Many pet owners wonder if they can retain control while walking their dogs and still allow at least some running in front, sniffing, and playing. You might worry that allowing your dog occasional freedom could result in him expecting it all the time, leading to a testy, leash-straining walk. It’s possible for both parties on the leash to have an enjoyable experience by implementing and reinforcing well-thought-out training techniques.
Begin by making word associations you’ll use on your walks. Give the dog some slack on the leash, and as he starts to walk away from you say “OK” and begin to follow him.
Do not let him drag you; set the pace even when he is being given a turn at being the leader. Whenever he starts to pull, just come to a standstill and refuse to move (or refuse to allow him to continue forward) until there is slack in the leash. Do this correction without saying anything at all. When he isn’t pulling, you may decide to just stand still and let him sniff about within the range the slack leash allows, or you may even mosey along following him. After a few minutes of “recess,” it is time to work. Say something like “that’s it” or “time’s up”, close the distance between you and your dog, and touch him.
Next say “let’s go” (or whatever command you want to use to mean “follow me as we walk”). Turn and walk off, and, if he follows, mark his behavior with “good!” Then stop, squat down, and let him catch you. Make him glad he did! Start again, and do a few transitions as he gets the hang of your follow-the-leader game, speeding up, slowing down, and trying to make it fun. When you stop, he gets to catch up and receive some deserved positive reinforcement. Don’t forget that’s the reason he is following you, so be sure to make it worth his while!
Require him to remain attentive to you. Do not allow sniffing, playing, eliminating, or pulling during your time as leader on a walk. If he seems to get distracted – which, by the way, is the main reason dogs walk poorly with their people – change direction or pace without saying a word. Just help him realize “oops, I lost track of my human”. Do not jerk his neck and say “heel” – this will make the word “heel” mean pain in the neck and will not encourage him to cooperate with you. Don’t repeat “let’s go”, either. He needs to figure out that it is his job to keep track of and follow you if he wants to earn the positive benefits you provide. The best reward you can give a dog for performing an attentive, controlled walk is a few minutes of walking without all of the controls. Of course, he must remain on a leash even during the “recess” parts of the walk, but allowing him to discriminate between attentive following – “let’s go” – and having a few moments of relaxation—“OK” – will increase his willingness to work.