that you cue him with the "OK" or "free" release word, so he knows that it is you deciding, and he waits politely for permission.


 Rewarding while moving with a small dog is difficult, and for some with bad backs, not possible. I use a long wooden spoon, and then dunk it in some peanut butter or other soft substance like ground meat baby food, or mushy liverwurst. Hold it in your leash hand, and lower it to the dogs mouth for a quick lick. Be careful you don't wave it around and cause your dog to jump up for it. When you are not giving him a quick lick, hold it by the handle end vertically with your body facing up and out of his reach. Take some paper towels with you, tuck them into your waistband. Until you get the hang of this, it can be messy (picture your dog's head covered with peanut butter as well as your pants leg and shirt).




 Written by:  Linda Lukens  Common Ground Dog Training


Article may be re-printed so long as article is printed in it's entirety, links are intact, and credit given to the author. Author retains sole ownership of this article

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