First off, there seems to be an expectation that therapy dogs are perfect at all times under all circumstances. As the popular perception goes, we never jump up on someone, we never bark, we never pull our leash, etc. When is the last time you met a perfect human that was (for example) never crabby, never prone to overeating, and never snapped at another driver while waiting in traffic? That's what I thought! We all have off days, bad moments, or times when we behave in ways we wish we hadn't. We ought to have similar expectations for therapy dogs.
Take the experience my human and I had with the therapy dog exam. The human we very concerned about the neutral dog part of the test. I'm supposed to walk with the human up to another human with a dog. The humans talk for a few moments and then continue walking away from each other. I'm not supposed to be reactive toward the neutral dog.
The human was in a minor tizzy about this portion of the exam. I'm a super friendly pup and have this special way of whining and wiggling when I see another friendly dog. I'm not afraid of the dogs: I want to play with them. The human was convinced I would fail because I am seemingly incapable of walking past the neutral dog without displaying my extensive desire to play. What did I do at the test? I bet your first thought is that I was perfectly well behaved. You probably are thinking I was an exemplar of ideal behavior. Wrong! I did what I always do: I pulled on the lead a little, went up on my back feet trying to give a friendly hello to the human walking past my human, and generally was my normal happy playful self.
I didn't fail. Why? The human anticipated by response. He knew I was likely to do this so he was prepared to tighten my lead. He prevented me from going up on to the human (and thus also prevented me from having a close interaction with the neutral dog). When I went up on my toes to greet the woman he asked me to sit (which I did) and then we went on our way. Well it wasn't ideal, and I didn't pass that section with a perfect score, it was good enough. I'm a real world dog, my human is a real world human, and we know how to interact and be safe in real world situations.
On my therapy dog exam there was some space for there to be a tighter lead (rather than a loose lead). As you all know, I am part Basset Hound. Among other things, this means that my nose is the most important organ in my body. My body is lead through the world by my nose. I walk around (for the most part) with my nose to the ground. I'm not all that interested in listening to other people when I catch a scent of something I like. That is my nature. It isn't my nature to be prance next to my human. He's always going to have to be aware of me when walking in crowded environments: if I catch a smell I am going to follow it. He'll have to be ready to tighten up my lead a bit and give me a little extra guidance. No big deal, and no reason for me to fail a therapy dog examination (after all, during the part when I was supposed to be walking on a loose lead I had my nose stuck to the ground trying to follow the scent of something good).
So my first suggestion for loose lead walking is to be easy and alter your expectations. Be aware of your dog, know what she is doing, know what is in your environment, and be proactive. It isn't about being perfect: it's about being safe and in control.
My second suggestion is to balance your walking times with opportunities for your dog to explore on her own with time when your dog is expected to follow your lead. Teach your dog a word to differentiate between the two different experiences. When I am expected to walk close to my human and not explore he says "follow me." When I am allowed to direct my own walk he says "explore."
How do you teach the difference between "follow me" and "explore?" We started with "watch me." When I was a young puppy I started to learn watch me. Whenever I made eye contact with my human he said "watch me" and gave me some sort of reward (excited happy petting, a piece of kibble, a click on the clicker, etc.). When we were learning to walk on a lead we practiced that same skill. If I'm watching my human, I can't be sniffing. If I'm watching my human, I can't be barking at other dogs. As an added bonus, since I am also part herding dog I like watching things and keeping them together. Sometimes it is debatable if the human is leading me or if I'm herding him in any particular direction.
Anyway, over time "watch me" expanded into "follow me" and "stay close." When I strayed way and pulled on the leash I would hear "watch me." I knew this means if I looked at my human I'd get some sort of reward (most of the time, but not always). In order to receive my reward I'd have to (a) watch the human and (b) be close enough to the human so I could reach the reward. Without any effort at all I would start doing "follow me" which means walk very close to the humans leg, look up at him, and lick my lips in hope of getting a yummy reward. For the most part my reward now is that I touch my human's hand with my nose, wag my tail, and continue a happy walk.
Sounds easy? Right? It both is very easy and it isn't very easy. Training like this takes a lot of time, patience, and practice. Those who want their dog to instantly "heel" won't be satisfied with this technique because it isn't an instant technique (in my opinion, there are not instant techniques). I've gotten good at these skills but I'm still not "perfect." Sometimes I ignore my human. Sometimes I pull. When the human collected his patience, we start back to the beginning with a "watch me" and we continue. This is a life time practice.
I've seen dog trainers do all sorts of things. Some use a "choke" collar assuming that a dog will stop pulling to escape from the unpleasant sensation of their neck getting constricted. Usually this just seems to result in dogs that pull and wait for their humans to escape from the unpleasant sensation of being pulled. It's also dangerous (numerous dogs have suffered numerous injuries from these sorts of collars). Lastly, training like this doesn't start with the basis of giving your dog something to do (watch me, follow me, etc.). It starts with the basis of telling your dog what not to do. Humans (children and adults) as well as dogs do best when they are shown what they are supposed to be doing (given an antecedent) and then monitored to make sure they are performing that request. It's unrealistic to think that anyone will do what you want them to do if you give them a consequence for doing it prior to teaching/showing them what you want them to do.
I've also seen trainers do things like step in front of a pulling dog with one leg to block their path. My human is someone clumsy so this generally involved in him tripping and falling or stepping on me. In the end I don't think this is very effective because again, it's not starting with the expectation of what you want the dog to be doing. This isn't showing the dog how to follow, it's showing the dog that you want him to avoid getting stepped on.
I've seen trainers also walk in the opposite direction that the dog is pulling in. It makes for short frustrating walks. The idea here is that (a) the dog wants to walk in one direction and have a good time) and (b) the dog doesn't get to do that unless she complies with what you are asking. This can be effective as long as you first teach the dog what you want her to do (watch me, follow me, etc.). The dog does what is asked (watch me, follow me) and they get what they want (a reward, continued walking, praise, etc.). They don't do that and they don't get to continue walking (a good time to practice sit/say or a time to walk in the other direction).
There is one down side to teaching a dog "watch me." I find that I get into watching my human so much I will occasionally walk into things because I'm focused on him rather than where I am walking.
This help Lauren? Try it out and let us know what you think.