Part One of this article discussed many excellent steps for preparing to teach loose-leash walking. If you are now ready to train, read on!
Flexible and respectful communication
Dog training should be a two-way communication between the dog and the handler. Think about the last time you saw someone walking his or her dog on a loose leash with just a harness or collar. If the dog was attentive, and looking happy and joyful to be with the person next to him, what a thing of beauty to watch. That image is similar to that of dance partners, in perfect sync with each other and enjoying each other's company.
That result takes not only good training, but also a solid feedback loop between the handler and the dog. That connection is the glue for the best kind of relationship. The handler provides information about what is expected, and reinforces correct responses, but the dog also is allowed choices in the process. The dog's choices are how owners and trainers learn what works best for each individual dog. Humans ask via training, "How is this for you?" The dogs answer via their behavior, whether it's the desired behavior or not. The communication bounces back to the person. Move forward? Thin slice? Adjust or find better reinforcement to help the dog move in the correct direction? In other words, listen to the dog. The dog becomes the best teacher, and training becomes a shared responsibility.
As you try each exercise, keep asking your dog, "Is this okay for you?" Be willing to adjust if it isn't. If at any point the dog spirals up or slows down, you will know to adjust, practice more with fewer distractions, add more steps to your foundation, or find better reinforcement.
One area of leash walking that is often neglected is leash standing. It's the "crawl before you walk" stage of leash walking, and it is an essential part of the dance with your dog.
Leash standing is not sitting on leash, it's actual standing. There is a funny thing that happens when dogs that don't walk well on leash default to a sit or down. They are defaulting to a behavior that was likely trained, and trained well, but they are also "giving up."
If you want an automatic sit with leash walking, come back to that and train that behavior as an active behavior, which can then be attached to leash-walking skills. For this exercise, the sit and down are avoided in order to keep the dog active and engaged.
- To begin, work in a low-distraction environment with high-value reinforcement.
- Start with Cooperative Check In (CCI), which is simply automatic eye contact, and quickly move to training the dog to keep looking for you.
- Practice this behavior on leash so that your dog learns to move with a leash on.
- Train in short segments, planning about 10 treats for each segment, and taking breaks after 10 treats. Record your success and then start another round. Do up to 10 rounds, but gauge how the dog is doing. If necessary, break the training into several sessions during the day.
- Adjust any of these steps as needed for your dog.
CCI with reset of dog
Teaching CCI: With your leash hand tucked into your body and your dog near you, run a treat by your dog's nose. Stand all the way up and click/reinforce when your dog looks away from the treat and at your face. Repeat until all 10 treats are gone.
Take a break, make notes about how your dog did (how long did it take for CCI to happen?) and then try again, using 10 more treats. Is your dog getting faster at CCI? If so, do a few more rounds at this level and then move on.
If your dog is not getting faster, try better treats. Or, drop your leash and put a treat in each hand. Run the treats past your dog's nose and stand up. Click as your dog's eye moving from hand to hand, but try to click when his eyes are rolling past your face. This technique is simple shaping; it won't take long before your dog understands to stop his head in the center. From there you can shape the CCI to solid eye contact. Work at this level until your dog is giving you solid CCI.
Now start to work on the standing component paired with the CCI. Take the leash off for this step, as your dog needs to move around more freely. The goal is to have your dog moving toward you, and giving your solid CCI. Both actions encourage your dog to be near you and to check in with you more readily.
Count out 10 treats. As soon as your dog offers the CCI, click, but toss the treat behind him so he has to turn and find it and then turn back to you. You should see your dog turning and looking toward your face. Click that action, and then toss the treat behind again. Your dog should be standing through all of this. The reset movement of tossing the treat helps facilitate the stand and movement toward you. After 3-4 rounds of 10 treats each, with breaks in between, you may be ready for the next step.
If your dog keeps defaulting to a sit as he returns, simply shape the standing by lowering the criteria of the CCI and capturing the stand. Do continue to toss behind after the click so that you can capture the movement and standing. Just click sooner when your dog is still standing; work him up to being closer to you without the sit. Then look for the CCI part again. If you get the occasional sit, don't click and simply reset with the treat. These training steps can take a few days, or just a few sessions, so go at your dog's pace. You will soon see the pattern emerging where the dog turns toward you and offers CCI. Keep records on your progress to recognize when your dog has it figured it out. Look for your dog to turn back to you faster and faster; that is when you are ready for the next step.
Video courtesy of Sarah Owings
Does your dog need to be in heel position to accomplish this training step? Not if you don't want that. Instead, you could use a hand at your hip, a pat on your leg, or even a quiet phrase, like, "At my side," to inform your dog you will be training. It's duration that you are building toward.
If you also teach your dog to "be free, or be a dog," when you are done with a training session, you will build a better behavior. You will build the anticipation of being released from training to move on to something better, such as sniffing the ground, playing a game of tug, or another fun behavior. To teach duration and the release as its own behavior, refer to this wonderful video from Sarah Owings.
Standing in heel
Helping your dog to stay in contact with you is the next step. Since your dog has learned to move toward you and offer CCI as a blended piece, the next step is for him to actively look for your face to a full CCI behavior.
For this part, you will be working on leash again (another chance to use good leash mechanics, with your leash arm tucked in and on the opposite side of the dog). If you walk your dog on the left, your leash should be in your right hand and come across your body.
Pick up where you left off, and begin by making a quarter or half turn, depending on the size of the dog. For small dogs, it's easier to turn just a quarter step. For the first trial, toss the treat behind your dog. As he goes to get it, make the turn away from the dog. Be sure to turn to the right if you want to walk your dog on the left and turn to the left if you want your dog on the right.
As your dog turns back toward you, he will have to step slightly around you to complete the CCI. Click and treat as he comes to your side. Feed to your dog's mouth, right at your side, from the hand closest to the dog. It doesn't matter if the dog is not straight and aligned just yet; that will happen as you practice. Practice for 10 treats, take a break, and make notes about where your dog is landing each time. Adjust where you feed treats in order to set where you want your dog to line up at your side.
If your dog is crabbing around to the front too often (usually dogs that have been trained to sit and down in front), then turn your face toward your dog as the dog is moving to get into position. Click just a bit sooner, feeding your dog slightly back from the front of your thigh and more toward the seam of your pants. This adjustment will help stop your dog sooner. Use food positioning to cement where your dog's shoulders should be.
By turning your face back toward your dog, you are giving him more of a picture of how you look when he is in front and training with you. As you practice, you should be able to work your face to being more forward on each trial. Use approximately 5-10 treats for each practice session, and work in short bursts so your dog is able to have breaks and process.
Practicing turns without dog
During the next stage you will first practice the steps without your dog. It's important to get a feel for the steps involved without the dog so that when you add your dog you can proceed faster, having already learned the new skill yourself. While in the video we use rubber footprints to help with the visual, you can place tape on the floor to mark the pattern if you need a visual aid.
The pattern to practice is the quarter or half turn used earlier, adding one step backward. This arrangement helps your dog adjust his body backward to get into heel position; he can feel the place he needs to be. It also teaches your dog how to align himself if he steps ahead of you.
CCI with turns on leash
When you include your dog, if he can continue with a CCI as you turn and step back, try a longer segment of just turning, stopping after a full turn to click and treat. Adjust to your dog as necessary. Stay at this level until your dog can turn with your movement with fluidity. The goal is for your dog to pay attention to your body and keep track of your face. At this point, you are not looking for perfection. You simply want the dog to take a step, stay in alignment, and turn. Work on a leash and continue in low-distraction environments so that your dog is successful.
When your dog can stay with you as you turn, and align to your side when you step back, you are ready to add forward movement. Don't rush! The early steps build the foundation on which you create the forward movement, so take your time.
Steps forward with CCI and turn
When you are ready to introduce forward movement, that is the stage where your dog learns to line up more precisely and continue to check in. CCI is not required for every step, nor is it desired, but regular checking in is what keeps the connection with your dog. Be sure to process this training one step at a time, using the turn to help keep your dog focused. Try ten-treat sessions again, but move in stages. Start with only the turn/step back, and then one step forward, and then click and treat, feeding right where you want your dog. Repeat until your treats are gone, and then take a break.
When your dog can do one step forward successfully after 2-3 training sessions, try two steps forward before you click and treat. Build until you can achieve 5-10 steps before you click and treat. Then, release your dog to do something else that is fun.
When you have success with a number of steps, practice in other areas, like new rooms, the backyard, etc. Still doing well? If so, you are ready to start adding distractions.
Make a list of the things that distract your dog, and then order the list from the easiest to the hardest distractions for your dog to resist. Consider things that might just pique your dog's interest, but that are distractions that the dog can "take it or leave it." Place those distractions on the lower end of the distraction spectrum. Then make note of distractions that get your dog a little excited as well as distractions all the way up to the crazy, over the top experiences.
With the distraction list in hand, find a helper. That person will add low-level distractions to your working space at first, working up to some of the more difficult ones for your dog to resist. Since you will be adding distractions, plan to work in a low-distraction setting, the location where you started the early CCI work. It would be asking too much of the dog to work outside where there would be other, competing distractions. Set your dog up for success early to up the odds for success as you move along in the distraction process. Gradually work up to training in other areas, such as the backyard, when your dog has success with each level of distraction.
As you work on distractions, you will also be lowering the walking criteria and going back to your dog's check in while in heel position. Use the turn if you need to, but if you completed each training step and were able to move outside, your dog should be giving you CCI readily and the turn may not be needed. If your dog steps away or sits, use the turns and back steps as needed, waiting for your dog to get back in the routine and reconnect again. Taking it slow helps easily distracted dogs. Familiar steps or activities stabilize those dogs; then they can get back into a routine with you. If at any time the distraction is just too much, adjust distance and/or add better reinforcement to the mix. Or, go back to an easier distraction and practice some more. (Special thanks to Sarah Mullen for the distraction tips!)
Have your helper bring the distraction into the area where you will be working. Simply show the dog the distraction. Your helper should be as neutral as he or she can be at this point. For instance if the distraction is an old toy, your helper should hold it so the dog sees it, but so that the toy is still and not moving. After the presentation of the toy, wait for your dog's CCI and then click and treat. (Each time your helper hears you click the dog, s/he should quietly remove the object from sight so that it can be presented again when the dog is finished receiving reinforcement.)
How is your dog doing after the first presentation? If there has been no real reaction, ask your helper to move the object a little bit. When your dog gives you the CCI, click and treat. Stay with the same distraction until your helper can run through the following steps with that distraction:
- Distraction is still, or barely audible in the case of sound distractions like a dog barking. This is where a smart phone can come in handy!
- Distraction is slightly moving or getting louder
- Distraction moves more, or is tossed in the air a bit
- Distraction is dropped
- Distraction is tossed a bit further
- Distraction is moved across the floor
- Distraction can be tossed (if appropriate) over the dog's head
Process through the list of distractions, making adjustments as needed so that your dog is successful. This process can take several days. Don't rush, and be sure to take many breaks between sessions.
Travel with distractions (and small and successful steps)
After cycling through all of the distractions when you are not moving or walking at all, the next goal is to walk forward (after all those turns you have been working on) and have your dog walk by the easiest distraction successfully. Start with a cue.
By adding something like a "Let's go" cue, you are telling your dog that you are going to be moving. You don't want your dog to be unaware that you plan move forward or turn. Be sure to use the cue only once and then move. You can practice the cue without your dog as well, simply by saying your cue as you step forward. This practice will help you get the rhythm of only saying the cue one time, and taking that step just as you say your cue.
Cue your dog, "Let's go" and start with one step toward the distraction. Watch how your dog responds. Look for the CCI after your dog sees the distraction. If that happens, click and treat. If the first step resulted in CCI, take another step forward, and click and treat. However, if your dog moves away from you or starts to move without you toward the distraction, use your turn and step back until he can come back into position and offer the CCI again.
Be fair and don't walk your dog right up to the distraction. The goal is to walk by it and still maintain your dog's ability to check in after he has looked at it. Move closer, one step at a time. If you can walk past the object within a reasonable distance (a distance your dog should be able to tell you with his body language and response), practice moving a few steps before you click and treat, until you can pass the distraction, only clicking once you have moved past it. When that step is successful and reliable, progress to the next distraction. Repeat the entire process, working up to tougher distractions, but still in the low-distraction setting.
Leash walking with real world distractions
It may not be feasible to bring some distractions into the home. This work is going to allow you to take the training and practice on the road in order to work around the harder distractions, like skate boards or similar other triggers. Foundation work will lead to calm walks to other places, but you need to go slowly at every level.
When you can walk by all of the different distractions successfully, that's when you can start taking it on the road. Try the driveway first, or the backyard if you need fewer visual distractions. Even working inside with the front door open, and walking toward the door's threshold can be a great distraction.
Outside you use the same techniques as you would with other distractions, but the environment becomes your helper now. Look for opportunities to build in quality steps with CCI as you work your way into the world with your dog.
Best practices for the future
Make a pledge to never go forward if your dog cannot complete one of the stages of this training. Think about leash walking very much like a sailboat tacking in low wind. When the wind is low, the sailboat will tack back and forth to make a little forward progress. That is how your leash walking should proceed! Stay in your driveway if that's all your dog can do. That's okay! The mental exercise your dog will get from doing this work far surpasses the need for physical exercise.
Proofing CCI with high-level distractions
There is no rule that says you have to go around the block with your dog. In fact, that kind of walk is often boring for dogs. You can get in just as many steps working back and forth. At the same time, you can make a little forward progress practicing this way.
If you keep the vow to not go forward if your dog is unable to remain attentive at any step, and if you really work at each step, including the distraction protocol, the world will become the next practice field for distractions. When this happens, your dog will want to stay with you, just in case you are going to play the walking/CCI game again.
Loose-leash walking is a step-by-step process and should be worked through with different levels and lots of practice. As with any life skill, time, patience, and practice ensure quality results. Leash walking should be trained to fluency only after both the dog and his person have made the investment toward quality end goals.
Go forth and walk!