This post may contain affiliate marketing links for products my pets and I adore. You won’t ever be charged a fee for shopping via my affiliate links. I may receive a small commission for purchases made through my affiliate links. I'll most likely use that commission to spoil my own pets or the Living Creatures Ministry Therapy animals. 🐾 Learn more.
Whether you're taking your pet on a hiking adventure or training them for their therapy animal certification, they need to have solid leash manners, but here's the thing:
Teaching your pet to walk nicely on a leash is HARD.
You have to learn a whole new way to communicate -- essentially a new language -- and then you have to teach it to your pet too! No matter what techniques you use, leash walking takes time, effort, and lots of practice, but these 10 simple tips for making leash walking easier for you and your pet should help to reduce that time, effort, and practice that you and your pet need to conquer loose leash walking!
10 Simple Fixes to Make Leash Walking Easier for You and Your Pet
Teach your pet to be calm on their own.
Great leash walking starts long before you and your pet take off on a walk around the block. In fact, it should start before you even begin to move with your pet on the leash! Before we worry about improving your pet's leash walking skills, you'll need to teach them to be able to calm down around distractions on their own. It's time for you and your pet to work on relaxation drills! The two best relaxation drills to help your pet remain calm on leash are Sitting on the Leash and the Calm Down. These drills focus on teaching your pet to relax on the leash no matter what is going on around you. If your pet is not able to choose to disengage from the distractions around them leash walking is going to be super duper difficult, because you're basically always surrounded by distractions on a walk. Make sure that you are working on relaxation drills with your pet around different levels of distractions to set them up for success on all of your walks. Calm pets are better at leash walking.
Hold the leash in a safe and functional way.
Now that we've gotten your pet to start relaxing on their own around different distractions, it's time to take a look at how you are holding the leash. There are two things you should keep in mind when you are holding the leash: safety and functionality. Let's talk about safety first! Holding the leash the wrong way can be dangerous for both you and your pet. If the leash is wrapped around your fingers and your pet bolts off, you may wind up with some leash burn or even a broken a finger or two! And if your pet is burning or breaking your hand with the leash, do you think you'll be keeping a firm grip on it? Probably not! So now we're not only hurting you, but we're also endangering your pet as they take off across the street with their leash dragging behind them. Yikes! To keep you and your pet safe, especially when you're actively working on leash training, I recommend utilizing a thumb-lock to keep a firm and safe grip on the leash. Simply stick your hand (use the hand on the opposite side of your body from your pet for this part) through the loop at the end of your leash and then create a second loop in the leash, stick your thumb through that second loop, and wrap your fist around that part of the leash. Bam! You've created a thumb-lock. Go ahead! Tug as hard as possible on the end of the leash! Not painful at all, huh? Now that you've got a firm grip to anchor your leash, it's time to look at what your other hand is doing!
Make sure your hand closest to your pet is free to slide up and down the leash so you can choke up on the leash or give more slack as needed. You'll hold the leash with loose fist, with your palm angled towards the ground. This means that your pinky should be toward your pet! Now you're free to safely communicate with your pet via the leash!
Practice indoors first.
This is something that cat owners often get right more than dog owners, simply because of society's expectations for dogs and cats. We generally expect someone with a dog to potty them outside, walk them regularly, etc. Cat owners are not even expected to train their pets, so when we do it usually has to start at the very beginning... right where we should start with dogs too!
While our end goal is certainly to have our dogs and cats walk nicely on leash outside, we can set out pets up for success by introducing leash walking indoors in a low level of distraction, just like we do with every other command and behavior. Taking your pet on a walk around your living room or even around the whole house gives you a chance to practice your leash grip and to demonstrate your expectations for your pet without running into unexpected distractions like off leash dogs, squirrels, and loud vehicle noises.
Mark and reward good behavior.
When we're struggling with leash walking our pets, it can be really really easy to focus on the bad behaviors, on everything your pet is doing wrong... but that's not going to help strengthen your relationship with your pet and clarify what you do want them to do! Make sure to mark and reward for good behaviors. In fact, you should aim to mark and reward twice for every one time you have to tell your pet no... and considering every time the leash is tight it is telling your pet no, you're probably going to need to do a lot of rewarding to balance it out!
Look for the moments when the leash is loose, when your pet engages with you, when they ignore a distraction that they previously struggled to not react around, when they auto-sit as you come to a stop...when they do anything good!
Not finding any good behaviors to reward? You probably need to move back inside or at least to a lower distraction area until your pet is calmer around distractions.
Deliver their reward in the right position.
Where do you want your pet to hang out when they're on leash? My goal is for them to be right at my side or a little bit behind me. If that's where you want your pet to be, make sure you deliver your reward to that place! A lot of us wear a treat pouch when we're walking our pets, often on the opposite side of our bodies from our pets. There's nothing wrong with that at all! But make sure that when you remove the treat from the pouch, you move it all the way over to where you want your pet to be before you deliver it to them. Make a habit of placing your treat holding hand right up against your leg, to the side or behind you. If you always give your pet the treat in that position, they'll start hanging out there more often because that's where the food happens! Note: If your pet is lower to the ground, make sure you give them the treat in a way that allows them to keep all four feet on the ground! Don't make them jump up in the air or stand on their hind legs to get the treat or they'll start doing those behaviors more often too!
Set the tone immediately.
Don't wait until you're out the door and to the sidewalk before you set the tone of your walk, also known as clearly communicating your expectations for your pet! Start communicating clearly before you even head out the door.
If your pet is crated before your walk, start there! Don't allow your pet to dart quickly out the door of their crate. Make sure to have them lay down and wait for your permission to exit the crate calmly. You could even leash them up while they're holding a down in the crate, to give you a little help setting the tone throughout the rest of your house.
If your pet is out of the crate when you leash them up, make sure they hold sit or down while you do so. When moving towards the door, slip into loose leash walking mode right away. Don't let them pull you to the door! Enforce door manners at the door with a sit and eye contact before you go outside and possibly even directing them to sit again outside the door while you pull it shut and lock up.
Enforcing these routines and structure will set your pet up for success instead of revving them up only to ask them to settle down once you're around a ton of distractions.
Don't let them get to where they are pulling.
We accidentally reward a lot of our pets' naughty behaviors and that is no different when they are on leash! If your pet is excitedly pulling towards another person or animal, do not let them say hello in that moment! If you do, you're basically telling your pet, "Pull really hard on leash and get way too excited, and then I will give you whatever you want!"
Advocate for your pet! If someone asks to say hello to your pet say, "Yes, BUT let me get him to settle into a sit and give me eye contact first." Maybe your pet isn't calming down and someone reaches out to pet them without your permission. Same thing! Advocate for your pet! Block with your body or move your pet away and say, "No thanks! We're working really hard on training right now and I don't want to confuse her right now." If that person still persists (and trust me, someone will!) remember that "No!" is a complete sentence. Remove your pet from the situation to set them up for future success. Meeting other pets on leash? Not generally a good idea unless you know the owner and animal well and are able to end the greeting immediately if either pet shows inappropriate behavior.
The same goes for heading towards some of your pet's favorite places. If your pet loves going into day care or heading towards the woods, letting them get to that place when they are pulling is still rewarding them for pulling. At day care, try heading back towards your car or taking a lap around the parking lot until your pet settles down enough to not pull as you head inside. Heading towards the woods, you turn right around walk away or even walk in a zig zag pattern until your pet walks nicely on leash again.
Keep the leash loose most of the time.
I know you're probably thinking, "Well duh, Laura! If I could get them to keep the leash loose, I wouldn't be reading this post right now, would I?" I know, but this tip really is important! Make sure you aren't holding the leash tight for the whole walk. Just because you can manhandle your pet into staying at your side does not mean they are actually doing well on leash. Aim to have slack in the leash throughout the walk! A constantly taut leash teaches your pet to ignore leash pressure completely, totally removing a useful and direct means of communication with your pet. If your pet is continuously pulling on the leash, it's time to change things up! Use a pivot, a 180, or even a quick leash correction to get them to stop. Not working? You guessed it! You probably need to move back inside until your pet can handle bigger distractions. Aim to keep a nice, loose J-shape in the leash at all times.
Give your pet room around big distractions.
When you're driving down a road without a sidewalk and see someone biking or walking on the side of the road, do you squeeze right next to them or do you slow down and move over to give them space and keep them safe? Of course you give them space (or at least, I hope so)! Why wouldn't we do the same thing for our pets? If you know there is a house on the block that always has five loudly barking dogs in their yard, why wouldn't you make sure to walk your pet on the other side of the street to help your pet and those five dogs be more successful? If you see a reactive dog or anything else your pet may be afraid of or react to headed your way, give your pet space to get around the distraction! Feel free to cross the street if you can safely do so or even look for a driveway or parking lot you can move into to give your pet some distance while you pass a distraction. Hiking on a trail? Stand off to the side to allow the distraction to pass before you and your pet start moving again. Sure, there's going to be a time to work on getting your pet closer to distractions, but it's best to do that in a planned, controlled situation. No need to force yourself and your pet into a situation you're not ready to handle. Move over, slow down, and do what is best for your pet.
Find a community of training-minded owners to support you!
When we surround ourselves with family and friends that understand and support our training goals, it makes training our pets a whole lot easier! If you and a friend both need to work on leash walking with your pets, schedule a time to meet up and try walking past each other at the park or even in your own yards at first. Since you're both working on training, no one will get upset if you have to move further away or leave altogether to advocate for your pet! Does your family reinforce your pet's jumping and pulling behaviors by petting them on leash? Try nicely explaining your plans and goals to them so they can help you enforce them instead.
You'll always be able to find a place in the KCAT Community over on the King's Creatures Facebook page. Stop the comments section during our live training each Tuesday to meet other pet owners that are working on training! Looking for a community that provides even more support, accountability, and encouragement for you and your pet? Check out the King's Creatures Adventure Team Club at kingscreatures.com/kcat-club.
I can't wait to hear how these 10 tips help you and your pet to enjoy more walks and adventures together!