A common question I get as a dog trainer is ‘how do I get my dog to 'heel' while we walk?’ or ‘how do I get my dog not to pull while we're walking?’. Usually when I’m faced with questions like this the first thing I do is ask questions myself. The heel behavior is complex, so I need to know exactly what behavior they want to train, and what that behavior looks like in their mind. Anytime we start to train a new behavior it’s incredibly important to define that behavior. I also ask why do you want that particular behavior? This is a really important question to look into because often times the ‘why’ helps you define the behavior itself. With this particular behavior, it’s simply because the dog pulls hard on the leash, and that doesn’t make your walk very enjoyable. A lot of people get hung up on the idea that in order to teach your dog not to pull, they must teach their dog to heel. Lets break down exactly what heeling usually looks like to people.
What most people think of when we say heel, is a dog happily trotting along at a leisurely pace on their owners left, nearly touching their right side to their owners left leg, stopping when their owner stops, and starting back again when they walk forward. The dog may even frequently look up at the owner to check in. That is what we trainers call a working heel, and is something we’d train for the sport of dog obedience. But for your dogs usual walk, it’s simply not fair to ask them to walk this way 100 percent of the time.
Remember that your dogs walk is a time for them to get some energy out, it’s a time for them to experience the world. Often times it is the best part of their day, and it breaks up the monotony of being home alone while their owners are away, and so their walk should really be for *them*. Dogs experience the world through their nose, so being able to sniff on their walks is important for their mental well-being. This is why I don’t really encourage my clients to teach a perfect working heel to their dogs for the purpose of dog walking. It’s not the best way for them to let energy out or engage their brains in a natural way. So this takes me back to why I ask clients ‘what do you think that behavior looks like’ and ‘why do you want to teach it’, because often times all they really want is for the dog to stop pulling. They don’t really need them to be in a constant heel position.
What I believe most people actually want from their dogs is simply not to pull and drag their owners from one sniff spot to the next. We refer to this as loose leash walking. We can easily teach dogs to recognize tension on the leash as a cue to come back to their owner, or to slow down. With practice and coaching, teaching your dog not to pull can be easy and fun. But keep in mind that this is something that takes some time to train because you’re kind of working against your dogs natural instincts.
When walking on leash, we are asking our dogs to go against their natural way of experiencing the world on their walks. Normally, if a dog wasn’t leashed to a human, they would walk, or run, to smells within their vicinity in order to collect information about their surroundings. They would also leave their mark on the environment in order to leave information about themselves to others. They would want to create space between you, by curving the way they walk, in order to communicate. They would be looking and sniffing the air checking for changes in their environment. So walking down a cement sidewalk side-by-side, keeping eye contact with their owner is simply unfathomable to them, which is why we must take the time to teach them what *we* find appropriate on leashed walks, and why it’s so important that we have patience while teaching them.
Loose leash walking can often feel like a daunting training project. With the right coaching, the appropriate use of reinforcers, training your dog to walk with you, not against you, is doable! Find the right trainer for you and your dog, practice, practice more, utilize what your dog finds rewarding, and I guarantee you will be well on your way to enjoyable walks together! Send us a message if you'd like to schedule a loose leash walking training session!