One thing you want to do with your dog every day is go on a walk. A happy, peaceful, relaxing walk for both of you is one during which there is no pulling, lunging, weaving, ping-ponging, and stopping at every single tree to sniff. It's one where you and your dog walk calmly next to each other, enjoying the moment and movement, with the leash a practically-forgotten safety measure keeping the two of you connected.

Walking on a loose leash is a trick. It's just like sit, roll over, stay or fetch. Your dog learns to perform a behavior — calmly walking next to you — despite temptations and distractions like other people and dogs, interesting smells, or yes, even squirrels running up a tree nearby. It is probably the most difficult trick because it is one that has to be sustained for a long time, through any number of distractions.

Loose-leash walking takes a long time to become ingrained, needing anywhere from weeks to months of work depending on your dog. It requires patience and consistency from you as you help your dog along, the whole time trying to remember that your dog is learning to control everything he really wants to do in order to behave how you want, which is sticking by your side at your pace. Luckily, there are a wide range of tools and explanations for teaching both you and your dog how to get started, how to maintain consistent positive reinforcement, and how to get your dog back on track when his attention starts to wander.

Tools:

  • Flat collar
  • leash
  • treats or toy that your dog loves
  • patience
You may find that even with the most extraordinary patience, and months or even years of consistent training, your dog might pull or lunge in certain situations — a skateboarder zooms past, a dog they fear approaches, a squirrel runs across the path — and you may find you need a tool to help you, such as a gentle leader or no-pull harness. Before using any sort of correctional device, especially one that poses a danger of physical damage to your dog like a prong collar or choke chain (something that is rarely actually needed for the average pet dog), make sure you have gone through all the possible solutions. These include exercising your dog before leash training or going on walks, consistently rewarding and using training techniques during walks, progressive steps toward longer walks, and so on. Consult one or several trainers before using any form of correctional device.

8 tips for successful training:

Exercise your dog before leash-training activities: As the saying goes, a good dog is a tired dog. Getting all the excitement and wiggles out before starting the training session will help your dog stay more focused on the task at hand, and that leads to a better training session, which in turn leads to your dog more solidly (and more quickly) grasping the concept of loose leash walking.

If the leash goes on, you're training: Don't be tempted to say, "We're just going for a quick walk, and I'm not worrying about the rules right now." While your dog is still learning how to walk on a loose leash, the only thing that your "quick walk" will accomplish is confusing your dog about what is and what is not acceptable, and dragging out the training by months or even years. Consistency is key to success, so if the leash goes on, consider it a training session.

Make the leash part of the game, not something that stops the game: The leash is something that connects you and your dog in case of emergency, not something that should create a challenge between the two of you. So, it is important that your dog understand that the leash is a good thing. It is not something to get overly excited about (because putting a rambunctious dog on leash will probably lead to the pulling behavior that you don't want to reinforce) and it is not something to dread. Be sure to build good associations with the leash, which means don't pull back if your dog begins to pull, and — this shouldn't need to be stated — never yank, drag, or hit your dog with a leash. If you want your dog to walk next to you, be someone enjoyable to walk next to.

Never work on leash training (or any training) when you're feeling impatient, stressed or angry: Your dog is perfectly aware of your mood and emotionally responds to your inner tension. If you try to work with your dog when you aren't in a calm, positive place, you'll make your dog impatient, stressed, frustrated or even fearful. This just sabotages the lesson, and perhaps even undoes some of the training you worked so hard to achieve by eroding the fun and trust of your training sessions. If you feel a hint of impatience or frustration coming on, find a positive note on which to end the session and end it.

Be random: Avoid having a routine for where you go, the pace you go, and the rate at which you reward. Randomly stop, turn around, turn a corner, speed up, slow down ... make the walk an interactive game and the dog's attention will stay on you. Your dog will be wondering what's going to happen next and how he can earn a reward. He'll want to stay next to you because you are the most fun thing around!

Start small, and work up from there: If your dog is easily distracted, start inside your home where the environment presents as few distractions as possible. You become the most interesting thing around, playing the most interesting game with the most interesting rewards. Move on to short walks around the neighborhood, and then on to longer walks in more distracting and stimulating situations. Add only enough additional challenge that you think your dog will be able handle or quickly grasp — and only enough distraction that you as a handler will be able to overcome with your dog — so you set yourselves up for success. Pushing your dog too far too soon will only mean that your training will take even more time.

Know your dog and be patient: You may have been walking with your dog pulling on leash for years before deciding to get serious about training. If this is the case, know that you are going to need to un-do a lot of engrained behavior. For some dogs, they may pick up what you want quickly. Depending on your dog's personality and your skills as a trainer, it could be a matter of only a couple weeks before you're on the road to consistent loose leash walking. But for many dogs (dare I even say most dogs), it takes a lot of time to end a bad behavior and replace it with a good behavior. By having realistic expectations of your dog's abilities for picking up a new and very difficult trick, and by having a realistic view of how you're doing as a trainer, you'll be able to better maintain that patient approach and make more progress overall.

End the session on a high note: Perhaps one of the most important things about training — as important as when and how to reward, even as important as knowing how to get your dog's attention back on you when distracted — is to end the training session after a moment of success and positive reinforcement. When a dog ends a lesson knowing what he did right and getting a reward for it, it will be easier for him to remember his training and behave accordingly when you begin your next session. By ending on a high note, you're helping to assure your next session will be a step forward instead of a step back.

Great videos to help you get started:

Watching videos is an excellent place to start with leash training because you can see the tips and techniques in action. Here are three videos that are wonderful for getting the basics.

On general guidelines and common issues:

Specific how-to information:

Games and challenges to make loose-leash walking a more interesting training session:

Kikopup and Zak George each have several more excellent training videos for loose-leash or no-pull walking.

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.