Teaching Vizslas to walk on a Loose-Leash
By Laura Wright

(for older dogs – over 6 months of age)

Does your dog take you for a walk instead of you walking him? Have you tried to break him of the habit but been unsuccessful? Would you like a dog that walks on a regular flat buckle collar without pulling ? Have you taught your dog to heel but find it too regimented for long on-leash walks  and would like to give your dog a little more freedom to sniff the ground, etc.? Read on!

The answer to how to stop the pulling can be found if we ask ourselves the question “Why do dogs pull?” The reason dogs pull is that they want to move forward, towards more interesting smells, other dogs, etc. To make things worse, the dog’s natural pace is faster than ours, so they quickly find themselves at the end of a taut leash. They pull because pulling works: they want to go forward (often towards some specific thing) so they pull forward, and we relent by going forward with them. It doesn’t take the dog long to figure out that pulling gets it to where it wants to go. The problem gets worse when the owner resists the pulling a bit. The dog then tries to pull harder and the owner finally gives in, resulting in a dog who learns that if they just keep pulling harder, they’ll eventually get to where they want to go.

The main secret to stopping a dog from pulling is to not allow pulling to get them where they want to go, and to teach them that they can go where they want (within reason!) when they don’t pull. The other part of training involves teaching the dog that when it’s on leash, it must pay at least some attention to where the person at the other end of the leash is. The most common thing people do when a dog pulls is to yank on the leash.

 This method can work to teach a dog not to pull, but in many cases it has little or no effect, for several reasons. The first thing is that many dogs don’t seem to mind being jerked with the leash. Often these jerks start as small ones and don’t really have much effect on the dog, so the jerks get progressively bigger, but all the while the dog is building up a tolerance to them and gets pretty good at ignoring them. These leash jerks are our way of telling the dog that what it’s doing is wrong, but we are generally very inconsistent with them. We let the dog pull until our arm gets tired, then we jerk the dog back. What this tells the dog is that most of the time it’s okay to pull, but occasionally it’s not. The dog has no idea when it’s okay and when it’s not, but most of the time it’s okay (ie. no leash jerk comes), and the incentive not to pull isn’t that big, so they pull.

The “quick fix” for pulling is to change equipment. Halters for dogs have become very popular in the last five years or so and are a great tool to stop leash pulling almost instantly. However, by themselves they aren’t an effective training tool and will generally not change a dog’s behaviour on a flat collar. They only teach the dog not to pull while wearing the halter. To allow some learning to take place while wearing the halter, it’s important to give feedback to the dog. Give some sort of negative verbal feedback (such as “ah-ah”) when the leash is taut and immediately praise and/or treat the dog when it walks with the leash loose. Dogs wearing a halter can still pull on the leash, just not as hard as when wearing a regular collar. This learning that pulling is bad may not transfer to wearing a collar, as pulling on the halter feels different to the dog than pulling on a flat collar, but if you’re consistent with the praise and treats when the dog doesn’t pull, there’s a chance it may catch on.

Many people, when trying to train their dog to walk nicely on a leash, give up much too soon. This training takes time, especially if pulling is a long-ingrained habit. Most importantly, it takes consistency on your part. Inconsistency only gives the dog the message that sometimes it’s okay to pull, sometimes it’s not, and will make the overall training process much slower, not to mention confuse the dog. So once you start the training, if you want to take the dog out on a leash but don’t have time to be consistent and train, use a halter or loop the leash once under its belly (with or without a half-hitch), but don’t let pulling be successful for the dog!

 As with any training, it’s much easier to teach the right way first and not let bad habits even begin, so if you’re adding a new puppy to your household, this training will likely go much faster than with an older dog who’s already learned that pulling is generally fruitful. One of the nice things about the method that follows is that, unlike jerks on a leash, it can be used on a very young (7 week old) pup without doing it any harm. If only the ‘jerk’ method is used, a puppy gets away with all kinds of pulling when it’s young, as nobody wants to jerk the neck of a puppy, and it’s really not pulling that hard anyway (we rationalize). Not starting as a young pup makes the training process that much longer since you are working against an already ingrained habit.

I don’t take any credit whatsoever for any of the following exercises. They are a compilation and combination of a few different authors’ ideas, namely Lana Mitchell, Morgan Spector and Jean Donaldson. They may not be the original authors of these techniques (there are likely other people who have written about these techniques that I don’t know about), but they are my sources.

As with all training, start in a relatively non-distracting environment, but one in which you know your dog will pull. An empty parking lot can be a good place to start. As the dog becomes proficient in one area, move to a slightly more distracting situation. This follows for teaching anything new to your dog. When upping the distraction level, you’ll find that the dog does worse than it did in the previous setting. This is NORMAL. Practice just like you did in the less distracting environment and after a few sessions the dog will discover that it can also perform its “new trick” with a bit of distraction present. If after several sessions in the new environment you aren’t getting anywhere, you’ve probably gone too far too fast, and should move back to a less distracting place. Set the dog up for success! If you take a dog into an environment where you’re pretty sure it won’t be able to ‘perform’, this is not fair to the dog, a pointless exercise, a waste of time and frustrating for you. Don’t set the dog up for failure!

Exercise #1

This exercise is meant to teach your dog to pay attention to where you are.

Take your dog out on a solid (non-’Flexi’) leash and begin to walk with it. The idea here is that you are going to be so unpredictable in your walking that the dog will be forced to pay attention to where you are going next. Continually change direction as you walk. Walk for ten paces or so in one direction, then turn away from the dog and walk in another, gently (especially with a young pup) but firmly pulling the dog with you. If he’s tending to go left, go right and vice versa. Don’t give the dog a cue that you are changing direction – it’s his job to watch you; if you give him warning that you’re changing direction, he no longer has any need to pay attention to you. When you change direction, don’ start to walk in the exact opposite direction of the dog – this will result in the dog being able to pull against you using its best pulling muscles. Instead, always walk away to one side or the other. If you walk back at a 45 degree angle, the dog has a much harder time resisting this sideways pull. It’s harder for the dog to brace against it and the dog has little choice but to follow you. Walk away from the dog with your back to it. This portrays a more ‘serious’ image (“We’re going this way now, so you’d better follow”) than backing away from the dog, facing it (“Please, will you follow me?”).  Each and every time the dog catches up to you after you change direction, praise the daylights out of it and if you want, give it a treat. It’s well known that dogs who are food-motivated learn new things faster with treats than with praise alone. As you continue to do this exercise, you’ll find yourself pulling your dog less and less. It doesn’t take very long for most dogs to catch on to this ‘game’. Once they realise that you are highly unpredictable in your walking, they will start to pay attention more and more and will eventually change direction long before the leash pulls them

that way.

Exercise #2

This exercise could be named “red light/green light”. Essentially what you are teaching the dog is that a taut leash is a ‘red light’ and causes the walk to come to a grinding halt, while a loose leash is a ‘green light’ and allows the dog to move forward. There are two parts to this exercise. The first part alone may work for some dogs, while others may need both parts to get the message through.

Walk with your dog and the second the leash goes taut, stop in your tracks. Now comes the waiting game. Wait until the dog moves in such a way as to create some slack in the leash, then immediately move forward. With enough repetitions, the dog learns that every time the leash goes taut, the fun walk stops, and he also learns that he is the one who has control over that.

For my Vizsla, I found that it didn’t bother her to stop and stand there for what seemed like hours on end. She’d happily keep looking ahead and keep the tension on the leash. So with her, I had to go to the next step. Once you’ve stopped, if the dog doesn’t make the leash go slack within a reasonable time frame, turn and walk away back the way you came from, taking the dog with you. Again, so that you can pull him with you, walk away at an angle at first until the dog is turned around. Once the dog is coming with you and the leash is loose, and before he lunges on ahead in the new direction, turn and resume the walk in the direction you were originally going. You can praise or treat here if you like, but with many dogs, just being able to continue the walk is reward enough for them. As Jean Donaldson writes, “A good motto is ‘We’ll keep doing this patch of sidewalk until you do it without pulling.’”

This exercise involves walking towards something that the dog really likes, and not letting the dog reach the object unless it walks to it on a loose leash. This is probably the hardest exercise for the dog at first, but generally the exercise in which the fastest progress is made. This is because there is something tangible that the dog is being kept from when the leash is taut, as opposed to exercise #2 where the dog is just kept from going forward towards nothing in particular.

Exercise #3

You have a choice of what object you choose. It could be a visible pile of treats (it’s important that the dog can see them from a distance – you could have him watch you or someone else place them on the ground to help him know they are there) or a favourite toy or even a person sitting invitingly on the ground. Pick a starting point about fifty paces away from the object, start walking towards the object and wait for the dog to start pulling. Keep the leash a maximum of 2 – 3 feet long for this exercise. The instant the leash goes taut, turn and walk back to the starting point with the dog. You’ll find yourself returning to the start quite often at first, but soon you’ll also notice that the point at which the dog starts to pull is later and later. Good leash handling is important here. The closer you get to the object, the more ‘on the ball’ you have to be in terms of not letting the dog get to the object when it’s pulling. The last thing you want is for the dog to get a mouthful of treats after pulling towards them! The last five or six feet are the hardest. Once the dog successfully reaches the object, if it’s food, they’ll eat it, and that’s their reward. If you used a toy, let them play with it by themselves or with you. If you used a person, allow the dog to interact in a fun way with the person.

Once the dog has the hang of what you’re asking, vary the object. If you started out using a toy, switch to food or a person. Each dog will have a ‘hierarchy’ of what things are most important to him. Start with the least important object and work up. Some dogs are food hounds, some can’t get enough of toys, some will greet people before they will greet other dogs. You know your dog best.

There may be some of you who have worked hard at teaching your dog not to pick up food they find on the ground, so you may not want to use a pile of treats as the object and undo all your hard work in that respect. If you’ve taught your dog a “leave it” command, then you could use a pile treats and just don’t tell the dog to “leave it”, which in essence gives it permission to take it, or else give the dog a cue that means he’s allowed to have what’s on the ground.

The above method is from Morgan Spector, but it is an adaptation of a method from Lana Mitchell. The big difference between Morgan and Lana’s methods are that Lana never lets the dog reach the desired object. She doesn’t ever use a pile of treats by themself, but usually a person who has treats on them or right in front of them on the ground. This way the dog never gets the treats inadvertently after pulling if your leash handling wasn’t the greatest (the person sitting can cover the treats up if the dog gets to them via pulling). With her method, she walks the dog towards the person and as above, takes the dog back to the starting line each time it begins to pull. But as soon as the dog is able to take more than a few steps without pulling, the dog is rewarded with food from you at that instant (before it starts to pull). The “game” ends at this point and they go back to the starting point. In this case, going back to the start no longer becomes a ‘punishment’ for the dog, but an opportunity to start the game again and earn more treats. She also advocates that even when the dog finally reaches the person, that they don’t give the dog the treats they have. The treats always come from the handler (you).

One word about a slack leash. I’ve heard it asked, how slack is slack? What if the leash is taut but the dog is only pulling a little bit? To me, it’s much easier for the dog to understand what you want if you make a big distinction between taut and slack. Slack means the dog feels nothing but the weight of the leash downward on his collar (ie. feels almost nothing). If the leash is in a straight line, that’s not slack. Slack means it’s hanging down in a curve, even if it’s just a slight curve. If you make this distinction you don’t fall into the trap of thinking “well, he’s only pulling a little bit, so I’ll let him get away with it.” Pulling a little bit will probably lead to pulling a lot.

Again, it’s important to reiterate that success will not come overnight. It’s been said that the length of time it takes to cure a problem behaviour is as long as that behaviour has been going on. I’m not sure that’s entirely true in every case, as I think a dog who’s been pulling for five years can be successfully taught not to pull in probably less than five months. But in general, the longer a behaviour has been occurring, the longer it will take to change it, as it essentially becomes a habit. And we all know how hard a habit is to break, especially if it is rewarding to perform it!

So in summary, if you allow a dog to pull while walking, it will be rewarded for pulling and continue to pull. The secret is to not let pulling get the dog where it wants to go. The dog only goes where it wants when the leash is slack. If you diligently follow the above exercises, you’ll have a dog that you’re happy and proud to walk on a leash!