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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tuesday's Training TIP: More on LOOSE-LEASH HEELING

Sharon Waschler is a published author and dog enthusiast who trains her own service dogs.  Recently, a post by Sharon on her blog, After Gadget, about loose-leash heeling caught my attention.

She was frustrated with Barnum, her current service-dog-in-training--he pulled on his leash.  Sharon has helpers who walk Barnum and each of them reported that he was "fine" on-leash with them.  Unable to reconcile this, Sharon observed her walkers and discovered that Barnum was, indeed, pulling.  Because he was not lunging at things, her walkers thought his behavior was acceptable.  With a bit of coaching, her walkers matched their methods with hers, and Barnum is improving.

The loose-leash method of training that Leader Dogs for the Blind requires of all its puppy-raisers, volunteer dog-walkers, and trainers should really be called "backwards walking."  Whenever the leash has ANY tension whatsoever, you walk backwards at the same speed at which you were walking forwards until your puppy looks at you. The theory is that your puppy will soon figure out that he will not get where he wants to go unless his leash is loose.

(For more about loose-leash heeling, read my posts from July 27, 2010 and April 19, 2011.)

This is a good theory.  In practice, at least in my experience, my puppy learns that when I walk backwards it is time to high-tail it back to my left side.  As soon as we return to walking forwards, it is totally okay (in his puppy-mind) to have a little tension on the leash.


Admittedly, "backwards walking" is a hard-learned skill that improves with experience, practice, and consistency.  And I mean a skill that is learned by the puppy-raiser  (me) who is attempting to teach this to her puppy!  I don't think that each of my three Future Leader Dog puppies have been "better than the one before."  With time, and some effort, MY proficiency is developing.

Yet.  FLD Gus is nine-months-old and I'm frustrated with our stutter-stepping walks.  When I read Sharon's post ("A Loose Leash Walk"), I realized I had forgotten one important step.

Here are some HINTS, prompted by Sharon:
  • Walk backwards FURTHER.  Even though FLD Gus twirls around and hustles back to my side, his attention is forward.  As soon as we travel ahead, he reverts to tension, slight at it is, on the leash.
  • Walk backwards until your puppy LOOKS AT YOU.  I noticed that FLD Gus doesn't look at me when I reverse.  If he isn't straining to look ahead or at whatever is distracting him, he is looking down, NOT at me.  This is the important step I forgot!  I don't wait until he looks in my eyes before I continue forward.
  • Praise your puppy AS SOON AS HIS EYES MEET YOURS, and then go forward.  After several longgggg series of walking backwards, FLD Gus started to look up at me as if thinking, "Why are you still walking backwards?"
  • REPEAT as necessary, even if your projected 20-minute walk through the neighborhood only gets you to the corner and back!

Now that I am working with FLD Gus on loose-leash heeling this way, I see progress--it only takes one or two really long backwards walking before he looks up; as we continue, I find the need to back up is less.  FLD Gus decides to walk more easily before me, his leash draping looser at his shoulder.

YAY!  And thank you, Sharon, for reminding me just exactly what I need to do!


  1. I would add, you can stop and "be a tree" until the dog either sits or looks at you, teach your dog to "look" on cue, or work on the dog staying by your side OFF leash first and then re-adding the leash.

    After my second puppy about removed my arm from my socket during her year with me, I determined never to have a dog that pulled excessively again, so far so good.. :)

  2. Awesome, Erin! I will give those a go too. FLD Gus actually does pretty well, but these adolescent months are always a challenge! Thanks for your help! And best with Rob!

  3. This is all great information, but the one thing that LDB doesn't take into consideration, and other training methods, is that blind people cannot look in their dogs' eyes or know when the dog has looked into the person's. I am frustrated by this as I am on my second Leader dog and I have also tried to train "loose leash" walking to my pet dogs and I have had to be creative in that the basic training methods do not address this issue...obviously. :)

  4. Great post, and Jes your absolutely right.
    I find it difficult to teach my pet dog not to pull, and it doesn't help that I mostly walk him and the guide dog together. I can't exactly start backwards with a guide dog!

  5. Jess--I am sorry for your frustrations with loose-leash walking. I can't imagine what it must be like trying to train a dog and not be able to visually "read" the dog!

    I can't speak for Leader Dogs for the Blind, but I am sure that they DO take into consideration the abilities of the handlers. We puppy-raisers are frequently told HOW to do things (like touching our puppies, examining them, or positioning them next to us in a restaurant, for example) that emulate how the handlers interact with their Leader Dogs.

    Perhaps you could call LDB and ask for additional tips to help you with your dog. There are many different training methods and every dog/person/situation is unique. Good luck!

    Jen (and Jess)--thanks so much for reading and commenting!