Many years ago I was in an obedience class with my adolescent dog, who was gleefully doing everything except what I wanted him to do. The instructor’s only directive was to “give him a pop and make him pay attention!” That wasn’t working. As my frustration increased, my dog went from being happy to being miserable. I was dragging him along by a choke chain, trying to make him walk at my left side, and neither of us was having any fun.
I pondered that class, my behavior and my dog’s behavior, for a long time afterwards. The conundrum was that my dog was lacking motivation and engagement, and I had no idea how to motivate or engage him.
Over the years since then, looking at research on education from elementary school to college, I’ve found plenty of discussion on motivation and engagement and how to achieve this with students in the classroom. A recurring word was “choice” and the idea that the ability for students to choose creates intrinsic motivation and engagement.
Putting the concept into practice with dogs has proven to me that giving a dog the ability to make choices during training is essential to achieving motivation and engagement, and a highly effective way to train any behavior is to manipulate the environment in such a way that the easiest choice for the dog to make happens to be the choice we want him to make. Rather than commanding the dog to do x,y or z, we can set the situation so that the dog chooses to do it. When the dog sees that their choice pays (i.e. the choice is reinforced with something the dog wants or finds pleasurable), they will be more likely to make that same choice again.
Paying your dog for choosing to walk at your side, rather than forcing the dog to stay in position, motivates the dog to want to be there and helps create a dog who is engaged with you even in a distracting environment.
The following method will show how you can help your dog choose to walk near your side instead of pulling ahead or lagging behind. It is very useful to have already taught your dog a reward marker (i.e. a click from a clicker or a verbal “click”). It is also helpful to keep your repetitions happening quickly. Fast-paced repetitions will keep your dog interested and engaged by keeping things fun.
LOOSE LEASH WALKING
Step One ~ Follow me and find my leg
Choose a non-distracting area to train in (a large room, your driveway or a quiet, empty parking lot).
Hold your leash in your right hand and a few small, moist treats in your left hand.
Show your dog that you have a treat and get him interested in it.
Gently toss one treat behind you (no more than 2’).
Wait for him to eat it and, as he is returning to you, turn your back and take a few small steps away from him, being careful not to pull on the leash.
Pay attention to your dog. The instant the dog catches up to your left leg, but BEFORE he goes past your leg, CLICK – STOP – DROP the treat slightly behind you and begin walking away, keeping slack in your leash.
This sets him up to find your left leg again.
If you have a dog who lags rather than pulls, gently toss your treat ahead of you to encourage your dog to move forward. When the dog turns to come back for another treat, you will need to turn in order to walk away from your dog, giving your dog another opportunity to catch up to your left leg. Once your dog is beginning to move forward eagerly, you can follow the instructions in Step One and Step Two.
Repeat, moving about your training area, and each time your dog catches up to your left leg, CLICK – STOP – DROP the treat behind you.
When you’ve used up all the treats in your hand, take a short play break, reload your hand with more treats and do another session.
Practice this whenever you can throughout the day. Multiple short sessions are much better than one long session. If your repetitions are quick, you can fit 10 into about 2 minutes.
Step Two ~ Now we’re walkin’!
Begin as in Step One, but this time when the dog catches up to you, praise him for staying near your left side as you continue walking for a step or two before you CLICK – STOP – DROP the treat. (Only continue walking for a step or two – don’t get greedy)!
If you miss the right moment to click and your dog goes ahead of you, pivot to the right so that he has to catch up and start again.
Gradually increase the number of steps you take before you click and treat (C/T). Talk encouragingly to your dog as he stays with you. Praise him if he gives you eye contact. It can be helpful to set up landmarks for yourself, no more than 10’ apart, and to C/T at each landmark if your dog is staying nicely with you. As your dog’s fluency in this behavior improves, put slightly more distance between the landmarks.
Begin adding changes of direction. Be sure to give your dog a chance to catch up to you when you make a turn. If he shows up on the wrong side, just pivot so that he can find the correct side. Resist the urge to pull him by the leash into position. Your leash should remain slack throughout.
When your dog is finding your left leg reliably and staying there, you can begin to vary where you deliver your treat. Sometimes behind him on the ground, sometimes near your left foot, sometimes from your hand (close to your left hip) directly into the dog’s mouth.
Train for Success!
When you go into more distracting areas, reduce the number of steps you require before you give your dog a C/T. This increases the rate of reinforcement, which also builds motivation and engagement. As your dog gets better at walking politely, you can fade the use of food treats. Giving your dog permission to go sniff or mark after a few steps of good loose-leash walking is a great non-food reward!
Remember to pay attention and always praise your dog for choosing to walk on a loose leash!
Thank you, Jessica and Perry for your excellent demonstration!