On this morning’s walk, a friend of mine brought a dog who is fairly new to the walking group. This particular dog I have worked with in the past and she knows me very well and I know her history very well. Along the walk my friend was struggling with getting the dog to not walk in front of her (which for this particular dog is not a desirable place for her to be as she has a long history of inappropriately fixating on other dogs in the environment and when she is ahead a sandwich happens increasing her likelihood of undesired response. sandwich= person, dog, stimulus. dog in the middle with no escape.), so for a bit of the walk we swapped dogs so I could help.
As I was walking, I thought more about how I leash train dogs and encourage them to walk beside me. As I was doing with this dog now walking with me on a slack leash. And the keys fall into 2 fairly simple parts:
- High high high rate of reinforcement for being beside me where I want the dog to be walking and
- Walk faster.
The high reinforcement is much of the time simply getting to keep walking with intermittent food or toy or goofy play reward for staying in position, for changing pace or direction with me, or for other desired responses (like not fixating on the other dogs when they come near her).
The walking faster is really the key I’ve found over the years. Go the pace the dog finds easiest to stay beside you at. Why add more elements to the equation than the dog is saying they can handle? Once the dog has gained enough reinforcement over time and many instances to find that staying beside you where you would like is a great, valuable, place they want to be, then you can stay varying your pace and ask the dog to slow to your pace. But in the early stages, I find asking the dog to slow down to what they would see as a crawl (ie the pace most humans saunter at routinely) simply adds immense difficulty to the equation and often ends in the dog ping ponging around (ie moves ahead out of position or pulling, then moves back, moves ahead, moves back) instead of learning to maintain position consistently.
Oddly I’ve founds this tends to be the exact opposite of what most people seem to do. Many I’ve interacted with seem to slow down further if the dog is pulling on the leash or ahead of them. What a way to frustrate and over face the dog. Yes, if the dog pulls me, I turn around, change direction and move opposite of the pulling direction until the dog is back following me. Then when they are beside me again, and we are ready to move forward in the desired direction as we move I speed up. Not slow down. Move faster. Make it easier for the dog to stay beside you, match their pace. Make it fun. Be silly. Talk to them. Reward them for being beside you. And move faster.
If, for some medical reason, you can’t walk as fast as the dog would naturally, then before you put them on leash and go for a walk, you wear them out. So they are tired enough to walk at the slower pace without as much difficulty. Or you walk in a space where you can safely have the dog on a 20-30′ long line (1). So your dog could be feasibly ahead of you on a loose leash up to 15′ away. And you do the same thing with, if the dog is beside you where you’d like you praise and reward. If the dog gets too far ahead of where you would want, you change direction. Or you drop a couple of treats on the ground, so your dog stops to sniff and eat the treats allowing you time to walk past your dog. Then when your dog follows you to catch up, you time your reward and treat placement so you can reinforce your dog when they end up beside you. And through treat placement and timing, you teach the dog that following you or beside you is more valuable to be than ahead of you. But really, if you can’t for some reason move faster, tire your dog out before you try to go for a walk.
Again, once you and the dog have spent enough time building value and reinforcement for staying beside you where you would like, then you can begin to add the challenging piece of pace change into the leash walking equation. But make your dog’s life easier and make leash walking beside you easier for them to master, walk faster. If you want your dog to resist their completely normal, natural desire to walk at their own natural pace and check out their environment and move back and forth and probably pull you, then help them out, walk faster. Make walking beside you without pulling the easier choice for your dog. Walk faster.
- Long line not a retractable leash. A long line is like a horse lunge line. Nylon or leather or biothane or even rope. Something easy to handle. My favorite are ones designed for hunting dog training often called check cords. They tend to be easy to keep clean, resist getting tangled or knotted up and are soft on the hands.