The thing is, walking on a leash is not a very natural thing for a dog to do. Dogs tend to run and follow each other, exploring their environment in random zig-zag patterns from scent to scent. Rarely, if ever, do they line up side-by-side and walk in a straight line. So when we leash up our dog for a walk, we are asking him to do something wholly unnatural. And we go about training dogs to walk on leash in lots of wrong ways. Here are our most common mistakes.
We don’t teach them what we want them to do. Before you call this out as a no-brainer, think about it. What do we want our dogs to do on walks? We want them to 1) walk beside us and 2) look at us when we talk to them. Let’s start by teaching them these skills. Teaching a dog to look at us is as easy as calling their name and giving them a small bit of food when they look at us. Teach this skill at home and practice it a lot before going out into the wild world on a walk. Similarly, use bits of food to reinforce your dog for following along beside you in your house and in your fenced yard. These are the core skills of taking a walk, right? Let’s teach them ahead of time before we put the dog to the test.
We yank, pinch, and shock the joy out of walks. If we haven’t taught our dogs to follow along and look at us, we are setting him up to fail on walks. He’ll do exactly what dogs naturally do, which is charge ahead and zig-zag around. We’re left trying to react to this behavior having never taught him what we really want him to do. All too often that leads us to poor “training” techniques that include hurting our dogs. Huge mistake. The pain of choke, pinch, and shock collars can suppress leash pulling. However, it can also lead to more serious behavior problems including dog aggression on walks.
We leave our treats at home. Let’s say we have taught our dogs to follow beside us and check in with us (look at us) at home. We should continue to practice those skills outside and on short walks. Failing to reinforce the behavior we’ve taught is a another big mistake. Let’s keep the learning going. Bring your treat bag on every walk.
We use the wrong gear. Collars are great for ID tags. But, for walks I recommend a harness. Specifically I suggest a harness that attaches near the dog’s chest (instead of on his back). These “front clip” harnesses put less stress on the dog’s body and no stress at all on the dog’s neck like a traditional collar does. You might enjoy a Freedom Harness, which actually has two leash clips, one in the front and one on the dog’s back.
We attend more to our phones than we do to our dog. Leave your phone at home. If you absolutely must have it with you for safety, put it in your pocket. Phones are distracting on walks. Pay attention to your dog.
We say “no” to social interactions too often. We should be teaching our dogs to have relaxed interactions with other dogs and people from the get go. Puppy classes are great for this. Even older adopted puppies can learn to meet and greet on walks. Walks can and should include opportunities for seeing and sniffing neighbors and their dogs. It’s part of the joy. That said, our dogs don’t have to meet everyone. And, if your dog has more serious issues (barking, growling or lunging at people or dogs on walks), please seek the help of a qualified dog trainer.
We walk too slowly. Pick up your pace just a bit and see if it doesn’t help. Humans are naturally slower walkers than dogs. Speeding up can solve some pulling issues – it’s also good for your heart.
We forget what the walk is all about. This is a big one. Walks are not rigid militaristic tasks we have to perform with our dogs. They are and should be fun. For our dog, the walk is all about sniffing – exploring new scents which he doesn’t smell at home. Let him take it all in. Walk for a short distance, then tell him to “go sniff.” Give him a scent break. This is a great time for us to enjoy our dog at his natural best.
While walking on a leash may not come easily to all dogs, it’s apparent that most dogs love the opportunity to get out and about. If you can, start training early (puppy owners have a great opportunity here). Nonetheless, it’s never too late for any dog to learn. I like this video on leash walking by my friend and colleague Kelly Shutt. I can also connect you with a trainer in your area (perhaps me) if you need additional help.
Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in dogs with aggressive behavior and other behavior related to fear. email@example.com