Thanks to our friend Laura (who writes the “Growing Up Gomez” series), I was finally convinced to try a waist-leash. Dr. Sophia Yin had almost convinced me in “How to Behave so your Dog Behaves”, but Laura really drove the idea home with this piece she wrote for the Fido Personal Dog Training blog. This simple piece of equipment has changed the leash walking experience for me and Hazel and a number of my clients. I’m a believer.  Mine is from Ruffwear and I chose it because it looked sturdy- and it is. It also comes in nice colors and, call me crazy, but that’s important to me.

The waist-leash has proven to be one of the best tools I have ever used because:

Flat Out(TM) Leash

Hand-held, waist-worn

  • I get more focus from her because having my hands free means I can reinforce more easily.
  • I can also focus on her more easily, because I am  juggling less. Humans are sensitive to stimuli, too, and not holding a leash, fumbling for treats and scanning the environment for distractions all at the same time has proven to make a tremendous difference.
  • As Laura said in her piece, I am using my whole body, not just my arm. Almost from the get-go, this decreased any lunging forward and subsequent pulling. Hazel and I have been in the “making do” category for a long time. She’s not a hardcore puller, but her manners needed a brush-up, especially in the face of distractions.
  • For Hazel and my client dogs, this has turned walking into something truly pleasurable for everyone. The learning curve seems to move quicker and people feel more confident- not only in their dog’s ability to walk nicely, but in their ability to reinforce along the way and control the pace and not have tension on the leash. Not having to hold the leash gives them one less thing to worry about. I’ve gotten emails from clients who are simply amazed at their dog’s progress.

The video below shows some practice in a low distraction environment. We have walked up and down our street, but have had some rogue loose dogs recently and I always want Hazel to be successful, so I choose our practice time carefully. Our next step will be a local park at a time when it’s not likely to be super crowded. I’ll increase the value of my reinforcer, as that always helps when we need dogs to focus. This is not a time to be stingy. We really have to make it worth our dogs while to stick with us.

Hazel has become increasingly reliable with check-ins (due to a super high rate of reinforcement) and this has allowed me to reduce my use of the “with me” cue, so, I now use it only to get us moving and on turns, which I gotta say, she is doing like a pro. It’s been really fun for both of us and giving her something to do (check-in) has been really helpful at heading off reactivity. I also just wait if she gets distracted. The waist- leash is particularly helpful with this, because unlike a regular leash, your arm isn’t flailing about (which I have become convinced can add to a dog’s reactivity, as they can run and lunge back and forth with more vigor. This is just my own informal observation.) and you’re more grounded. I use lots of praise along the way along with reinforcing check-ins. Holding my hand up towards my chest prompts her to look up at me. I didn’t start this way, though- I started with both hands at waist level, so I could reinforce quicker. I only had to do that for a session to get us rolling. Remember, she wasn’t a super puller, but the nice trot in this video was more of a gallop until I switched to this leash.

The plan for establishing nice leash walking manners is pretty much the same as with a regular leash, with the benefit of having both hands free:

  1. Be ready with a bait bag, lots of good treats and a positive attitude. That may sound silly, but I was determined for this to work and ready to adjust my expectations and approach (rather than get frustrated or discouraged) so that we *would* be successful.
  2. Start by using a food lure to move your dog into position. If you are practicing in the right environment, you should be able to fade the lure quickly and be able to move onto using food as a reinforcer for sticking near you. Pick a cue with which you communicate to your dog- I use “with me”. I also use kissy noises as a prompt to gain a dog’s attention, if necessary (like at the end of the video!).
  3. Start practicing in the least distracting environment you can find. This could even be indoors. For Hazel and I, it was our front lawn. Our first milestone was to the mailbox (we have a very big front yard!)
  4. Be ready to reinforce on a millisecond’s notice. Again, having 2 hands free makes this much easier. Initially, I have a bulk of treats in both hands which I hold near my waist, so I can reinforce every single step if necessary (I use chopped up food roll).
  5.  Once your dog is responding reliably to your cue- and you know this by the slack in the leash- you can fade it out. I now only use it when we first start walking and on turns. The cue serves as a reminder to stick close and makes it easier to feed for position which means you are reinforcing the dog when there is slack in the leash. This isn’t about heeling, but you often end up with a dog who is pretty motivated to stay close, which is really awesome.
  6.  Begin practicing in more distracting environments. Depending on where you live, this could be your street or a local park. On a Saturday morning, our street is more distracting than a park that has wide walkways and lots of space for people to spread out into. During the week, save the random loose dog (Okay, they’re Pomeranians and those little dudes run fast!), it’s the perfect place to practice. Not a ton of traffic, a straight shot with wide lawns for stepping out of the way of cars, bikes, joggers, other dogs, etc. if necessary. If you are trying out a new location, it can be helpful to let your dog get used to the smells and take care of business before you start working, though you don’t want to let her practice pulling too much. This is important- the more a dog practices a behavior, the stronger it gets, so be ready to get in there with your delicious treats as soon as business has been taken care of. Because you have some solid practice time under your belt, this should be fairly easy- but if not, don’t despair. It just means you need more practice in your low distraction environment. Nobody ever got to Carnegie Hall without lots of practice.
  7. Once your dog is reliably walking with slack move your hand up to your chest to encourage your dog to look up at you. Personally, I love this part. I give lots of praise for that eye contact. And ya know why? Because if a dog is looking at me, she can’t be worried about what’s going on in the environment and I have a greater chance of being able to head off any reactivity. I kind of think of myself as having eyes in the back of my head, and my ears are on alert, too. At this point, I am scanning the environment way more than Hazel or my client dogs- they’re all about checking in with me, which is fantastic.
  8. As your dog becomes more reliable, you can start to take more steps before you reinforce with food and alternate with praise, but don’t be in a rush to fade the food- we *must* trump the environment. I try to keep early practice walks short-about 10 minutes long- so don’t feel like you have to conquer this immediately. Rome wasn’t built in a day, either.

I can’t stress enough that we have to be more rewarding than the environment. Our choices are simple: get into a battle of wills with a dog, or be the source of good stuff. I always want to be the source of good stuff. If a dog gets distracted, I wait or switch directions, reinforcing when the dog makes the right choice to follow along. Changing directions is a really good way to keep a dog’s head in the game, but we must make it worthwhile, so reinforce, praise, be happy. Avoid getting frustrated and if you are, pack it in for that session and start with a clear head at another time.

Here’s my friend Milly, who I took to the streets for the first time earlier this week. In our first session, we practiced in her driveway, making continually bigger loops. We practiced for about 15 minutes before moving onto something else. Today I had no option but to work on leash walking, and the practice her mom had done between sessions showed. Milly is your typical Lab, with little grace and lots of energy. She also enjoys training tremendously and my role as human treat dispenser always proves to be super valuable!



You know what I love about this most of all? The dogs are happy! They aren’t stressed! They are being rewarded for doing the right thing and the waist leash makes that so much easier. It also helps set you and your dog up for success if reinforcing “good” behavior is something you want to do, as opposed to waiting for a dog to make a mistake to correct him. We can be proactive or we can be reactive. I’ll go for proactive any day of the week.