Agility Dogs Can Walk In On A Loose Leash
I posed the title of this article as a question and realized it isn’t a question on if an agility dog can walk on a loose leash, but rather does the handler want their dog to walk on a loose leash. Agility dogs are often high drive and high energy and rearing to go! They want their leashes off and they want to be running over that course. Taking the leash off means they get the reward of running agility. But often, you want them on their leash and walking beside you, not at the end of their leash (end of your rope!) and hauling you along.
This doesn’t mean your dog is to maintain a competition quality heel, but rather they stay near your side without pulling. There are many reasons to expect this behavior other than your emotional comfort. Your dog’s health is at risk as hard, constant pulling on a collar risks injury to their windpipe. Your sanity is at risk as well as strained shoulders or back from being pulled and jerked around. You have put endless hours into your dog’s training for agility requiring the dog to focus and follow your direction, why stop there? Many of the same body awareness and focus lessons are used in teaching your dog to walk with you.
Lessons such as teaching your dog to keep his front feet on an object while turning his hind end is a first step to teaching proper healing position. You give the exercise a cue such as “turn” and when the dog will make a complete turn either way off the verbal cue you simply put yourself beside your dog and give the cue, click and treat when they move over and touch your leg with their body. Then click and treat when they move over and finish with making eye contact with you. Then you proof it by using different objects then without an object and finally, do it different locations with different distraction levels.
However, that doesn’t teach loose leash walking it does teach your dog a position cue. For loose leash walking pinch and choke collars are not the cure, they only treat the symptoms of the problem. The problem is that your dog gets a reward for pulling and has in essence taught itself and you to pull. Starting from square one you need to work on your dog’s emotions as well as proper body position. Dogs love the leash as it means they are going to do something exciting, just like going to an agility trial. You need to make the reward the activity rather than the object. At home if your dog gets overly excited when you get the leash out or bolts through the door to go on their walk, you know your dog is seeing the leash as the reward instead of the walk.
Start here with desensitizing them to the leash by randomly putting the leash on and off while you are at home. Soon they will not associate it with just going for a walk. If your dog bolts through the door or is rude when he knows you are going for a walk you need to make the walk the reward for being polite with no bolting. To do this you open or walk out the door and as soon as your dog gives rude behavior, turn around, go back inside, take off the leash and wait until your dog settles. Then try again. When your dog will go through the dog politely, continue on your walk making the walk the reward for politeness.
Remember, the dog will repeat the actions that get him what he desires and a walk gives him so much stimulus it could cause an stimulus overload. Try putting a few stops in your walk to allow your dog to settle. It may help to take a chew toy or something that the dog can do to relax for a few minutes. This will help him learn to control his emotions during your walks and recondition him to understand it isn’t 20 minutes of careless, wild abandon.
To address the pulling aspect of your walk you will want to practice proper walk position in the house or yard where there is little to no distraction or stimulus. You want to “guide” your dog with the leash, not pull him around. So walk around your yard clicking and treating when your dog is in the proper position. Again, this is not “heal” position it is a loose leash walk near your side. I like to use the cue “by me” which simply means stay next to me.
Whenever your dog goes ahead of you, you will simply stop walking as soon as there is pressure on the leash. Your dog has conditioned you both that pulling means good things so you are reconditioning that pulling means an end to good things. You will then turn and go the opposite direction while encouraging your dog to follow you. Use your happy voice and click and treat as soon as your dog catches up to you. You do not want to jerk the dog or allow the dog to get jerked during this lesson. We do not want to damage or hurt his wind pipe. This exercise teaches your dog that being close to you while walking is rewarding.
When your dog is distracted you will change directions while encouraging your dog to follow you. If the dog does not come to you then you can put gentle pressure on the leash until the dog comes toward you. When they reach your side click and treat with a jackpot treat while giving lots of praise. You need to make yourself more interesting and rewarding than the distraction so give lots of praise and a jackpot reward for choosing you. When your dog is consistent at home you are ready to add more stimulus by leaving the yard. Keep the lesson the same outside the yard as inside. At this point it isn’t the distance of the walk you should be concerned with but rather the quality. You will be doing a lot of changes of direction to start with so be patient and take plenty of treats with you.
A walk doesn’t have to be all business, in fact, most of the time we are taking our dog on a walk so we can enjoy the great outdoors. For the dog that includes sniffing. You can allow your dog to sniff, but you need boundaries to this behavior. When you see an area that your dog might like to sniff, ask your dog to sit then release them from the “by me” with another cue such as “go sniff” or “all free” and allow your dog to wander around and sniff. This doesn’t mean he gets to go crazy and start pulling you around again. If he does, then stop walking, change directions and continue your training. If he is polite and he has had some polite moments sniffing, bring him back to you with your “by me” cue and walk on.
Don’t just reward the behaviors you want, turn your dog’s desires into the reward for polite behaviors. Make it worth their while to walk beside you in a mannerly fashion with a loose leash. Just like us our dogs repeat the actions that get them what they want. As easy as it was for your dog to learn to pull on the leash to get his desires, it is that easy to teach him to walk politely with you in order to reach his goal. The biggest obstacle you will have to overcome is your inconsistency. All your dog really cares about is his desire. It really doesn’t matter to him how he gets it as long as he gets it every time he repeats the behavior. Best of all, both of you will benefit from him learning to walk by you on a loose leash as you can both enjoy your walks. Even the ones to the agility field.