Loose Leash Walking With Dogs

By Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

Why do dogs pull on the leash?

Dogs pull to get where they are going. Dogs want to engage with the environment, and from a dog’s perspective, humans can be slow. Wearing a leash and being tethered to a human is not a “natural” behavior for dogs.

Many dogs will naturally “lean in” and strain forward when they feel pressure on their collar. Loose leash walking is one of the most complex skills we teach to pet dogs and it requires patience, planning, and persistence.

How do I get started?

All dogs need plenty of social, mental, and physical stimulation every day. Regular leash walks may help with mental and social stimulation, but they rarely satisfy a dog’s need for physical exercise. Before teaching a dog loose leash walking, you should start by making sure the dog’s daily needs are met.

Unstructured exploration and low-stress walks in a quiet location are an important part of wellness for most dogs. Here are a couple of things to consider before getting started:

  • Has my dog had a vigorous exercise or play session today? This could be in a safely fenced area or on a long line - a fixed-length leash 15–50 feet long (4.5 m to 15 m). Avoid retractable leashes. There is a helpful App called SniffSpot for finding safe exercise areas near your home if you do not have a safe fenced yard. 
  • Has my dog had an opportunity to sniff, explore, and interact with the environment today? This could be in a safely fenced area, or on a long line.

What equipment does my dog need?


Choose a leash that feels good in your hands and is 6–10 feet in length (1.8 m to 3 m). It should be wide enough that even if the dog pulls, you will not have a friction burn on your hands, but narrow enough that it is comfortably lightweight for the dog to wear. You will also want a long line to use for unstructured, safe exploration. Avoid using retractable leashes, as they can result in serious friction burns to both people and animals.


If you choose a collar, use a plain, flat collar that is fitted so you can put two to four fingers between the collar and the dog’s neck. The collar should be snug enough that it can’t be slipped over the dog’s head. A collar is not the right choice if your dog pulls very hard, pulls until they cough or have noisy breathing, or pulls hard enough to physically unbalance or overpower you.

Training Collars

Training collars, such as slip, choke, prong, or electronic collars, all rely on pain to stop a dog from pulling. When the leash is tight, the collar causes pain around the dog’s neck. When the leash is loose, the pain is stopped. If the collar is effective, the dog learns to keep the leash loose to avoid pain. There are a few problems with these collars:

  • Pain can be severe. The pain needs to hurt enough that the dog stops pulling. Some dogs will not stop pulling until the pain is severe. Training without pain is a priority when we are building a trusting and healthy relationship with our dogs.
  • Some dogs can be injured by heavy pressure on the collar, especially training collars.
  • Some training collars do not limit how tightly they close, putting the dog at risk of strangulation if they become entangled.
  • If the dog strains toward a person, another dog, or anything else in the environment, and we tighten the training collar, causing pain, there is a risk the dog will associate pain with what he was looking at or approaching when the leash was tightened. This association can contribute to fear or aggression toward strangers, other dogs, or other stimuli.


A well-fitted H-Style or Y-style harness can be a wonderful tool for many dogs. Harnesses should only be worn when the dog is on a leash. Here are some features to look for in a harness:

  • It is easy to put on and remove.
  • It does not cause chafing.
  • The shoulder joints are freely moving with no straps across the front of the shoulder. Be especially mindful of “no pull” harnesses; some styles can cause injury by pressing on the front of the shoulder joint.
  • The dog can’t back up and slip out of the harness. Some deep-chested dogs, like greyhounds, may need a “double-H” harness for safety.
  • There are at least two places a leash can be clipped: on the back between the shoulder blades, and in front below the dog’s neck between the front legs.

Head Collars

Head collars fit around the nose and ears of a dog, like a halter. Head collars can give added control, especially when a strong, powerful dog has a smaller or infirm handler. A head collar needs to be carefully selected and introduced, as dogs are not accustomed to wearing things on their faces! It takes time to positively condition a dog to accept a head collar, and they are not right for every dog.

When using a head collar, you should connect a second leash to a harness or neck collar as a backup. If the dog lunges quickly and hits the end of the leash wearing only a head collar, the leash can pull the dog’s head sharply to the side, placing unnecessary strain on the dog’s neck.

How do I get started? How do dogs learn?

Dogs, like any animal, do what “works.” Every behavior has a function. Dogs repeat behaviors that have a favorable or meaningful result. When we are working to change or improve a dog’s behavior, we must consider what the behavior accomplishes from the dog’s point of view – and how we can modify that event, so the dog’s behavior will change for the better.

It is helpful to use the “A-B-C” method to consider why the dog walks a certain way.

1 = Antecedent. What happens immediately before the pulling?

2 = Behavior. Pulling is the behavior, but it is probably accompanied by other behaviors, too.

3 = Consequence. What happens during or immediately after the pulling? This is the “result” from the dog’s point of view.

To create a training plan, you must identify A, B, and C, and consider how A and C can be changed so B will change. Each training plan is unique to the dog and the family, but most pulling can be prevented or reversed using a positive-reinforcement-based training approach.

Let's consider an example: pulling toward another dog. Remember, your dog can only see the world through his own eyes. He is being held back but can see something he wants. Straining in the direction of travel might be productive from the dog’s point of view. Let’s look at the ABCs for pulling toward another dog.

  • A = Your dog sees another dog appear.
  • B = Your dog pulls on the leash.
  • C = You and the dog move closer to the other dog.

In this example, from the dog’s perspective, pulling is an effective way to get closer to something he wants. If the dog does not want to get closer, he will use a different signal or behavior. Barking is one way dogs will ask for space or try to move another person or animal away from their space.

Prevention: Foundation Skills

Start with a well-prepared dog in a non-distracting environment such as inside your home or yard. Have plenty of small, delicious treats with you, and if your dog likes toys, bring your dog’s favorite toy along as well.

The ABCs: Loose Leash

Clip on your dog’s leash and stand quietly. Wait for even the smallest second of slack in the leash. Tell your dog “Yes!” when the leash is slack and quickly deliver one or two wonderful treats, either putting them in his mouth or dropping them on the ground near your foot. Encourage him to eat the treats, using a happy, excited voice. Take 1–2 steps forward and repeat this process.

  • A = The dog is on a leash, and you are present with treats.
  • B = The dog stays close enough to you that the leash is loose.
  • C = Wonderful treats and happy praise.

In the beginning, it can be helpful to use luring. Luring means encouraging the dog to follow a treat, so they perform a skill. Hold several treats in a closed hand next to your leg at your dog’s nose level. Once your dog’s nose is attached to the treats like they are a magnet, deliver one treat every 2-3 seconds. Begin walking, just a few steps at a time, consistently delivering tiny treats as long as the dog stays near you and the leash remains loose.

  • A = Leash is on, and a handful of treats is within easy reach.
  • B = Following the treat hand with a loose leash.
  • C = Receiving a small treat!

Putting it On Cue

Once you can reliably start a nice loose leash walk, a few steps at a time, you can teach a cue. Have a word or phrase that means “Walk with me!” Common choices are “Let’s Go!” or “Let’s Walk” or “With Me”. Say the cue in a cheerful, happy voice. The cue means rewards are available for the loose leash walking.

  • A = Dog hears “Let’s Go” cue, the leash is on.
  • B = Dog walks on a loose leash for a few steps (or further, as the dog’s skills become more advanced).
  • C = Forward progress in the environment with frequent, delicious treats for staying near the owner.

What should I do if my dog pulls?

If the dog pulls, consider the ABCs.

  • A = Something interests the dog.
  • B = Leash gets tight
  • C = You stand still or take a few steps away from the thing that is interesting. Wait for any sign of a loose leash, then quickly reward, as above.

If your dog can’t disengage from the distraction, move further away, and try again. If it goes well, it looks like:

  • A = Something interests the dog.
  • B = You both walk toward the point of interest; the leash stays loose.
  • C = Progress is made toward the point of interest and small, delicious treats are intermittently delivered as well!

Group classes for leash walking and life skills are a wonderful place to refine leash walking techniques. Attending a group class in a controlled environment allows a professional training coach to help you develop excellent timing and to modulate the number and type of distractions your dog learns to walk around while keeping the leash loose.

It takes most dogs several months of regular practice to learn to walk on a loose leash. There are entire books, online courses, and 8-week or more in-person courses devoted just to learning leash walking!

How do I handle lunging and barking?

For dogs who lunge to the end of their leash, bark and frantically try to chase or approach other animals, people, moving cars, and bicycles, additional help is needed. Talk to your veterinarian for a referral to a professional behavior consultant and trainer for individualized coaching.

"Talk to your veterinarian for a referral to a professional behavior consultant and trainer for individualized coaching."

Some dogs lunge or bark because they are afraid. Others are too excited and have trouble controlling themselves. Still others may have the urge to hunt or chase. Depending on the severity of the behavior and the underlying motivation, the individual training plan needs to be tailored to the specific dog.

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