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Rewarding for Loose Leash Walking


Since we are talking about our Loose Leash Walking skills this month, I wanted to take some time to talk about a parallel skill that we as handlers need to build while we are working on loose leash walking - rewarding for the loose leash walking. 

See, when we are working on teaching our dogs to walk on a loose leash, responding to pulling is only half of the picture. How we respond to pulling teaches our dogs what not to do, but it doesn’t really teach them what to do instead. We have to give them the other half of the picture to help them be truly successful at this skill. So, how can we reward our dogs for walking nicely on a loose leash.


As usual, the easy answer is treats! Feeding our dogs for walking on a loose leash is the easiest way to make it worth their while to walk at boring human pace. You can use things like toys as well as life rewards of course, but they typically are going to make the process a little slower. But let’s make sure we look at all of our options. 


Treats

This is usually our favorite and go to for most dogs. Generally speaking you can’t go wrong with a yummy treat. But there are a few things to keep in mind when we are using treats to work on loose leash walking. 

  • Value - Loose Leash Walking is a difficult behavior for our dogs, especially our young ones, and one that must be practiced in inherently distracting environments pretty quickly. Even if you are practicing your pup's leash walking skills inside under minimal distractions, you need to get it outside pretty quickly to really get good practice in. This means that we might need to use higher value foods for this behavior. If your dog is a total food hound kibble and dry treats might cut it, but for most dogs you are likely going to need at least med-high to high value treats. Things like freeze dried meat or even just regular meat and cheese. 

  • Delivery – Even if we are not working on a heel, the space where we deliver our treats can really help inform our dogs on what we are looking for exactly. So even if you are marking a behavior that is happening in front of you (like giving into the leash tension and stepping back towards you) it’s always a good idea to treat at your side. Personally I tend to teach dogs to walk on my left side first (no real reason, just personal preference) so I always treat at my left side when I am working on walking skills, even if the behavior I’m rewarding happened in front of me. 

  • Don’t break your back! - If you are working on leash walking with a small dog there are a few different strategies you can use to deliver treats without breaking your back. These can also be helpful if you are working with a dog who likes to use their teeth to take treats from you. 

  • Peanut butter or canned food on a spoon or paint stir stick - drop it down for your pup to get a lick or two, then lift it back up and keep walking

  • Drop your treats - you have to have pretty good aim for this one, and make sure your dog sees you drop the treat, but dropping them on the ground at your side is a great alternative. 

Remember, especially when it comes to value, our dog gets to decide if we’ve chosen the right thing to reward them with, it’s not up to us. 


Toys

This is a common reward used in sports, and can be something that can be helpful to use inside or if you are in a space where it is safe to practice your pups walking skills off leash. If your dog is really motivated by toys this is a viable option, but it will make walks a little slower as you do need to be able to stop to play with your pup for a moment whenever you want to reward. You also need to have a really solid set of rules around games so that your dog is able to go back to working after playing for a few minutes, and is able to release the toy.  It also requires a little additional skill on the handler end of things, as you likely need to be able to juggle a toy and a leash at the same time. 


When I have used toys for leash walking in the past I’m typically either using a ball and fetch or a tug toy with tug time as my rewards. 

  • Fetch - When I am using fetch as a reward for leash walking I will usually have the ball stashed in a treat pouch or back pocket. If I’m working on a focused heel I might have it tucked into my armpit to use as a lure, but if I’m just working on regular leash walking I don’t want my dog too fixated on it. After a stretch of walking I will mark, then toss my ball. I will usually do a handful of tosses before moving on to more walking, stashing the ball back into its previous spot. 

  • This is often easiest to practice while walking on a long line or off leash to make sure that you can actually do some decent tosses with the ball. 

  • If your dog is ball OBSESSED this may not be the best reward strategy for you as it can be really difficult for those pups to transition back to walking and not just obsess over the ball. 

  • It is really important that your dog reliably drops the ball for this to be effective as a reward.

  • Tug - Similar to using a ball I will usually have my tug toy stashed in a pouch or pocket when walking. We will walk for a bit, then mark and present the tug toy with my cue to grab it. We tug for a bit, I’ll usually let my pup win a couple of times, then ask them to release the toy, stash it and keep walking. 

    • Again, it’s really important that your dog has a very solid and cooperative tug game to be able to use this as a reward. They should be able to easily release the toy and move on, as well as want to invite you to continue tugging with them when they win. 

    • This is easier to do on leash, as distance isn’t part of this game at all, but keep in mind you will need to be able to juggle a leash and a tug toy. If you walk on a waist leash this is a great option. 

  • If your dog has stellar stimulus control around tug games you could even us a rope leash that doubles as a tug toy for them. 


Life Rewards

Life Rewards is a strange term that not a ton of people are familiar with, but it just breaks down that the reward for walking loosely on a leash is that you get to keep walking and exploring. Or possibly that you get to go sniff something. Generally this is the goal for walking. We start with treats and as our dogs understand the behavior we treat less, and lean more and more on life rewards being enough compensation for walking like a human. 


You absolutely can start and continue and finish using solely life rewards, but remember that is only giving our dogs half of the information so it just takes a little longer. If you are going to lean on life rewards heavily from the beginning it can be very helpful to really lean on letting them sniff longer and direct the walk a little more to make it even more rewarding for them. 


Really when we are teaching our dogs to walk on a loose leash there isn’t a “wrong” reward to use. Of course your dog will tell you what the best reward is, but as long as you are consistent you can get where you’re going no matter what reward you use. Some rewards will get you there faster than others, but if you stick to your definition of loose leash walking and make sure that pulling doesn’t work, you’ll get there eventually! And don’t forget, we’re always here for additional support, both in person and virtually.


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