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Let’s Talk About Loose Leash Walking

Hi there! My name is Alisha Ardiana. I’m a positive reinforcement trainer in San Francisco and a long time fan and customer of High Tail Hikes. We’re so excited to collaborate on this new blog series all about long lines.

So let's talk about loose leash walking. Before we start, I think it’s important to note that I am a very rule oriented person. One of the first objections that comes up when we talk about long lines is leash laws. So before I begin listing all the reasons why I love long lines - I think it’s important to note that you should always observe local leash laws. They can vary widely depending on where you’re located. Rather than getting into the weeds on the specifics of leash laws, I’m here to address the spirit of those laws, which is public safety. 

a papillon stands next to a sign that reads "dogs on leash only"

Alisha's dog Civetta stands next to a "Dogs on Leash" sign. 

As a professional dog walker and trainer, my first goal is safety. Let’s talk about what leashes are for. A leash is a seat belt. It is meant to connect the dog to their handler. It is meant to PREVENT an interaction between the dog and unknown humans and dogs. Many people believe that because public safety comes first (as it should), we should walk our dogs on a short leash, next to us, in a heel position. A shorter leash intends to separate dogs from the public, and it often gives us a greater sense of safety and control. But it may not provide relief for the dog. What if our version of safety is actually making the dog feel more unsafe? 

Sometimes our attempts at providing the public’s version of safety backfires. Lack of choice and freedom of movement can make a dog feel unsafe. And if the dog doesn’t feel safe - I believe that puts others at risk. 

a dalmation type dog walks down the street with a long orange waterproof leashStella took a long time to feel safe walking in San Francisco. Having the choice to move away from what worries her is helpful. 

Let’s face it - San Francisco Bay Area is CROWDED. Next to New York City, we are the densest metropolitan area in the country. I think we really fail to recognize that a lot of dogs struggle when they walk in the Bay Area, or in other dense urban areas, simply because we don’t let them move away from potential stressors. 

Let me give you a human example. Think back to a time you were on public transportation or in a crowded public space, and someone adjacent to you was having a hard time. 

How did it make you feel? 

  • Nervous? 
  • Uncomfortable?
  • Concerned for your safety? 

How did you respond? 

  • Did you look away, hoping you wouldn’t be singled out?
  • Move seats
  • Switch cars?
  • Get off the bus and take a Lyft? 

Now what if the person got up and moved closer to you, but you were locked into your seat and unable to move. What would you do? You may turn away, hoping to avoid conflict. If that didn’t work, you may take more confrontational measures to seek help or to get the person to give you some space. When we are confined to a space where we cannot escape potential conflict, we may instigate conflict to protect our own safety. 

Let’s think about another human example. You’re walking alone at night. You think someone may be following you. 

You could:

  1. Cross the street.
  2. Stop, move to the side, and see if the person keeps going.
  3. Turn around and confront the person. 

Of these 3 choices, most of us would choose to cross the street - in other words, to create more distance. It has the most likelihood of success and the least amount of conflict. If you cross the street and they don’t follow you, you experience immediate relief and a greater feeling of safety. Now, what if you crossed the street, and the person followed you? It’s a terrible feeling. But now you are aware of what’s happening, and you can take immediate action to find safety.

My point in all this? We don’t give our dogs the option to cross the street; literally, or metaphorically. We don’t teach active avoidance skills to help our dogs create space from things that worry them. 

And when our dogs bark and lunge at people, dogs, or skateboards, when they’re hypervigilant, when they refuse to leave the house, when they freeze on walks, we label them as stubborn, reactive, embarrassing, dramatic, disruptive, or disobedient. 

But we simply haven’t taught them the same safety skills we employ on a daily basis. Why wouldn’t we teach our dogs to move away from things that are problematic — the same way that we do?

a shephered type dog walks down a paved road next to a maintenance truck

Penny makes the choice to create space from the maintenance staff. 

The foundation of my dog training is that I play games with dogs. 

I teach them to chase treats, catch treats, put their paws up on objects. 

The games are fun. They build a bond. They enhance connection. 

They provide a two way conversation. 

Then once the games are solid, I start using the games to help the dog actively avoid things that bother them. We see people, we play games, people go away. We see dogs, we play games, dogs go away.

a small black and papillon stands on a rock

Civetta plays "up" on a rock. 

And in order for us to effectively have room to move away from things that worry them - I need a longer leash. Let me be clear. It is NOT as simple as clipping a long leash on your dog and going about your day. A long line is a tool that you can employ to help teach your dog to move away from unknown people and dogs. This requires training and locations where you are able to make decisions with thought, and not under duress. It can be challenging to learn how to handle a long line, and it is critical to practice in locations where you have better sightlines, and distance to move away. 

I’m so grateful to work with so many amazing clients who see the value in the work we do. I’m so grateful to have places in San Francisco where we can walk and train together without undue stress. And I’m so grateful to work with a company like High Tail Hikes that is dedicated to helping people see the value in using longer leashes. I appreciate that High Tail Hikes offers hands free options and traffic handles to help you be successful when learning to work with longer leashes. 

It can be really challenging to be a dog guardian in a crowded urban area. If you’re struggling, I encourage you to reach out to a certified positive reinforcement professional. 

About the Author:

Alisha Ardiana (she/her) BS, CTBC, CPDT-KA, FDM

Alisha is a private dog trainer based in San Francisco, CA and the owner of Empawthy: Positive Reinforcement for Pets and their People. Her focus is empowering guardians to support and care for their dogs. Her favorite dogs are the ones who need guidance to navigate social situations.