by Rachel Moseley
One of the most important things a service dog in training needs to know before starting public access work is how to walk properly on a leash. Teaching a dog to keep a loose leash while you’re walking can be one of the hardest and most time-consuming things to train but it’s absolutely crucial that you do so and take your time with it.
Once you get your dog, regardless of if it’s an eight-week-old puppy or a two-year-old adult, you should never let them get their way by pulling on the leash. Every time they reward themselves by successfully pulling to sniff something or to walk a different direction it puts you a step back in training them to walk properly. If they start to pull at any point, stop and wait for them to release tension before continuing.
Step 1: Teach a Positional Cue
The first thing I always do when I’m teaching a dog how to walk on a leash is teach a simple positional cue while standing still. This cue will tell them that you want them in the heel position. To do this put a treat in front of your dog’s nose and lure them into standing directly beside you. When they’re in the proper position mark the behavior with either a “Yes” or a clicker (or another marker) and reward them. Immediately release them with your release word (free, break or release are commonly used) and then do it again.
Once you’ve done that several times try luring them with just your hand (no food in it) and mark and reward the second they’re in position. As soon as they’re consistently getting into the proper position you can fade the lure and add a verbal cue (normally heel or come on/let’s go). When they’ll get in position either with just a faded lure or a verbal cue, work on building duration in that position. Instead of immediately releasing them make them wait two or three seconds before releasing and gradually build up the time they’ll stay in position.
Start inside your house so distractions are at a minimum and then move to your driveway or yard just working on positioning.
Step 2: Take a Step
Once you have a solid positional cue inside and outside go back inside and start taking a step (just one at first). Call your dog into position, put a treat in front of their nose, take a step and reward them while you’re both in motion for staying beside you and then again for stopping when you stop. Repeat a few times and then try doing it without baiting them.
Make sure your treats are small and soft so the dog can easily eat them quickly. Build up to taking more steps and continue rewarding the dog constantly in motion. After several rounds of that pull back on your rewards gradually and change to a random reward schedule (so give a treat every step, every third step, every second step, etc. and mix it up constantly).
Step 3: Adding Duration
To add duration at this point all you need to do is gradually space the treats farther apart until you can do an entire walk without treats. Take your time and still keep the random reward schedule, occasionally rewarding for shorter distances to keep their enthusiasm up.
Step 4: Add Distractions
Once you’ve got them doing well inside on a random reward schedule move to your yard or driveway. Remember, you’ll likely need to back up a bit in training and work back through it so they can do well in more distracting environments. Don’t be upset if they struggle to take multiple steps without wandering off the first time. Start back at step two and build back up to being able to walk a few steps and randomly reward. Add duration as the dog succeeds in distracting environments. If they struggle, back down on either the number of distractions or the duration you’re asking for so they can succeed and slowly build back up.
Step 5: Adding Check-Ins
When you’re ready to add check-ins go back to working inside the house again so there are not as many distractions around you.
If you have a focus cue already:
Start working on asking for it with them in a heel position. It shouldn’t take long if your focus cue is solid, once they’re responding well in position then start adding movement.
Once they’re checking-in any time you ask for it walking around the house together fade out the cue and wait. They should eventually look at you and when they do you should reward heavily. Once they check in frequently working in the house it’s time to build distractions back up, starting in your yard and gradually moving to more distracting environments. Remember, you may have to start back at cueing the focus, in the beginning, to help them understand that’s what you want instead of just expecting them to make the leap from doing it in one environment to doing it in another.
If you don’t have a focus cue:
You should train one, not only for check-ins but for day to day activities with your dog. There are a few different ways to train a dog for eye contact. I prefer capturing it. To capture it, simply look at your dog and wait until your dog makes eye contact and mark it and reward heavily. Then repeat that until they’re doing it almost immediately (if your marker is timed right it should only take a few repetitions for your dog to understand what you want).
At this point you should add in your cue word, I use ‘eyes’ but ‘focus’ and ‘watch me’ are also common cues for it. If your dog doesn’t offer eye contact on their own you can put a treat in between your eyes and cue it that way (gradually fading out the food and the hand between the eyes). Once your focus cue is solid in your house gradually build distractions until you can ask for it anywhere you go.
Bonus: Auto Sit When You Stop
Once you have a solid regular heel down adding in auto sits is extremely easy. Walk with them like normal and as soon as you stop cue a sit. Reward heavily when they sit and repeat the process several times. Once they’ve done it multiple times in a row stop and hold off on cueing the sit and see if they offer it on their own. If they do reward heavily of course. If they don’t offer it then try weaning them from the verbal cue to a hand signal for the sit and then gradually fade out the hand signal so they’re doing it without prompting.
Depending on how you trained your sit cue you may need to work on adding duration so they stay sitting until you start moving again without having to be told to stay every time.
My dog won’t stop or won’t stay stopped when I stop.
The easy way to fix this is to add in auto sits. Once your dog is sitting every time you stop you can build up duration by giving them treats while they’re sitting and spacing them out further and further.
If you don’t want your dog automatically sitting for whatever reason then you can add in a temporary stop cue to get their attention and help them stop with you. Walk with them, say their name (assuming they respond to their name and look at you) or your focus cue, and then stop and immediately give them treats (if you have to put treats in front of their face to get them to stop at first that’s fine). From there gradually space out the treats and lower the frequency that they get them until they stay stopped by your side until you’re ready to continue walking.
My dog pulls slightly ahead when we walk.
If your dog pulls slightly ahead whenever you’re walking then you should make a U-turn the moment they start to pull ahead. Reward them when they catch back up with you and fall back into position. Your dog will learn that they need to pay attention to you in order to continue being rewarded.
My dog pulls the leash taut when we walk.
The first option when this happens is to immediately stop and stand still. Wait until they stop pulling and call them back to heel position and reward heavily. Do it every time and never let them get away with it, every time they get away with pulling it makes it that much harder to correct.
If that isn’t working for your pup it’s time to play penalty yards. When your dog pulls the leash, start taking small steps backward and adding gentle pressure to the leash. This will teach them that pulling makes the thing they’re interested in go further away. Work on being able to walk them up to food and other things that they’re interested in while doing penalty yards whenever they try to pull. When you are able to walk all the way up to the object without them pulling, release them to sniff or eat it.
A Note About Training Tools
Ideally, heel and loose leash walking would always be taught on a flat collar. However, this is not an ideal world and sometimes that’s not the best option for either the dog or the handler. There’s no shame in using prongs, martingales, head halters, or other tools to help in the process.
That said, do ensure that you’re using the tool properly so it doesn’t injure your dog. If you’re not experienced with the tool then you should work with a trainer who is. No training tool is going to magically teach a dog how to properly walk on a leash the second you put it on them but they can certainly aid you in the training process.
By the time a service dog is fully trained it should be capable of heeling on a flat collar (although that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to only use a flat collar on them). Ignore anyone that tries to shame you for using a training collar, chances are they’re uneducated on how they work and think they’re cruel when they aren’t. People like that aren’t worth your time. You (and your trainer) know yourself and your dog best, do what works for your team.