How to Leash Train Your Dog

Leash training does not have to look only one particular way or involve only one piece of training equipment. This post will answer some common questions and describe some techniques and equipment that have worked for many, many people and dogs—give them a try!

What Is Loose-Leash Training?

Loose-leash training teaches your dog that it is both possible and wonderful to walk with the leash loose between the two of you. 

Here’s the thing: Puppies are definitely not born knowing about this. They could live their whole lives without the idea ever occurring to them on their own. Dogs need their people to help them with it, and they’re not going to get it right immediately. That’s ok! You probably won’t get it right immediately either. Also ok. Keep things positive, keep making progress, and you and your dog will get there.

How to Leash Train Dogs Who Pull

Remember how dogs aren’t born knowing about loose-leash walking? Well, the news gets a little worse: Dogs are born knowing about pulling. Most dogs will naturally lean into pressure or restraint. This is called the oppositional reflex, and people have it too. (The instinct to pull harder against restraint is exactly what makes the so-called Chinese finger trap such a “gotcha.”) 

Even though the oppositional reflex is inborn, it’s possible to learn another response. That’s why we’re not all stuck in finger traps to this very day. But until you teach your dog what else to do about the “finger trap” on his neck, he’ll probably just keep pulling.

If your dog pulls on leash, there are two basic approaches to handling it: Management and training.

Leash Pulling: Management

Management means finding a way to prevent or work around the issue—not solve it per se, but make the situation safe and liveable. Management can usually happen quickly, and it’s usually an enormous relief. Head halters and no-pull harnesses with a leash attachment at the chest are both common tools that may help manage leash pulling. For some people and dogs, this type of management is plenty.

Leash Pulling: Training 

Training means teaching the dog to do something besides pull. It requires a commitment on your part not to let any more leash pulling happen. Until you and your dog are well down the road of loose-leash training, look for equipment like a front-clip harness or a head collar that will reduce the pulling for you when you need to take him out.

Start by teaching the dog what to do when he feels pressure on his collar or in his harness. You want him to turn back and look at you, or to move with the pressure, not pull against it. 

Pre-train the behavior you want in a quiet area—not on a walk. The training will go faster if you’re starting with a pup or dog who has never felt pressure from a leash before, than with a dog who is used to pulling against a leash or a tie-out.

  • Load one hand with food reward. 
  • With the other hand, hold the leash fairly close to the collar and put a small amount of pressure on the leash. 
  • When the dog turns to look at you, shifts his weight to take some of the pressure off, or takes a step, immediately praise, let all pressure out of the leash, and treat. 
  • Note that no verbal cue is required: The cue for your dog to “fix” the leash pressure is simply feeling leash pressure.
  • Do several sessions of this in an ultra-low-distraction area, and gradually proceed to more stimulating or novel environments.

Once this is pre-trained, you will have a fantastic foundation for “being a tree” on walks. 

  • With a leash and collar and a pouchful of treats, head to a quiet training area. This can be inside your house or nearby—somewhere not too exciting for your dog.
  • Walk with him, and when he starts to pull, stand still like a tree. 
  • You have already pre-trained the “right” answer here! When he feels leash pressure, he should turn to you or move to relieve that pressure. When he does, praise, treat right against your leg (don’t stretch out to meet him), and start moving again.
  • Soon you can do away with the food reward: The reward for loose-leash walking will be, well, your praise and walking
  • Keep these sessions short to begin with. Don’t get so far from home that you lose the will to keep up the training the whole way back.

When to Start Leash Training a Puppy

Now is good! Your puppy needs to learn that great things come from paying attention to you, being aware of your space, and checking in with you. You can do “games” that reinforce those ideas on the leash or off it, throughout the day. The “pre-training” of teaching your puppy how to respond to leash pressure can also begin at any time. These are all foundations of leash training. 

Common Concerns When Leash Training a Puppy

Leash Biting

Spraying the leash with an anti-chew spray every day may discourage some pups, but look for what else is going on, too. Pups bite the leash for a few different reasons. 

Check: Are you always holding the leash tight? He may mouth the leash in objection; give him some slack. (He can’t learn not to pull if you’re always pulling on him!)

If he grabs the leash for some excitement, provide him the opposite of what he wants. Gently pull his collar against your leg, don’t say anything, and become suuuuuper boring. When he spits out the leash, praise (calmly, and without petting) and move along. Expect to have to do this a couple handfuls of times for the picture to become clear.  

If your pup really wants something to carry, make a special deal out of a toy he can carry just on walks. When he carries it, what a good puppy!

Puppy is All Over the Place

Normal! There’s a lot of world to check out (or keep an eye on, or hide from…depending on the pup). Let him find out about his world, but don’t let him drag you around. Reward him when he checks in with you, and practice your obedience and space games every so often on walks.

Puppy Won’t Walk

First your puppy needs a chance to get used to the collar and leash. Let him wear the collar around the house. If he is used to the collar and still won’t walk, look for what else is wrong: Is he fearful or anxious? Tired? Confused?

Keep training sessions short and positive, and stay in areas your puppy can handle. For fearful pups, show them throughout the day that they can have confidence and trust in your leadership, and work at their level on confidence-building games.

Leash Training Rescue Dogs

Adult rescue dogs might come with some experience developing great leash manners. Or they might come with experience developing terrible leash manners. Or they might have no leash experience at all. 

If your rescue dog pulls, you’ll need to use equipment that can help you manage the dog outdoors while the two of you re-train leash behavior. 

To re-train leash behavior, work in a quiet area in short bursts. Teach your dog that good things come from walking alongside you, while pulling on the leash halts all progress. 

Leash Training Large Dogs

A large dog who pulls is no fun to walk—plus he’s a safety hazard. German Shepherds, Labradors, Huskies, and Pit Bulls all have the strength to injure even a large adult.

If your large dog is accustomed to pulling on a buckle collar, switch equipment to manage the problem: A head halter or a no-pull harness may help you. 

To re-train your dog, begin in a quiet area. Use the tips outlined above: First train him what you’d like him to do in response to pressure. Then give him a chance to walk with you with a loose leash—and be halted by a tight leash. Only gradually move on to more interesting or stimulating environments.

Leash Training Small Dogs

Small dogs need small equipment. Make sure to use a leash with a little clip that won’t whack him in the face or jaw. Be aware of your feet as you do your space work; a scuff that would hardly faze a pointer might make a serious impression on a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Leash Training Hyper Dogs

Exercise these dogs first! You can exercise your dog indoors if you can’t venture outside without a leash-pulling festival. Don’t exhaust your dog, just get him to the point that he is balanced enough to take in information and work with you.

Leash training doesn’t happen in a single day. If you have ever felt frustrated, embarrassed, or hopeless about teaching a dog to walk on a loose leash, take heart. Different techniques will work for different dogs and handlers. Try something old in a new way, try something new, or consult with a professional trainer who can give you hands-on help.

Through it all, practice makes progress! And in the end, the loose-leash training will pay off in enjoyable leash walks as well as in a deeper relationship with your dog.

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