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Terrier dog with an affectionate owner

Loose lead training guide for wildlife-friendly walks

From Bird Aware Solent’s dog expert Shona

Quick tips:

It should be fun

Loose lead walking is all about your dog enjoying their walk while also being safe on their lead. So if they want to stop and sniff, or go back on themselves a bit, or go in a different direction, you should always consider letting them (taking into consideration safety, local limitations and common sense of course).

Don’t pull your dog

Tension on the lead means stop in loose lead walking and this goes both ways, your dog shouldn’t be pulling you along so neither should you.

Consistency is key!

This is quite a complicated bit of training for our dogs to get their heads round so we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to help them. Stick to the “rules” yourself and it will be much easier for your dog to see the pattern and learn what they need to do.

The best example of this being done wrong is when people will allow their dog to pull one moment and get annoyed with them for doing it the next, how does the dog know what they’re meant to be doing if the owner keeps changing their mind?

What is loose lead walking?

It is a way of walking your dog on the lead that encourages them to explore and engage with the environment, rather than staying beside you as they would in a typical “heel”. Once trained, your dog can walk at any distance away from you, within the length of the lead, as long as they aren’t pulling.

What are the benefits?

Safety without compromising fun: your dog still gets some freedom and choice in where they walk, but they are safely on lead as well. There are times when leads are necessary and training loose lead properly also means your dog won’t damage their neck or tire you out by pulling. It also encourages your dog to problem solve and make smart decisions, which is good brain work and confidence building, and will help in other training situations as well.

Dog looking towards its owner

Why is it better than a “heel”?

That is dependent on the situation and your own preferences; there are some circumstances where a “heel” behaviour is more appropriate and many people will train both. However, if your dog is going to be on lead for any length of time, loose lead walking is often more engaging and less restrictive than a “heel”, so your dog should get more out of their walk.

Why is on lead safer?

Your dog being on lead is safer for a variety of reasons and there are benefits to them, other dogs, people and animals. The most obvious reason may be that your recall isn’t fully trained yet and you can’t be sure they won’t run off and get lost or hurt, this could be especially dangerous if you are near a road or livestock. There is also a risk around other dogs, even if your dog is friendly, some of the dogs they meet might be scared, in training, or assisting their owner, so running up to them could be dangerous for everyone involved. Having your dog on the lead also means you can pull them to safety in an emergency situation, such as them finding a snake or something they shouldn’t eat.

Bright eyed Jack Russell terrier

Step 1 – Setting off

Using a lead that is long enough to give your dog room to move around a bit and have some slack, set off walking, it is a good idea to choose somewhere quiet, where your dog is comfortable and not too excited. Most dogs will walk quicker than you, but if your dog doesn’t, walk slowly enough that they get to the end of the lead and once they do stop walking immediately. We want them to associate feeling tension on the lead with stopping, not pulling ahead regardless.

Step 2 – Encourage the correct response

Initially we want to help our dogs do the correct behaviour, so when you stop, call them back towards you and reward them with a treat, then start walking again. Some people wait until their dog is right back with them, while others just look for the lead to go slack, releasing the tension.

Note: a treat is a good reward, at least at the beginning of training, as it gives your dog something nice in exchange for what they were pulling towards, and acts as a marker of them making a good choice. But for some dogs the best reward is getting to move forwards again.

Happy dog with tennis ball in its mouth

Step 3 – Build the behaviour

Repeat this: walking forward until your dog pulls, then stopping and encouraging your dog to come back towards you, then walking again once they have. As they start to get used to this, try giving them a few moments to choose to move back and release the tension without you asking, and if they don’t then encourage them again. They should start to see the pattern and learn that the best way to keep going where they want to go is to not pull, whereas when they pull, the walk stops, so keep practising until they understand.

Note: Frustration is often a problem, for dogs and owners. If we get frustrated our dogs pick up on it and our training is less effective, so remember that this is a difficult but worthwhile process for our dogs, and try to be patient. When our dogs are getting frustrated, even when we think they should have got the idea by now, it could mean they’re having a hard day, or have noticed something really exciting, so they’re finding it a bit more difficult. This is when it is ok to go back a step and encourage them back rather than letting their frustration build, and you can also try redirecting the frustrated energy by walking quickly in another direction and encouraging them along excitedly.

Happy senior golden retriever

Key Principles

 If they stop, you stop

Loose lead is all about your dog having a great walk, so if they find something they want to investigate stop and let them enjoy it, just as you expect them to wait for you if you need to stop.

Nobody pulls

In loose lead walking any tension on the lead means stop, so if you start pulling your dog along your ruining all your hard work. Call them and encourage them along with you with your voice, by picking up the pace, with treats or toys. This is especially important to remember in situations where you need to pause training and get past something quickly.

In conclusion: be safe,
be consistent, have fun