The mystery of the loose leash walking and how we did it

Having read a lot about loose leash walking and how to master it, I should write down some thoughts of my own about the subject, given that loose leash walking, or LLW, has been our main training focus for the past months.

Few months back our walks were still quite short and consisted mostly of going back and forth the same road or me standing still and Ailu wondering what is going on. All this, since I was trying to follow all the instructions there exist about how to teach your dog to walk nicely on a loose leash. I cannot say that we have mastered the skill yet, regardless of real effort, but we are definitely making progress and now we actually go for walks! Occasionally though, instead of the dog, there still seems to be some kind of a bouncing alien at the other end of the leash and there are days when I feel like dropping the leash altogether and going back home alone.

I have surfed hundreds of websites telling how to teach your puppy to walk pretty on the leash, watched videos, talked to friends and colleagues and I feel I know it all…in theory. In practice though, the problem seems to be that I cannot share my knowledge with the puppy.

Most common advice given to new dog owners about leash walking is to stop (be a tree) when the dog starts pulling and not move forward until the leash is slack. Alternatively, you are advised to turn around and walk to the opposite direction and only turning back when the dog is walking nicely on your side. The idea behind both of these methods is to avoid rewarding the pulling by letting the dog get to its desired place by pulling. The loosening of the leash then, is rewarded by letting the dog move forward again.

This method didn’t get us very far and for a while our walks consisted mostly on walking a stretch of few meters back and forth. I bet the neighbors had fun watching us! When I tried the stopping method, it kind of worked at first. Ailu stopped and sat down, a behavior that is probably her strongest. However, when I started walking again, she would get up with the speed of light and pull even harder. I stopped she sat. I moved she lurched. I stopped she sat….

Since the “being a tree” method did not seem to do the trick, I had a long thought about the matter and decided to incorporate another system into our walks. I got the idea from Kikopup, who has loads of absolutely brilliant dog training videos in You Tube.  For a clicker trained dog this method is really simple. It also has the added benefit in helping you in the future with the heeling position if you ever decide to do some (competitive) obedience training.

There are two main ingredients in this method. Rewarding the right position often (especially in the beginning) and preventing the dog from getting to a “wrong” position ie. pulling. When Ailu walks nicely close to me with a loose leash I click and reward her right next to my left leg. In the beginning I did this very often, perhaps every few steps. Now I’m only doing it occasionally, although she needs more rewarding in the beginning of the walk when she’s really excited about getting…well somewhere.

If I at any time notice her having that “look” which tells me she’s soon going to be at the end of the leash pulling towards some smell, I call her to me by making a kissy sound, or calling her name (which probably is not the best of ideas I know) . When she stops and turns even slightly towards me, I click and again reward her right next to my left leg. It doesn’t matter where exactly you reward the dog. I’m doing it close to my left leg because that is where she is expected to do obedience heeling, and this way Ailu gets extra reinforcement for the position.

I still occasionally use the “be a tree” method, but I have also found that for Ailu taking few steps backwards works better, so I rather use that. All in all I am pleased with our progress and very happy about the ways she has started to heel on her own (in almost a perfect position), even when I am not asking for it! Just another prove that position of the rewards really does matter. But that is a topic for another post.


To Lure or Not To Lure

Luring in animal training refers to the use of food lure as a way of getting the animal to do the desired action. For instance, when we want a dog to sit, we hold the treat in front of its nose and slowly move it upwards so that when dog tries to get it, its behind will automatically (well that’s the theory at least) move towards the ground and the dog will sit. Similarly we can use the food lure to get the animal to follow us or to move to a specific position. Most of the “tricks” that we want to teach to our dogs can be taught by using lures.

Traditionally luring has been the way to train. The idea was to lure the dog to do want you wanted while at the same time repeating the cue word of your choosing. Recently, however, a lot of trainers have abandoned this way of training since it has some inherent problems.

The first issue with luring is that the lure will eventually need to be faded off, unless if you think it is OK that you always need to have a treat in your hand when you want your dog to sit. Fading should be done quite early in the training so that it won’t become part of the cue. Depending on the trainer (and of course on the dog) you should ideally have no more than five attempts with a lure, after which you should really start fading it. In the worst case, the dog has already decided that the lure is part of the cue and instead of fading it, you will end up having to teach the whole thing from the start.

Especially if your dog is extremely greedy the problem with using the lure is that the dog might be so focused on the lure that it is not paying much attention to what it is actually doing. When you then try to fade to lure off the dog has no clue what it is supposed to be doing. It will stare at your hand or your pocket expecting to see the treat, that it will get if it follows it.

The dog might try do various different things when you are teaching it to sit. It might reverse or try to jump to get the lure. When the cue word “sit” is constantly repeated it might, in the pooches head, get associated with any one of these actions it performs, or with all of them. Hence, a lot of trainers nowadays suggest that the cue word is only added once the dog performs the desired thing pretty well. Hence, you would only start using the cue “sit” once you can be pretty sure your dog is about to sit.

The topic of luring can sometimes create a little arguments in the dog training circles since there are trainers who insist that you should never use it, but train your dog with free shaping only. Free shaping is a bit like the game where one person of the group goes outside the room, while others hide something in the room. When the person enters, they try to guide the searcher to the hidden thing by using warm and cold as indicators of approaching or going further from the target. The trainer simply splits the desired task into small fragments, called criteria. The dog is then guided through these criteria one at the time until the final task is accomplished. For instance the criteria for touching a hand with the nose might be 1) looks at the hand 2) turns head towards the hand 3) moves the nose towards the hand 4) touches the hand. Each of these stages is taken as a task in itself and the animal is rewarded when it performs the desired criteria. If you’re interested in knowing more about free shaping, Pat Miller has written a very nice article about it in The Whole Dog Journal.  There is also a very good introductory article by Karen Pryor in the site. Enjoy!


Bob Bailey, who is the grand ol’ man of animal training based on operant conditioning has revealed that when they were training their hundreds of animals from dolphins to cats and birds, they mostly used training. Susan Garrett, an American instruction and many times agility champion, is known to not even allow luring in her classes. She discusses the reasons for this in her blog and has also included a text written by Bailey, that talks about the reasons they had for using luring. You can check those out here.

So, I cannot actually answer the question in the title. I guess, like most of the times when working with animals, the answer depends on the animal, the task at hand, the time you have, the condition and so on. In other words, each case is unique and a good trainer will choose the to use what works best in each individual case.