Dogs need to learn how to walk on a leash. This sounds obvious, but think about it: walking beside the human at a steady pace in a direct line (usually a straight line) is not a normal way of walking for a dog. If you watch off-leash dogs walking with a friend (doggie or other) they move in curves, and romp, and stop and sniff, and romp to the next spot, and race ahead or lag behind and then catch up. The point I’m trying to make is to have patience with your dog, break this difficult task into steps that your dog can learn (from easy to hard), and try to find a balance between your needs/wants and your dog’s needs/wants. Is the walk mostly for the dog? For you? Or for both of you?
NOTE: there is the misconception that there is a “proper way” for a dog to walk on a leash. Well, if you are competing in a dog show or dog sport, then yes, there are specific rules to how the dog should walk. But for casual dog walks, you can decide what the rules are. It doesn’t matter if the dog walks on your right or left side (unless you have a good reason why you prefer one side to the other). It doesn’t matter if the dog walks beside you or in front of you or behind you, either. Unless you have a good reason why you prefer one position. I like to have dogs walk ahead of me because then I can keep an eye on them (what they are sniffing and what they might be trying to consume along the way), but there are some parts of a walk where I like the dog beside me (to keep the dog out of the way of something or closer to me for safety).
To let the dog sniff or not sniff? Well, that’s your choice. I like to let the dog stop and sniff (as long as it’s safe for the dog to do so). Dogs see the world through their noses; not being able to stop and sniff seems unfair or a set up for frustration — like taking a child to the fair but not letting the child go on any rides or play any games. As well, sniffing can be very calming for dogs — they are gathering information about their environment and their “thinking brain” is being stimulated. A 15 minute walk with lots of sniffing can calm a dog as much as a 30 minute non-sniff walk that focuses on physical exercise. I like to plan dog walks by using TIME rather than DISTANCE. If it’s a 30 minute walk, I let the dog sniff as long as he/she wants (again, as long as it’s safe) and I make sure to head back at the 15 minute mark. Sometimes I’ll encourage the dog to disengage with the sniffing and move along, but if I have no where I have to be, I’m usually happy to let the dog sniff as much as the dog wants.
But there are rules on a walk. I want the walk enjoyable for both of us.
I don’t allow a dog to pull me. I teach the dog that pulling doesn’t work to get where he/she wants to go. When the dog pulls on the leash, I stop. I wait until the dog makes the leash loose, then we proceed. Sometimes after waiting a bit, if the dog isn’t self-correcting, I’ll offer some guidance: I might prompt the dog to step towards me by patting my leg, making a kiss noise, turning my body in the direction I want the dog to move, or even starting to walk in the opposite direction (not a sharp jerk on the leash, but a gentle and increasing pressure on the leash that the dog must then follow).
I sometimes will also carry bits of yummy food to reinforce the dog for walking beside me. I might be walking along and have a piece of food in my hand as my arm hangs by my side. The dog generally smells the food when walking beside me (I might have to lure the dog to my side a few times until the dog learns that there might be food in my hand). I will also use the yummy food on occasion to reward the dog for a “voluntary check in.” A “voluntary check in” is basically the dog looks at my face without me prompting him/her. I’ll praise and treat to encourage the dog to do more of this behaviour that I like. At first I may have to prompt the dog to look at me (e.g. say the dog’s name or make a novel noise to get the dog’s attention) and then praise/treat for that behaviour. But after a while the dog learns that this behaviour is rewarded — often at first, then intermittently later on.
What if the dog is too aroused on the walk to “behave”?
Emotions drive a lot of behaviours. Your dog’s behaviours are mostly guided by the emotional state. If your dog’s nervous system is over-aroused, then there is very little chance of your dog learning any new behaviours and the behaviours they currently know will begin to fail.
Learn to read your dog’s subtle stress signals and then control your dog’s access to the environment so that your dog can control him/herself.
Read that again. Don’t try to control your dog. Instead, control your dog’s access to the environment so the dog can use self-control. Start before you leave the house/yard. Wait for the dog to sit before you put the leash on. Wait for your dog to sit before you open the door. Wait for your dog to sit before you step away from the door. You can use bits of food to reinforce this if you need to, but generally, if the dog wants you to put the leash on, open the door, start the walk, then you can use these things as rewards for the sit.
Walk in stages. Don’t proceed to the next stage of the walk unless the dog is showing self-control. Spend a little time in the zone you are in (e.g. sniffing the lawn, the bush at the end of the driveway, etc.). Turn around and go back to a previous zone if your dog is getting over-aroused (e.g. the dog is pulling more frequently or more strongly). If you walk back and forth along the sidewalk or path, your dog is still getting the same number of steps, but the area is becoming less exciting and your dog will calm itself and you can then begin to extend into new zones with new things to sniff.
Many dogs have become SENSITIZED to going for walks. They have learned that the walks are extremely stimulating (exciting, scary, startling, etc.) and they learn to anticipate the extreme experiences before they even leave the house for the next walk. Only by lowering the intensity of the experience of the walk can be begin to condition the dog — to DE-sensitize the dog to walks.
Practicing the loose leash walking skills in the home and yard will also help the dog transfer these skills on a walk. Don’t expect your dog to learn a new skill in an environment that is too exciting. It’s like trying to teach a kid math in Disneyland.