Therapy Dog Journey Part 4: CGC Step 4 Loose Leash Walking

Learn how to prepare your dog to walk on a loose leash for the Canine Good Citizen test.

For some dogs, the next few steps in the Canine Good Citizen will prove the most challenging. Remaining at their owner’s slower walking pace, paying attention for turns and stops, ignoring big distractions like other people and dogs, loud sounds, and new sights could be the hardest things your dog ever learns.

Yet, almost nothing is a more beautiful representation of your bond and training efforts with your dog than a nice loose-leash walk. Imagine your dog, utterly unphased as he walks by your side through a crowd of people exclaiming at how well-trained he is!


Preparing 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 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.

For the sake of space and time, we have given these preparatory skills an article all their own. Please take the time to read this article and learn how to prepare your dog, especially if he/she is a puppy, for loose leash walking.


Canine Good Citizen Test Step 4: Keeping the Leash Loose

There are two parts to the skill of loose-leash walking. The first is Duration, that is, adding to the time we expect the dog to perform a loose-leash walk (or heel). The second is Distractions, and this talks about all the things that will be likely to make your dog forget his job: to keep his leash loose.

Adding Duration

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 around mild distractions, and to respond correctly to leash pressure.

Nova has learned to put herself in the heel position, to take a step forward, and to stop in the heel position. Now Nova practices taking multiple steps at a time in the heel position. The exercise now looks something like this: Three steps, treat; eight steps, treat; two steps, treat; twelve steps, treat.

Until this point, Nova has been working on her Heeling Basics in a quiet room where there aren’t many distractions so that she can concentrate. The next step is to take the training to new locations and generalize the skills Nova has learned.

Taking the Heel to New Locations

Generalizing a behavior is something you might hear other trainers talk about because it’s something that dogs don’t naturally do, yet we expect them to. For instance, Nova isn’t going to know that she must perform the same skills in the next room or in the backyard if she isn’t taught to generalize the behavior.

So now, Nova will review all the steps in learning to get into the heel position, take one or more steps forward, and stop in the heel position in new locations. They start by practicing all over the house until Nova doesn’t hesitate to perform the Heel when asked in any room. Then Nova learns that the same skills can be used in the backyard and then while taking walks through the neighborhood or park. (Heel is only used on walks for short practices – at this point Nova isn’t old enough to be expected to Heel for a whole walk and she needs the freedom to move faster to get real exercise. More on this below.)

The more places Nova is asked to practice all the steps to the Heeling Basics, the more generalized the behavior becomes and the more reliable Nova will be.


Loose-Leash Walking Around Distractions

While training for loose-leash walking around distractions, Nova’s owner keeps her rate of reinforcement high, she rewards Nova for offered focus, and she is careful not to let any pulling be reinforced. In other words, she sets Nova up for success.

A high rate of reinforcement is especially helpful for young puppies when working around distractions because they have very short attention spans. Their attention must be retrieved again and again as they work in new places and grow to where their attention span lengthens. So Nova’s owner never walks more than twenty steps without rewarding Nova for successfully walking nicely beside her in the heel position (remember the invisible box). Sometimes she takes only eight steps before rewarding, and when the distractions are higher, she rewards even more often – every two or three steps.

Nova is also rewarded and praised for every instance of eye contact she chooses to make. She will practice the Focus game everywhere they go as soon as they get out of the car. Nova and her owner won’t proceed with their visit until Nova performs the Focus game successfully. This assures her owner that she is paying enough attention to move into more distractions and work successfully.

Finally, Nova is never reinforced for pulling on the leash by not being allowed to pull her way forward, not being permitted to investigate the exciting distractions or by not interacting with another person or dog. Nova learns to return to her owner and focus again (make eye contact) before being allowed privileges like these.


Freedom Walks: How to Exercise Your Dog and Protect Your Heel Command

Let’s face it: walking at a human pace on a six-foot leash doesn’t equate to much exercise for your pup. Dogs have twice the number of legs that we humans do. They are made to move and to move quickly for long distances. This exercise is necessary for physical and mental health as it keeps the body healthy and relieves mental stress.

So how do you allow your dog to walk faster, explore new places, sniff things, and generally act like a dog without allowing him to pull on his leash? How do you keep from reinforcing the bad habit of pulling and protect the results of your loose-leash training?

This is where Freedom Walks come in. The idea is to use a different set of gear for these walks, typically a standard-harness and a fifteen-foot long line. The harness, obviously, doesn’t feel like a collar to the dog and therefore helps him to differentiate your expectations. You can expect him to wander a bit, check things out and walk faster when you put the harness on, and still expect a good Heel when you put his collar/leash on. The long line allows the dog to move faster, check things out, and still remain safely attached to you.


Nova Tastes Freedom

Here’s how it works. Nova has her harness put on and the long line attached. As she sets out down a trail or through the park, her owner walks behind her letting out the length of the long line. When only a foot or so of the line is left Nova’s owner starts putting increasing pressure on the line until it is fully out, at which point she stops walking and doesn’t move. Nova feels the pressure but doesn’t stop until she hits the end of the line and can’t make it any further.

Nova spends a minute or two pulling in the direction she wanted to walk and sniffing what’s in reach. Then she chooses a new direction. This releases the pressure on the line and allows the walk to continue. As they repeat this over and over, on long daily walks, Nova learns to change directions, or stand still and wait for her owner to catch up, when she feels the least pressure on the leash.

During these walks, Nova’s owner marks and treats anytime Nova gives her voluntary focus and “checks in” with her owner. Praise and continuing the walk are sufficient rewards for responding correctly to pressure on the line. Nova earns random treats and jackpot reward for the most challenging situations, such as ignoring a cat or leaving a high-value distraction to return to her owner.

Along the walk, Nova finds that her owner is aware of all the great toys that the outdoors afford: sticks and leaves, pine cones and treats floating in puddles. Every time the owner introduces a new toy and game to Nova on a walk, it teaches the puppy to pay close attention to her owner because something fun and rewarding could happen at any moment.


When Will Your Dog be Ready?

An adult dog can be expected to learn the skills of loose leash walking and walking through a crowd, as described above in a few short months. The length of time it takes your dog to begin to offer the skill of loose leash walking reliably will depend on 1) if he has had any prior training, 2) his individual learning pace, and 3) the amount of time and effort you invest in his training.

A puppy needs to have the grace of more time. Not only will the puppy need more time to comprehend what’s expected of him, but he will need time to mature. With maturity will come an increased attention span and better focus. Walking on a loose leash will become a habit with time and age. So expect your puppy to be between nine and eighteen months on average (large breed dogs may take more time, and small breed dogs less) to learn these behaviors and offer them reliably – if you have been training the puppy since eight or ten weeks old.

For either a young or old dog, the reliability of his loose-leash skills in public, pet-friendly places will depend on how well you introduce him to using the skills in those places. Raise your expectations slowly and carefully and continue to set your dog up for success by starting in quiet places without much busyness going on, and progressing to more difficult locations.


Next Steps

The next test in the Canine Good Citizen is Step 5: Walking Through a Crowd. Most often, our therapy dogs have difficulty walking through crowds because they get excited by the number of people. Your dog may forget all about his Loose-Leash Walking skills when presented with a crowd of new people and he thinks he must greet everyone!

So in Therapy Dog Journey Part 5 we will talk about training your dog to be comfortable walking through crowds and to maintain a nice loose-leash walk. We will also talk about the dog who greets people by jumping and how to teach a Sit Greeting.


– Cassy & Caliber




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