What is the best way to train your puppy to walk at heel (Question on Quora)

Dog/Pups tend to pull on a lead because walking at human pace is an unnatural activity for them. On top of this the world is an exciting/intriguing place so why would they not want to get there quickly, even if they don’t know where ‘there’ is. However, as responsible guardians and for their safety and protection, you need to be in control of the walk.

Before we look at the different methods you can use we need to understand the reason for the walk. This may sound obvious but it isn’t. It is important that you understand the purpose of the walk in order to enable you to set expectations of what you want from your dog. For me, the three main walk functions are ‘business’ (going to the toilet, basic exercise (street walks), fresh air), ‘play’ (playing games, longer duration walks, activity walks, pack walks etc) and ‘training’. These are not mutually exclusive but if you have a core (walk) objective then you can manage the walking experience and perceived outcomes better.

The reason I have noted the different walk types is that in the ‘training’ walk you will be doing things that you would not normally do but will do so in order to create control and guidance techniques that your dog will benefit from on non-training walks. There is no destination or other objective in a training walk other than to help your dog work out what makes progress and what does not.

However, before you set out on any walk (training or otherwise) you need to ensure that your dog is in the right state of mind and you do so by setting off with the right energy and focus. If your dog is unfocused and like a coiled spring before you leave the house then you are making it difficult for yourself to try and get your dog’s focus when out on the walk. The best ‘loose lead’ walking training starts even before you have put the lead on your dog. This is the pre-walk (or pre-conditioning) program.

Step 1: Get up and pick up your dog’s lead (or go through any action you would normally to initiate a walk). If your dog goes into a high arousal mode and barks/jumps/spins etc then place the item(s) back (or reverse what you were doing) and do something else. The is no requirement to issue any instruction as your dog needs to work out what is happening for itself.

Step 2: Repeat step 1 until you get to the stage of connecting the lead to your dog. If he/she returns to displaying a high energy outburst then calmly remove the lead, put it away and turn your attention elsewhere. There is no need to verbally interact with your dog. As in step 1 only progress when your dog is in a calm state.

Step 3: Once you have managed to pick up the lead and put it on your dog whilst keeping it within the calm zone then you can head towards the door. However, should your dog’s energies rise again then close the door (if opened), unclip the lead and put everything away and focus elsewhere. You are letting your dog know that you are in charge of the walk and it will only commence once he/she is in a calm state. It may take some time but your dog will get it.

Step 4: False Starts: To ensure that your dog understands that picking up the lead and collar does not always mean going for a walk, randomly pick up the lead and go and do something else (i.e. make a cup of tea) whilst still holding the lead in your hand. Then place it back to where you normally would whilst not giving your dog any interaction. This will, eventually teach your dog to disassociate the picking up of the lead/collar with always going for a walk.

Step 5: With each action in connection with the walk, and leaving the house, use the same principles as above. This will set out the framework to your dog that calmness gets rewards and manic does not.

The above should help you get your dog into the right energy mode and focused on you. Now onto to the loose lead program. There are several ways to combat leash pulling. Here are just seven of them. None of the methods below use ‘leash correction’ techniques (sharply pulling back on the lead) which, personally, I don’t recommend or like. I also think this doesn’t work and is likely to break the trust a dog has with its guardian.

Stop Start Method: If your dog pulls then just stop. No touch, no talk and no eye contact. Once the leash slackens (it may take a while so be patient – it will be worth it) then proceed (no talk or instruction). He/she will probably turn to look at you as if to say “what’s going on”. If this happens then praise this with a “great” or “good boy/girl” and start moving again. The basic rule here is that if the lead tightens then movement stops and when the lead slackens then movement recommences.

The No Direction Method: If your dog wants to get there in a hurry then change direction every 5-7 steps and this will confuse it as to where you are going. Eventually your dog will look to you to lead as it will not be able to work it out for itself.

The Staggered Progress Method: Walk backwards and forwards. Go forward 5 steps and back 3, forward 6 and back 7, random steps forward and back etc. As with the ‘no direction method’ you retain the walk control as your dog will not be able to apply a linear strategy to the walk. If a dog cannot predict the destination then it will look to you for guidance.

The Check Back Method: In this method slow down your walking pace until your dog looks around at you as if to say “hurry up”. At this point, give him/her some praise and/or a treat then move on by picking up the pace again. Repeat this until your dog get to the point that it turns its head around and looks up at the first sign of slowing down. At this point issue a command such as “walk nice” then move on at a pace comfortable to you. Repeat this ongoing. Soon you should be able to issue the command “walk nice” and your dog will make the association of this sound with the pace experienced previously and move into this stride.

The Hand Feed Treat Method: Get some treats and place them within your hand and make a fist. Let your dog smell the clenched fist with the treat inside and the step off keeping you hand in view of your dog. Randomly slightly loosen your fist and let your dog nibble at the treat, whilst you continue to walk, and then tighten up your hand again. Repeat this ongoing until your dog is regularly checking back to see if it can get a bit of a treat which should , naturally, loosen the lead as it will no longer be pulling forward but looking for the opportunity to get a treat.

The Dropped Treat Method: As with the ‘hand feed treat method’ you do similar but this time, instead of your dog nibbling at the treats in you hand, you drop a treat regularly and randomly for your dog to get from the ground. Take care to drop the treat near you and not in front of you so your dog will have no reason to pull on the lead to get the treat.

The Zone Dropped Treat Method: As with the ‘dropped treat method’ you do similar but this time you aim to ‘throw’ the treat slightly to the side of you or slightly behind you in order that your dog has to stop pulling in order to get the reward. For this to work effectively, assuming your dog is pulling forward, you will need to get your dog’s attention before you throw the treat down. You can get your dog’s attention by making any sound (or command) in a higher-than-normal (excited attention grabbing) tone and then throw the treat. The aim is to ensure that your dog sees where you have thrown the treat.

The ‘Look at Me’ Method: This ensures that your dog’s focus is on you. I have detailed how to achieve this in point 6 (below).

Note: It is important that you remain as loose and tense-free as possible as, if not, you could be telegraphing to your dog our anxiety and, in turn, be telling your dog that they need to be tense too. The key is always to reward a loose lead but not to jerk back the lead (lead correction) when your dog pulls as this will be uncomfortable for your dog, possibly hurt it and may increase its tenseness and anxiety.

I hope this helps.

Extract taken directly from my book “Decode Your Dog

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