Preparing Your Dog for Loose-Leash Walking

Nova is being taught three skills to prepare her for loose-leash walking lessons. First, Nova is learning how to focus on her owner amid distractions. Second, she is learning how to heel off-leash, with no leash to restrain her, trip her up or provide correction – heeling is all her idea! And her little wiggling body and wagging tail tell the whole story – she’s happy to play this game called “Heel.” Third, Nova’s final preparatory skill is learning how to yield to pressure on her leash.

Here’s how Nova learned these three skills in preparation for loose-leash walking.


The Focus Game – Free Shaping Voluntary Focus

Nova is excited – her owner has just filled a pink bowl with the pup’s favorite thing: food. Instead of merely setting the bowl down or putting Nova in the crate to eat, her owner stands there waiting. Nova wiggles, barks, and whines in excited frustration as she tries to figure out what to do. Then Nova takes a second to look into her owner’s face and is promptly rewarded with a bite of her meal tossed on the ground.

After finishing the bite, Nova tries to earn the next reward by sitting. When that doesn’t work, she glances at her owner again and bingo! Nova receives her reward. Now Nova catches on, and for each bite, she is faster at looking right at her owner. Soon she is focusing entirely voluntarily, for several seconds at a time for any little treat, toy, or privilege. Nova practices offering a voluntary focus for a meal, treat, or toy all over the house.

Asking for Focus

Next, Nova’s owner introduces a signal that says she is asking for eye contact. She takes a treat in each hand and holds her arms up at her sides. When Nova leaves off staring at her hands and looks into her face, her owner tosses a treat her way. Soon Nova gives up looking at her owner’s hands at all and focusing only on her face. Now Nova’s owner begins to say “Focus” just as Nova looks at her face. Soon she no longer has to raise her arms but holds them at her sides. Then she gives up grabbing a treat until after Nova has focused on her when asked.

How does this apply to loose-leash walking? If Nova voluntarily checks in with her owner during walks, then she can be given feedback such as when to stop or turn, if she needs to slow down, or if she is allowed to greet another person or dog. If her owner sees a distraction coming up on their walk, she can ask for Nova’s attention in advance and give her a cue such as “Leave It” or “Move On.”

Nova’s owner also uses the Focus Game when she takes Nova to new locations. When Nova goes to the park, the pair will first get out of the car and stand still for a minute. This lets Nova have a chance to look around, sniff the air and acclimate to her new surroundings. Then Nova is asked to “Focus,” and when she can successfully play the game she will be allowed to go play or start on a Freedom Walk (see Therapy Dog Journey Part 4).


Teaching the Off-Leash Heel

The off-leash heel is something even eight-to-ten week old puppies are capable of learning, and the sooner, the better. It is an excellent game to use to make heeling a habit for young dogs, but it is also enough fun for adult dogs to enjoy learning too.

Nova learns a basic understanding of the heel position is first. Her owner begins by luring Nova next to her with a treat. Nova busily noses at the treat in her owner’s hand, held right at her nose level, and follows it closely as they take a step forward together. Nova follows the food lure into the heel position and for one step ahead, multiple times for several days. During this time, Nova learns the meaning of the word “Heel.” Then something changes.

Instead of luring her with a treat on her nose, Nova’s owner uses her finger to point Nova into the heel position as if she had a treat in that hand. After Nova complies, she is rewarded from the opposite hand, thus beginning to phase out the lure.

Taking this game to the next level, Nova’s owner imagines an invisible box, three times the size of Nova, beside her left leg. In a small room or fenced yard, she allows Nova to wander in and out of her invisible box. Nova earns a reward anytime she walks into the box. Nova soon catches on that when she wants a treat, she has to come close to her owner on the left side, right in that invisible box. As time goes on, the box begins to shrink in size until it just fits Nova in the perfect Heel position.

After teaching these skills, Nova is much better prepared to understand the responsibility of keeping her leash loose while walking with her owner. 


Teaching Your Dog to Keep the Leash Loose

Now it is time to add the leash to Nova’s exercises. However, her owner realizes that two things will happen. First, Nova will, at some point, pull on the leash. And second, Nova’s instincts will tell her to pull away from the pressure on her collar. The unpleasant habit of pulling and pitching fits when on the leash could have its start right here, but Nova’s owner prepares for this possibility.

Yielding to Leash Pressure

You might hear some trainers refer to this as teaching collar cues. To Nova’s owner, this lesson means the difference between a dog who is forever fighting the leash and a dog who is a follower. For Nova, this is simply another game, another way to earn treats and have fun with her owner.

After adjusting a wide slip-on collar or martingale and attaching a basic six-foot leash, Nova’s owner grabs a handful of dog food to use as treats. Nova immediately smells the food and, thanks to her previous training, begins to offer desirable behaviors such as sitting and focusing on her owner.

When Nova sits in front of her owner, the handler takes the opportunity to apply gentle pressure on the leash to bring Nova towards her. Initially, Nova leans back against the leash, sometimes even squirming against it. Nova’s owner stands still waiting out the resistance and fits until Nova calms and gives in to the pressure by stepping towards her and the treat she is offering. She is profusely praised and well treated for this first success.

Nova’s owner continues to use the same method for teaching Nova to calmly and quickly yield to the pressure on the leash/collar from all four sides. She holds the leash with only a finger and thumb, uses only gentle pressure, and holds the leash close to Nova so she can direct her. Nova learns to “Come,” “Back up,” turn left, and turn right by following the leash pressure.

Adding Verbal Commands

Nova’s handler only adds verbal commands when Nova understands how to respond to the leash. First, she must learn to step forward, to stop, and to turn around with her owner following the lightest leash pressure. Then she learns to respond to “Let’s Go,” “Back up,” and “Turn” with the leash pressure giving her very gentle directions.

These leash pressure directions are a way to teach the dog not only to respond appropriately to the leash but also to teach her the meaning of commands like “Let’s Go,” “Back up,” and “Turn.” For the Canine Good Citizen test, the goal is to have a completely loose leash and not need to control or direct your dog with the leash and collar. So the leash pressure directions will be phased out.

These lessons prepare Nova for walking on a loose leash by teaching her how to keep it loose – yielding to very light pressure on her collar. Thanks to these lessons, if the leash does tighten up during the CGC test, Nova will know just what to do to loosen it again and the team will not be faulted for the brief tightening of the leash.


Achieving the Loose Leash Walk

These three preparatory skills won’t be all that your dog needs to learn. There will be many things that will distract her. She will need to learn when to greet someone, who to greet, and how to do so gently. Your pup, or adult dog, is ready for this lesson when he has learned how to focus on you around distractions, to perform an off-leash heel, and to respond correctly to leash pressure – all around mild distractions.


– Cassy & Caliber



Puppy Raising & Training Resources

AKC Staff. “Therapy Dog Training & Certification” Oct. 5, 2015. Web. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

American Kennel Club. “Canine Good Citizen” Web. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

American Kennel Club. “An Owner’s Manual for 10 Essential Skills: CGC Test Items” Web PDF. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

Camacho, Fernando. The Happy Puppy Handbook. 2018. Print.

Dog Matters Academy.

Dunbar, Ian. Before and After Getting Your Puppy. Novato, CA.New World Library. 2004. Print.

International Association of Canine Professionals. “Therapy Dog Training” Web. Accessed Aug. 31, 2019.

Long, Lorie. A Dog Who’s Always Welcome: Assistance and Therapy Dog Trainers Teach You How to Socialize and Train Your Companion Dog. 2008 Print.

The Monks of New Skete. The Art of Raising a Puppy. 1991. Print.

Stone, Ian. Simpawtico Dog Training.