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Walking Nicely On The Lead - Lead Training For Companion Dogs That Works!

with Silvia Anne Kent


Walking Nicely On The Lead

If there‘s any area of intense conflict between companion dogs and their owners, this must be it!

I‘ve been deeply interested in the various methods of teaching so-called Heelwork for as long as I‘ve been involved in dog training, and I must say I never liked any of them too much.

So one day, I‘m standing outside a primary school and I‘m observing various mothers with children of all ages walking towards the entrance.

The very youngest children were being carried.

The toddlers toddled after their mums as best they could.

The older toddlers were trying to commit suicide by dashing into the road and their mums were rushing after them frantically, or else holding onto their hands like grim death.

The pre-school children skipped and hopped around their mothers whilst being watched carefully and called back every so often.

The school children walked next to their mothers on their own accord and had conversations with them.

In a way, that‘s much like my experiences with puppies.

Very young puppies are absolutely desperate to stay with you. Even outgoing characters get pretty overwhelmed at the great big world out there and stay close to you to begin with.

In my opinion, the problem with dogs pulling on the lead appears in the older toddler stage. The dogs get really excited, can‘t wait to get out there, try to rush ahead. As result, the owners tighten up on the lead and the dog goes into the "pull me - push you" response, like those older toddlers were pulling on their mother‘s hands, trying to get ahead, trying to get free. This "tug‘o‘war" type response is allowed to occur every time they go out for a walk, and then becomes a habit.

6 months later, the owners come to dog training classes with a dog that pulls on the lead like a steam train.


I would say that

- it is perfectly normal for a young or untrained dog to want to move about a little, rather than to walk totally in one particular position to heel.

- and it is easier and much more effective in the long run to guide the dog towards the right position than to try and force it into that position.

See, the more you push, the more the dog pushes back.

Ok, so there‘s ways and methods such as check (or choke) chains that inflict pain every time the dog moves out of position. There‘s also such things as sound devices or ways to handle the lead in such a way that the dog gets a nasty "shock" when it pulls ahead. And these methods work a treat if you‘re a good handler, have done it lots of times before, and can handle yourself, leads, dogs, and devices congruently and at the same time.

However, normal people don‘t have these specialist skills, and their dogs know it, and that‘s why these methods don‘t work very well for most normal people.

So now, here‘s a nice, evolutionary method to have a dog that walks somewhere with you, because it likes you, and it has lots of times when it‘s off the lead anyway, companionably, happily, and without you having to do anything than just enjoy it‘s company and the countryside.


Walking Nicely On The Lead - Action Plan

1. Find a route that is reasonably safe, reasonably distraction free, and can be completed in ten minutes or less.

It could be just round the block, or up and down the lane - it doesn‘t matter if it‘s boring or if it has many distractions, as long as you get there as soon as you walk out of your house.

This route will become your practise track for walking nicely on the lead.

The reason this is so important is that a lot of owners only walk to their place of exercise every single day, and the dog gets to believe that it needs to pull them all the way, else they‘d never get there! These self same owners usually make the comment that "it‘s not so bad on the way home"!

2. Put your dog on the long line, or the training lead, and give it some rope.

In practise, this means that you loosen the lead right out so your dog cannot feel it anymore. (I do hope you‘ve got hold of this book before you were in a position where the dog just runs hell for leather and doesn‘t care if you follow or not. If that‘s your problem, go to the special section for Steam Train Pullers instead).

For your first attempt, the assignment is to get round your practise route with the lead being loose as much as possible.

- yes, you‘re going to get tangled in the lead, wrapped round lamp posts or bushes, to begin with. And yes, you‘re going to learn the art of handling a lead in such a way that this doesn‘t happen anymore after a week of this.

It‘s an immensely valuable skill that will stand you in good stead with every dog you‘ll ever own, and something you‘ll never learn if you buy a Flexi-type lead with the big clumsy box at the end of it.

- use the lead to bring your dog back if it‘s going somewhere inappropriate. If you‘re walking in a town, your dog will need to learn to distinguish the pavement and the verge from the actual road. Tell the dog over and over, "Stay on the pavement, that‘s a good boy (or girl)." After a week of this, your dog will know.

- use the lead to make your dog sit at road intersections, if there are any on your walk. Again, speak to your dog. Tell him about sitting because of the danger of traffic. The more you talk to your dog with real intent and real meaning, the more he or she will listen to you.

- to begin with, be very flexible in your speed. Stop for a while if your dog wants to sniff something, speed up a little when your dog picks up speed. The first commandment is to keep the lead loose.

- to begin with, be flexible whether the dog‘s on your left, or on your right, or in front of you, or behind you. As long as the lead‘s loose, and the dog‘s still moving in roughly the same direction, that‘s fine. You‘re both going to get home again. That‘s all that‘s required.

- the only thing you should strongly object to is if your dog suddenly lunges into some direction or the other, or hits the end of the long line sharply. Call your dog back and tell him or her right away that this is not on, that it could be dangerous for both of you, and that you‘re just going round the block (or up and down the lane).

Do this on one particular practise track twice or three times a day for about a week. Once you feel that both of you have got the hang of the basics (i.e. you know how to handle the lead so it‘s loose all the time you‘re not actually using it to make an important correction, and how to encourage your dog not to lunge, to stay on the pavement and to sit at intersections, if any, and your dog has relaxed and learned that you just kind of walk this particular walk together), you can:      

- begin to encourage the dog to be on the left or right of you, using an appropriate encouragement;

          - to walk closely with you for a short period of time with full attention (just a few steps close by your side with the lead completely slack is fine, then just let him wander along again);

          - take a break and do a bit of training such as stay or come.

Over a period of a month or so, lengthen the time you are actually requesting your dog to walk in the normal heelwork position by your side gently and steadily. The instruction I use for this is "Walk closely." When the dog is in a close position by my left or right leg, depending on the circumstance, I look down and praise it gently whilst we‘re walking along: "Well, this is nice, isn‘t it? You and me, just poodling along the old lane ... (etc.)"

When you‘re happy that you and your dog can walk companionably with each other on your practise route, you can exchange the long line for the proper five foot lead (which also must be loose at all times you‘re not actually giving a direct instruction to your dog and even then, only if a verbal instruction has been ignored).

Then, you can start varying your route and gradually introduce more distractions along the way, always making sure that you‘re asking no more of your dog in the way of understanding, good behaviour and co-operation than your dog is ready to give to you, depending on his or her age, prior training experience, and current level and standard of training.

If you follow this outline, in a couple of months at the most you will have arrived at a point where your dog is walking along happily not because it‘s afraid it‘ll get hurt if it doesn‘t, but simply because the two of you have built up a mutual rapport and understanding of what going out for a walk together is all about - being aware of each other‘s movements, and behaving in such a way that you‘re both having a good time in each other‘s company.

Walking On The Lead For Steam Train Pullers

Sometimes, you may have to re-train a re-homed or rescued dog that pulls no matter how long the lead is, and pulls flat out, like a steam train. For these dogs, we need a slightly modified approach.

Firstly, I would recommend the use of a head collar, such as the Halti or Fig.8 collar.

Secondly, a normal lead of five to six foot will be of more use.

Thirdly, use the very best food you can find to reward any attempt at co-operation.

Fourthly, whatever "command" the dog has ever heard regards this activity must be firmly placed in the rubbish bin from now on, because it has by now become a signal to start pulling. Use words that sound completely different instead.

Fifthly, use your practise track when your dog is as tired as possible; i.e. just after a long walk*. Another very useful tip is to walk it once, come inside, and straight out again - and then again.

*A safety note: Very young puppies, older puppies of large boned or slow developing breeds, and rescued dogs who are unfit due to kennelling or mismanagement can suffer serious health problems if over-exercised. Please ask your veterinary surgeon, breeder or other dog professional for advice if you‘re even slightly unsure about how much exercise is advised for your dog or puppy.


The reason that even the most dyed in the wool pullers will be able to learn through this method is that it‘s simply impossible for a dog to sustain top levels of excitement over walking the practise track if it‘s done three times on the trot, three times a day, seven days a week.

If you are short on time, just do a shorter practise track - but do it!


Walk the practise track at least three times, three times a day. If there‘s more than one of you in the household, do it each three times a day. Again, after a while the dog will relax on the practise track and the lead will be loose more than it will be tight. Once the dog is usually relaxed on the practise track, introduce all the methods from the section above.


Walking nicely off the lead

As you can see from the section before, the fact that sooner or later your dog will be walking without the lead is actually built into this kind of lead training right from the start. As you are continuously striving to keep the lead loose and your rapport and understanding with your dog improves, there comes a time quite naturally when your dog will be ready to walk off the lead with you. To make the transition from on the lead to off the lead:

1. Firstly, remember to be safe rather than sorry. Even a very well behaved dog can sometimes run off if the temptation is strong enough - say, another dog taunting it across the road, or a cat, or perhaps a car misfiring very close by. Walk completely off lead only where you can be sure you will be safe.

2. Once your dog is walking pretty reliably with you, put it on the long line. But instead of holding onto it, just throw it over your shoulder and tuck the rest into a pocket. Walk normally and do not hold on to the lead. Use it only if you really need to, and always precede the use of the lead with a verbal instruction first (you will find that this alleviates the need to use the lead at all, half the time anyway).

3. Once you‘re happy with that, let your dog drag the line for a while just to be sure.


Walking nicely everywhere

Once your dog is good on the practise track, begin to extend the walks and the locations as described in the section on How A Dog Learns. Eventually, the dog will make the cross over to be able to reproduce his or her learning in any location.


To conclude this section, let me say that this is a very friendly, very easy way to train most dogs to walk with you in a civilised fashion in a relatively short period of time, providing you make an effort for a month or so to really teach your dog. If for whatever reason your dog begins to wander off or starts to pull later, go back to the old practise route to remind him/her of the original training.


Get Back & Walk On

Two instructions that are very useful in conjunction with walking on the lead, amongst others, are Get Back and Walk On, respectively.

The Get Back instruction means that the dog should move into a position slightly behind you and remain behind you. We have learned this from dog behaviour studies -  the "pack leader" is in a forward position, both as a look out and decision maker.

As this is a normal dog behaviour, it is easy to teach and dogs understand it very quickly. It has many practical applications, from the aforementioned walking on the lead, to being able to open the door to people and being both protected by the dog, yet the dog under full control, putting the visitor at ease.

Get Back - Action Plan

Walk through your house with your dog on the lead. In doorways, stop, use your lead and a stopping motion with your left hand, asking the dog to "get back", so you can walk through the doorway first. Also try this going up and down the stairs, through garden gates or narrow passageways. Look over your left shoulder, and tell the dog you‘re very pleased.

The other side of the coin is the Walk On Instruction. This asks your dog to walk on and lead the way.


We borrowed this instruction from horse trainers, because there are so many occasions when it is useful to ask the dog to go first, be it because you wish to close the door behind both of you, or any other situation where it is more convenient for you to herd your dog(s) whilst you bring up the rear.


Walk On - Action Plan

When you‘re out for a walk, wait until your dog stops naturally to sniff something.

Give a brief nudge on the lead (like you would flick a horse‘s reins) and encourage the dog to "Walk On", praising when they‘ve picked up speed.

Often, you can find narrow passageways or corridors (failing this, you may construct such a corridor with a few chairs in your dining room or in your garden). Walk up to it and encourage your dog to lead the way by telling it to "walk on".

Practise both this and the Get Back so you can be flexible in who goes first.

Indoors, you can practise this instruction when your dog is already on it‘s way, out into the garden or into another room, putting the words "Walk On" onto a naturally occurring situation.

These two instructions will give both you and your dog/s a great deal of behavioural flexibility both indoors and out, and are very useful indeed for many different situations.

You can reproduce this article freely in newsletters and on your site providing you keep the following link and copyright notice intact:

Article by Silvia Kent, Author, Dynamic Dog Training. 

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