Loose Leash Walking Part 3: Incorporating Real-Life Rewards

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We’ve given you the basics of teaching loose leash walking to your adventurous canine, and a game to hone the behavior, but it’s time to take that skill even further. The steps outlined here will let you reduce your reliance on treats, in favor of using your dog’s environment to reward them. Sound good? Read on!

Nerding Out With Trainer Vocab

You don’t need to remember this part to be successful at this, but it’s cool! The reason the protocol outlined here works is something called the Premack Principle. It essentially states that you can reinforce less-probable behaviors (those the learner doesn’t find especially pleasurable) by giving them a chance to engage in a higher-probability behavior (that is, one they find pleasurable to perform). “Eat your vegetables if you want to have dessert” is a classic example of Premack in action.

How to Implement It

This post will be most helpful to you if your dog is reliably, even if only occasionally, offering you desired behaviors. The example we’ll use here is walking politely at your side, rather than pulling on leash, but you can do this for any behavior you want to see more of.

In addition to that, you’ll also want to have a good sense of what behaviors your dog most wants to do when out for a walk. This could be sniffing every tree and hydrant for minutes on end, air-scenting, staring at cars as they go by, or even pulling on leash (yes, some dogs really do LOVE to pull!). If you’re not sure how to tell what floats your dog’s boat, check out our post about reading dog body language to help you sort it out.

Once you’ve got a desirable (to you) behavior happening, and an idea of what behaviors your dog finds desirable, you’re good to go! All you have to do is wait for a few seconds of the behavior you like, and then you can send your dog off to do what they want. Here it can be helpful if you have a release cue like “okay” or “free” to use, so that your dog understands you are releasing them from the behavior you prefer so they can do the one they enjoy. Note that, at times when it wouldn’t be appropriate to release your dog to do their thing, you can also cue some easy behavior your dog knows really well, like Sit, Hand target, or Spin. Yes, you can actually reward a behavior you like by cueing anther behavior you like!

Be strategic about the timing of your release or other cue. If you’re headed toward a spot you know smells amazing to your dog, releasing them at the moment they get there will be maximally impactful in their minds, whereas releasing them to sniff in a crosswalk or your driveway might be no big deal to them.

We call these moments real-life rewards, and they’re a great way to reinforce and strengthen your dog’s good behaviors.

Real-Life Rewards in Action

As noted above, sniffing is very rewarding for many dogs, so this is a great choice whenever you’re able to use it safely. Beyond that, if you’re walking your dog on leash to an area that the dog will be let off leash, unclipping the leash after some dynamite leash walking is another wonderful real-life reward. If you see your dog’s favorite neighbor (human or canine), you can reward a polite approach with the opportunity to greet the person or dog (assuming they’re OK with it!). If your dog gets excited to get into the car, reward walking calmly toward it with a chance to jump on in.

Setting Criteria

Note that many of the examples above involve your dog being on the brink of getting to do something they’re very excited about. This can make it challenging for them to keep their cool and stick by your side. Because of this, it’s a good idea to have reasonable expectations. If the beloved person, car, outdoor space, or sniff area is 30 feet away, maybe only ask for 10 feet of loose-leash walking and then give the release cue when you’re still 20 feet away from that tempting spot. You may need to start with just a step or two of walking, but you’ll gradually build from there.

It’s important that you’re the one releasing your dog to do the behavior they want to do! Otherwise your dog isn’t really learning anything, they’re just doing what feels right in the moment. As your dog gets better at maintaining self-control around these exciting things, you can gradually increase your criteria, getting closer and closer to the thing they desire before giving the release and letting them access their wonderful reward.

Happy adventuring!


Wanna join the conversation? Share your adventures with us? How you harness fun with your canine companion? We invite you to post in the comments below, follow us on social media (remember to tag us too), or email us directly!


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