Why is loose leash walking so ridiculously annoying?
I don’t know about you but I hate being dragged along by a dog. Hate it.
And loose leash walking should be really simple, right? Just walk on a loose leash! Easy!
But nope, it’s a tricky behaviour. Unlike “sit” and “come”, it seems there are endless pitfalls to loose leash walking, and even otherwise well trained dogs frequently pull like freight trains.
Training a dog to walk on a loose leash is, like most things with dogs, a matter of rewarding what we do want and making what we don’t want ineffective. Except with loose leash walking we’re contending with two mitigating issues: accidentally rewarding the thing we don’t want, and competing with the excitement of the environment.
If our dog is too excited or too worried to engage with you, play with you or take food then your dog can’t learn how to walk on a loose leash at that moment, in that environment. I know it sucks, but that's just unfortunately just the way brains work.
Also unfortunate is the fact that equipment can’t train our dog for us. Any variety of training collar, harness, halter, whatever doo-hicky is currently on the market, they will not train your dog.
Some tools, like hands free leashes and well designed harnesses, can help facilitate more consistent feedback for the dog and make training easier, but they do not actually change behaviour by themselves.
Training your dog to walk on a loose leash is a practice. And it doesn’t have to be horribly boring or combative. It works best when we take a holistic approach, teaching calm behaviour around distractions, stimulus control around doors and gates, and making sure the dog is getting enough balanced exercise. A dog who can’t control her emotions around exciting things like dogs or bikes cannot walk on a loose leash, just like a dog who desperately needs to run and stretch his legs.
I don’t say this to discourage you.
Once we understand loose leash walking as the complex behaviour it is, we can prevent all that annoyingly messy training. Frustration (both from the person and from the dog) is the enemy of good training. Understanding and clarity are the enemy of frustration.
So if you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall, take a breath.
Ask yourself what is working, and what is not.
Take heart in the fact that this behaviour is HARD. Everyone has to work at it.
As always, proactively reward what you like.
Prevent what you don’t like from being rewarded.
And don’t try to push through frustration!
If you’re struggling with loose leash walking, don’t hesitate to reach out!
Help is here if you need it.
Let me tell you a story
When I was a kid, we did Dog Stuff a LOT.
I did junior handling, our dogs were working therapy dogs, we raised puppies, travelled to visit breeders and handlers and I basically just absorbed as much as I could.
And I was so sure I didn’t want to work with dogs.
As much as I loved them, I had seen too much of the underbelly of the pet industry, and I wanted no part of it.
I realize now what I saw was burnout.
Dogs being treated as objects, trotted from grooming table to ring, from ring to kennel, from kennel to van. Their autonomy disregarded.
I saw incredible violence, and the shocking desensitization of many pet professionals to the harm being done to dogs all around them.
I saw poverty as well. Techs, groomers, rescue workers working for criminally low wages, despite their expertise and skill.
I struggled to imagine being able to live my life steeped in dogs without succumbing to burnout, making poverty wages or becoming numb to the welfare of my pets. As a child abuse survivor, I wasn’t going to put myself in a position to be a perpetrator.
So I left. I stopped training. I moved away (and impulse bought a cat) (not recommended)
I thought I’d had a pet dog, maybe train some tricks.
As I’m sure you can tell, that didn’t exactly work out.
I missed dogs, and almost just as much I missed dog people. I missed nerding out about behaviour and breeding and health.
So I bought a dog as a university graduation present to myself (also not recommended)
But how did we get from buying an ill-advised puppy to doing the exact opposite of what I’d always said and being a professional trainer? What changed?
Well, like many things, the spark of change was desperation.
I had this godawful boss. I hated this job *so much* and so I started just applying to literally anywhere I possibly could. What were skills I had? Well, I knew dogs. So I applied for dog jobs.
And thats when I found Megan at Dog Utopia.
Finally, here were the dog people I had always wanted to know! Kind, generous, interested in science and who had unwaveringly high standards of care.
Through her I met vets, dog trainers, groomers, pet store workers, dog walkers and more, who loved each dog, who protected them and treated them with respect and care.
I started dipping my feet back into the dog sport world, and visiting my breeder friends more often.
And because I was now able to curate the people I spent time with, things just sort of snowballed. Before I knew what had happened, I was training full time. Funny how things just slide into place like that sometimes.
But I’ll never forget those formative lessons. I learned so many valuable things and had so many incredible experiences throughout those years, but for a long time they were overshadowed by the bad. It wasn’t until I was able to find my community of caring dog people, who battle burnout with connection and who prioritise the quality of care above all else, that I was able to really absorb those good lessons. And then I was able to share them with all of you.
We have a real problem with burnout and low wages in the pet industry. It’s causing undue harm both to the dogs and to the people.
So curate your dog community.
Find those people who love the dogs, and who show their love with compassion and care and science based solutions.