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Displaying items by tag: loose leash walking

Is a Hands-free Leash The Right Tool for You and Your Service Dog?

Some service dog handler’s prefer to use a leash they don’t have to hold in their hands. Some benefits for the handler include having your hands-free to hold other objects, manipulate crutches or walker or to hold the clicker and deliver treats. But, using one may not be in the long-term best interests of your dog. 

Hands-Free Leash is NOT a Training Tool

The first thing you need to understand is that a hands-free leash is not a training tool. Training tools are used to teach the dog a new behavior, then faded as quickly as possible once the dog understands and has generalized the behavior.  A hands-free leash should only be used AFTER the dog has been taught to reliably walk close to the handler and keeping the leash loose. 

Let’s dig into what a hands-free leash is to find out more. There are two kinds of hands-free leash: a shoulder leash that loops over one shoulder and clips on the dog’s harness on one side of the handler, and a waist leash which goes around the handler’s waist and clips on the harness. We do not recommend the use of collars for leash attachment due to the real possibility of injury to a dog’s back and neck even after the dog is trained to walk well.

Some Challenges When Using a Hands-free Leash 

*Finding just the right standard length of leash for the specific dog can be tricky. If it’s left too long, the handler or dog may get tangled in it, trip on it or it gets caught under wheels (for a wheelchair). If too short, the dog has only a small space to move and small margin of error before he gets pulled by the leash. The dog then has to be hyperaware of where he is in space. This is mentally stressful especially when worn for long periods.
*Most hands-free leashes have set lengths so are not adaptable to the ideal length for you and your dog.
*Most leashes too heavy. To adjust the length, some handlers double up a part of the leash but they add unnecessary extra weight (in the case where the leash has rings to allow shortening).
As a result the dog either trend to learn to ignore pressure (pull) or become sensitized to it (hyper-aware). He also may move in and out of a safe position for them both such a crossing behind or in front of the handler.
The bungy type leashes attached to the hands-free part are heavy. A lighter thinner leash is better to communicate with your dog and help him be aware of pressure changes.
*A waist leash can be hard to twist around your body if you are wearing multiple layers. Dogs will need to move around you at some point and you may need to unclip the leash to get it back into a good position.  
*Waist leashes are not suitable for people wth lower back issues as that is where the waist part of the leash rests and pulls. This is especially true for handlers with large dogs.
*Shoulder leashes are not suitable for people with shoulder or neck issues as that is where the leash rests and pulls. This is especially true for handlers with large dogs.
*If hip padding is added for handler comfort, that adds weight and is harder to rotate around your body.
handle in the middle of the leash adds weight
*The dog gets a harder jerk when you stop or change directions suddenly on a waist leash than if you are holding a leash. Your arms gives more gradual direction to your dog.
*There is a limitation to the weight of the dog attached to the hands-free leash. A large dog may drag you if you can't release the leash.
*The handler will still need to manipulate the hands-free leash in some situations. The manipulation will just be different than for a hand-held leash. 
*Some leashes have a quick release. These malfunction or get released when you don't intent it to and your dog is running free when you don’t want him to be. 

Hands-Free Leashes Condition Handlers To Not Pay Attention to Their Dogs Needs as They Move

The biggest challenge to using a hands-free leash is that having the leash attached to the shoulder or waist removes the more subtle communication that holding the leash in your hands allows. This usually results in the handler not paying attention to the dog or his needs as he moves along. The dog receives no subtle information about direction, speed or changes or enough time to make those changes like he would with proper leash handling. This adds stress to the dog’s daily job of helping the handler.

What Situations Can a Hands-Free Leash Be Useful?

With service dogs, there are some situations where a hands-free leash can be helpful such as hand dexterity limitations or attaching the leash to a wheelchair.

Some tips for these situations:  
*Make sure you dog can move normally. If you notice a “pace” gait then your dog is likely feeling restricted. A pace gait is when the two legs on the same side move together in the same direction. Dogs will often use it when they are tired or cannot match your speed. In this case, a speed that is comfortable for you may be too slow for your dog's natural trot but too fast for their walk.
*Use a slightly longer leash, not shorter, to give the dog more freedom. 
*Experiment with where you attach the leash to the dog’s equipment. Attaching the leash to the back clip of a walking harness may work better than attaching it to the front loop.
*Find a way to lift the leash when needed to prevent tangling (if the handler is able to use their hand or arm to lift it for example).
*Make sure the leash is attached to a secure attachment location on the wheelchair that is safe and prevents leash tangling. For heavy electric wheelchairs this may even be a proper bicycle attachment that attaches to the side or back of the chair.
*Specifically teach your dog how to deal with obstacles such as posts and poles when on leash.
*Stop and remove the leash from hands-free attachment in situations where the dog needs more length to move such as a wheelchair going through a doorway or loading into vehicle. This might mean attaching the leash in another location for better mobility in that situation.
*Give the dog frequent breaks from the hands-free leash. Stop and either lengthen or unlatch the leash to give the dog more space to move around to potty, sniff and be a dog.


Hands-free leashes are best used in specific situations and for short periods. Like all other behaviors, teach the dog to walk on a loose leash, add fluency to the leash walking behavior, generalize it to a variety of locations, and do maintainance training. Specific desensitization needs to be done for higher level distractions (other dogs, people, vehicles, road grates etc) that you may encounter while leashed before asking the dog to generally ignore them as he moves past them with you. Only then is it wise to add a hands-free leash to the situation.

Life Hack: Try Before You Buy
If you want to try a hands-free leash before buying one, use an old belt or the belt from a treat pouch and tie your regular leash to the belt. Or attach the leash to the waist belt via a carabiner clip. Experiment with the length  before you start. Then set up some obstacles to move around (cones or chairs for example). Pay attention to how your dog does without your hands guiding the leash or taking up the slack.


Published in Equipment
Monday, 09 September 2019 08:25

Teaching Your Dog To Stay in Position While Moving

Ever wonder how good trainers can teach their dog to walk nicely on leash without any correction tools? No matter if you are teaching your dog to heel or loose leash walk beside you, your wheelchair, walkers or crutches, the basis of the behaviour is the same! 

In order to help your dog understand where you want her to be, the key is to heavily reinforce her in that position in many, many situations so she gets a picture in her head of where she is in relation to you. Try These Tips:

Start Off Leash 
Surprised? Yes, by training your dog when she is free, she solves the puzzle of finding the desired position herself, with no help from you. This uses her brain rather than teaching her to rely on the leash.The leash should only be used as an emergency connection. The bonus is that you avoid developing bad habits of using the leash to guide your dog. You want her to understand where she needs to be without your help. This avoids having to correct her for positions you don't want. 

Have a Clear Picture of Where You Want Your Dog To Be 
This is your criterion. You will be rewarding her whenever she stays within that target position. Where is her nose in relation to your leg or the wheelchair? Exactly how far away will she be from your legs or the chair? Or perhaps it's easier to see where her shoulders are in relation to your knee or chair. Whatever way you can make it easy to measure it, use it. 

Heavily Reinforce the Desired Position While Stationary 
Feed your dog 10 times in a row (one treat at a time) for staying there. Reward her 10 times in a row, being careful of treat placement. Present the treat directly in her mouth so she doesn't have to move to get it. 
Change your position by rotating one quarter of a turn (90 degrees) and repeat. 
If your dog can't find the position while you are staying still, she won't be able to find it when you are moving!

"Play" With The Position by Rewarding Your Dog for Finding the Position 

Take one step to the side and see if she can find the position again. Reward heavily.
Turn left. Reward heavily.
Turn right. Reward heavily.

Keep Sessions Short
Count out 10 treats and dismiss your dog for a one minute break. This gives her time to think about it and build new neutral pathways.  This is essential for new learning!
Do a few only a few sessions. Most dogs do well with 3 sessions (3 sets of 10 repetitions). Some can focus for 5 sets. The key is always end the sessions with your dog wanting to do more. If she walks away, you've done too much. 

Add The Leash As a Separate Training Criterion
Put on your dog's collar or flat non-restrictive walking harness and attach the leash. This adds difficulty for you, not the dog.
You must figure out how to hold the leash, or where and how to attach it. Perhaps a waist or shoulder attachment might be better for you.
You need to develop the ability to deliver the treat to the same place you did when the dog was not wearing the leash. 

Gradually Increase Distraction Levels 
This is the most common error people make and then they resort to training collars and harnesses since they don't know what else to do. The sad thing is many people never remove them once they start using them. Training collars and harnesses are supposed to be like training wheels on a bicycle, to help the dog learn the skill, then remove them as quickly as possible. 
In order to mimic off leash conditions in areas that are not safe to work your dog off leash, use the professional tip of standing on the end of the leash or attaching the leash to a waist band. This gives your dog freedom to choose to move and be able to find the position without being restricted or tempting you to control her with the leash. At the same time, it gives you the peace of mind knowing she will safe safe if an unexpected distraction comes along. 

Each Time You Add or Change Equipment, It Changes The Picture of You To Your Dog 
With each new piece of equipment, restart teaching your dog the position. 

If you want more details complete with step by step videos, join our foundation skills classes to learn several ways to teach your dog the desired position, and loose leash walking classes to learn how to apply them in motion in different situations like stairs and locations or take our loose leash walking class specifically for wheelchairs. We offer classes for other skills as well! 

Published in Dog Basic Skills
Friday, 13 May 2016 02:13

*Teaching Your Service Dog to Heel

Audio version of this blog post

Teaching Your Service Dog to Heel

There is much confusion in the service dog world about what is heeling is and isn't. Before we can start talking about teaching a dog to heel we need to know exactly what you are asking him to do.

dog stays in a specific position next to your body, within a few inches, usually with eyes looking at you. The handler is usually upright and staring ahead holding their body in a somewhat rigid position. This skill takes much concentration and as is very hard for a dog to maintain for even short periods. Heeling is typically seen in competition, military or other hierarchical based situations. Even the high level dogs are only asked to do it for 5 minutes at a time. Service dogs only need heeling when negotiating tight spaces, high distractions or crossing streets. Teaching this takes incredible concentration on both ends of the leash. A typical cue for heeling is "heel". 

Here is a golden retriever showing how to do off leash competition heeling. You can see how much effort this would be for a dog to maintain for long periods. Thank you to Ada Simms and Lexi from Reward That Puppy Dog Training Inc. for the demo video.

Loose Leash Walking:
the dog walks with a 6 foot or shorter leash, keeps slack in the leash (hangs down in a U or the clip hangs down) but is allowed to sniff and change position. Dogs may look at the hander or use their peripheral vision and other senses to keep track of the handler's position. Most handlers are comfortable with their dogs 3-4 feet away in any direction. While in indoor retail in crowds or narrow busy sidewalk type locations, service dogs are required to stay within 2 feet of the handler but do not need to be that close in general. Loose leash walking should be a 'default' behavior. 'Default' means that the dog does it when he is not told to do any other behavior. He can rely on the equipment, the handler's body position and context to know what behavior to do. It takes much training to get to this stage.

Here is another golden learning to loose leash walk in public with her handler. She doesn't have to look at the handler, just stay in close distance and keep the leash loose.

A Challenging Behavior
The challenge for both heeling and loose leash walking is that it requires the dog to have a high level of impulse control (to resist distractions and stay in position) and that they must hold that position for a long time. And it requires the same of the human.

Being attached by a line is not natural for a dog or a human. We are free ranging individuals. Even formal dancing for short periods is difficult for many people. Both partners have to learn how to work together to keep it a comfortable experience for both. The teaching process requires short frequent training periods with high level of reinforcement in many different carefully chosen environments to help both partners succeed. If done well, can really build the bond between the two team members.

Do Corrections Work?
Corrections such as collar pops only work in the short term. If you have to keep using them, they aren't working. Head collars don't teach the dog anything except to give in to the head collar. Take it off and the dog moves away from the handler. Both of these approaches are aversive for a dog. To build and enhance a strong relationship with a service dog, we need to teach the dog the behavior we want, not punish him for what we don't. Time has to be spent specifically focussing on teaching your dog the desired position no matter what is going on around you, how good a scent or who may be approaching you. That needs to be taught specifically and incrementally, not just as a byproduct of doing other training.

How to Help Your Dog be Successful
The dogs that are successful loose leash walkers are the ones who understand the position you want them to be in first. Most dogs do best with learning to walk leash free first. Most importantly, the handler learns to let the dog learn to control herself, rather than direct the dog all the time. For some people this can be a hard habit to change.

Another aspect is if your dog is off leash, you are more likely to be aware of where your dog is in relation to you rather than rely on the leash pressure to tell you that. This awareness (including eye contact, physical proximity as well as changes in tension on the leash) is a big part of the connection between you and the dog when you are working. Many people are disconnected from their dog partner and oblivious to what is going on for him. He is half of the team and needs to be given full attention during training and then that will be faded to half your attention once he is fully trained. When you are dancing with your partner, you need to be aware of where your partner is no matter if he is dog or human. The leash is added after the dog knows the desired position and you have developed a feel for where he is. Dogs that can work off leash are much more reliable on leash.

Do a search on Youtube and Vimeo and most videos will start you off, and show great early success, but not show the steps later in the process. It can be a long one and different approaches are needed for different dogs and different situations they are in. Creativity is needed.

LLW is a Prerequisite as a Service Dog

Since loose leash walking is a necessary prerequisite for all service dogs.
and if he cannot walk on a loose leash walk with distractions, he is not ready to start public access.

If you want to follow a step by step procedure to teach your dog to loose leash walk successfully, check to see if my Loose Leash Walking classes are being offered online this month. Check the SDTI catalogue page to see when registration is open next. 

If your dog generally does well except with high level distractions or has fears etc, you will want to look at our Harnesses and Vests class. Or for large dogs that lunge or yoyo or if you have little arm strength or stability our Head Halters class that will teach you how to safely introduce your dog to a head halter and how train with it with the goal of your dog walking without it down the road.

Donna Hill B.Sc. B.Ed.
Founder/Head Instructor
Service Dog Training Institute

Published in Dog Basic Skills