Few skills are as essential to man’s best friend than knowing how to properly walk on a leash. However, dogs are not born with this ability; walking on a leash is most definitely a learned experience.
For one, dogs naturally walk faster than their humans (an understandable dilemma considering they have twice the amount of legs), so they must learn to slow their gait.
Additionally, our canines are prone to distractions, which is also understandable because of their incredible sense of smell.
So whether you are training an adult dog or puppy how to walk on a leash for the first time, don’t be surprised if they have a reaction similar to a fish caught on a line—thrashing about and trying to bite this bizarre addition.
The most important skill is actually on the owner’s end: patience. In addition to remaining calm, to ensure success you first need to determine which method of training you are going to use.
If you live in the United States, than having your dog trained to walk on a leash shouldn’t just be perk, it is most likely a law. In the majority of towns, national parks, and many counties, having a dog on a 6-foot leash is most likely a regulation, the breaking of which can carry fines.
Unleashed dogs that get away from their owners are at risk for being hit by a car, getting lost, or worst—stolen. Always be sure to have your dog’s identification and evidence of rabies vaccination attached to his collar.
Positive VS Negative Reinforcement
The majority of dog behavior experts and certified trainers agree: positive reinforcement is the best for training Fido. But just like with disciplining children, there are different schools of thought on which method produces the best results. For this reason, this article will discuss both methods of training.
Keep in mind that positive reinforcement has several advantages over the latter: first, it requires no special training, whereas negative reinforcement is best completed (or taught by) a professional trainer.
Secondly, everyone in the family can participate in Fido’s training if the method being used is positive reinforcement (as it would inappropriate for a child to use physical correction on a dog).
Finally, many pet behavior experts agree that a dog’s bond with his human is strengthened when he does not fear punishment. When dog owners reward the behaviors that are desirable and simply ignore the behaviors that are undesirable, the dog has a clear understanding of what his owner wants. However, positive reinforcement methods tend to work best for dogs that are very food-motivated.
Some dogs, however, could care less about a tasty treat, especially when there are distractions around. But not all positive reinforcement needs to include food: some dogs respond better to praise or physical affection like a quick ear scratch.
Negative reinforcement tends to get a bad rap because the name itself implies that is harmful or damaging, but the name simply means that your dog experiences something unpleasant when doing an undesired behavior: negative reinforcement is not synonymous with punishment; in fact, you should find another trainer if the one you are working with suggests any method that involves than more 1 second (literally) of physical correction like a quick collar jerk.
Another case that is made for the negative reinforcement camp is that positive reinforcement may not work for dogs that are very headstrong or overly excited: if the behavior (for example: trying to catch the cat that just ran out in the middle of the road) is more exciting than the reward (the bag of treats you have), positive training will have little effect.
In certain situations, making physical corrections to your dog will solve a behavioral problem in a short amount of time when nothing else works. Most importantly of all, negative reinforcement should never, ever, be used to cause physical harm to your dog; it is simply applying a negative stimulus to interrupt undesirable behavior.
It should go without saying that any negative reinforcement should never be done in anger or frustration. Training of any sort is much more effective if both human and dog are having a good time.
If you have a puppy, or an adult dog that is a rescue, then your dog may have never worn a collar before. Before starting any training regimen, let your dog get used to a collar and the feel of the leash first.
The types of products you should buy are discussed more below, but if you have a simple flat, buckle style collar, start out with that. Once your dog has become accustomed to the new accessory, clip on the leash, but don’t head outside just yet. Let him trot around with it on and smell it.
If you’d like to learn a bit more about clicker training, check out this great article on clicker training your dog.
Be sure to start out your training in an area free from distractions (no new smells, loud noises, or other people or dogs). Inside your home in a hallway is ideal since your dog will not have the option to wander too far off to the side.
Once training sessions are progressing, you can move outside. Also be sure to have a high quality treat on hand. Small pieces of hot dogs or cooked, cubed chicken are great options.
Positive Reinforcement: Method #1
By far the most popular method for both adult dogs and puppies alike, method one is sometimes referred to as “red light/green light” or “stop and go.” The goal is to make your dog understand that if he pulls on the leash, forward progression stops.
Walking will only begin again once the leash has slacked. To begin, make sure you have a long area to walk that will not require any turns.
Starting at the end of the room, hallway, or the edge of your yard, attach the leash to your dog’s collar. If your canine is overexcited and jumping up, wait until he is completely calm before you try putting the leash on again. Now, begin walking. Your dog will most likely pull to the end of the leash so there is no slack. At this moment, come to an abrupt stop.
The second your dog looks around to you or starts heading back your direction, say “yes!” enthusiastically and immediately give a treat. You are teaching your dog two things here. First, that pulling gets him nowhere. Second, that he is rewarded for paying attention to you.
Instead of saying “yes!” you can also use a clicker specially designed for dog training. In the same manner, the moment your dog looks back to you, press the clicker and give a treat. Professional dog trainers often prefer clickers because it gives the handler the opportunity to tell the dog that he has done the right thing at the exact moment it happens.
To humans, the second or two delay before the reward comes makes no difference, and we can easily make the connection between the behavior and the following result, but for our dogs, that moment of hesitation from reaching in your pocket for a treat can make all the difference in the world.
After the treat is given, start walking again and repeat these steps. Prepare yourself for inevitable pulling and know that the first couple of weeks are not really walks, but more training sessions.
Again, if you become frustrated, take a break and try again later. It will take many sessions for your dog to realize that if he pulls, the result is coming to a dead halt. The goal here is for your dog to walk beside you or just slightly ahead so he can always be watching you—and waiting for a treat!
However, it is vital that owners remain consistent with this method of training: owners often get tired of stopping every couple of steps and sometimes just give in to the pulling. But this inconsistency is the equivalent of starting over from scratch with the training because your dog has just learned that pulling sometimes work.
Rest assured that he will try to pull again until he learns that pulling never gets him where he wants to go. This downside to this method is that is very time consuming so remember to start with short, frequent sessions, multiple times a day if possible.
Positive Reinforcement: Method #2
This method is similar to the first in that your dog is rewarded with a treat by staying near to you. To begin, start by holding the leash in your right hand and try to position your dog on your left side. Hold the treats in your left hand and begin walking using a command like “heel” or “let’s go!” with your treat hand very close in front of your dog’s nose. If you can hold multiple treats in your hand, it would be better.
Every few paces or so, reward your dog with a treat if he has not walked ahead and started pulling. This method works better when your dog is hungry so on your first few attempts, do this routine before mealtime—in fact, you could probably skip dinner with the amount of treats it will take to get your dog’s attention depending on how long your walk is!
The goal here is to gradually increase the number of steps you take before a treat is given. In the beginning, you will need to give a treat (while you remain walking forward) every couple of paces, but as your dog makes progress, stretch out your steps to where you eventually are only giving a treat every minute or so.
The downside to this method is that it must be continued indefinitely. If you stop giving treats all together, then your dog will stop looking to you for them and start looking for a fire hydrant instead.
Negative Reinforcement: Method #1
This method is often referred to as “about-face” and means just what it implies: you begin walking with your dog, and if he starts pulling ahead, quickly turn around and start walking in the opposite direction. However, it is vital that you give a verbal warning to your dog before making the turn.
The goal here is to keep your dog close to your side so that he is not surprised when you make a turn. If he is not paying attention to you (which he certainly isn’t if he is pulling ahead), then he will be surprised when the leash checks him.
Of course, caution must be exercised here if your dog is running quickly and you go to make a turn. Small dogs could especially be harmed if the leash jerks them too hard around the neck.
This method can be combined with positive reinforcement like a treat once your dog turns of his own accord and begins following you. Your dog should eventually respond to your verbal warning—which should always be the same word—and slow down because he is anticipating your turn.
A variation of this method could be to make a quick left turn with your dog at your left side. The turn must be very quick, starting with your left foot and almost done at 180 degrees to ensure the message is delivered: if the dog isn’t paying attention, your left leg will actually push him out of the way.
Negative Reinforcement: Method #2
Professional dog trainers only should teach this method of collar corrections, because they are most often used with special collars that tighten or pinch when the dog pulls on the leash.
A professional trainer with experience will know how to make an appropriate collar correction based on your dog’s size and temperament, and will teach you step by step instructions of what to do when you dog pulls on the leash. Typically, after you put on a special training collar, you begin the walk with your dog on your left side.
If he pulls ahead, a quick jerk in delivered on the leash. This correction (which should not be a pull but a swift yank) should happen in a fraction of a second: just enough time to get your dog’s attention.
The goal here is to cause surprise, not pain. It is worth saying again that anything over a second-long correction can quickly escalate to something more serious which will likely cause trauma and fear in your dog.
Leashes, Collars, and Harnesses
The market is saturated with every type, size, and color of dog accessories imaginable (even leashes and collars that light up for night walks!).
You can purchase these products online or in your local pet store, but first do some research to determine which type of lead is best for you dog. The most popular options for leashes and collars in terms of how to train a dog to walk on a leash are below:
Instead of having to guess at what you need, we’ve made the process a bit simpler for you in our article on finding the best leashes, collars, and harnesses.
Learning to Lead
Dogs are pack animals, and ultimately need to look to their owner as the “pack leader.”
Teaching your dog to walk on leash is a great first step in the process, the mastery of which can open up many other doors to your dog such going to parks, visiting stores where leashed pets are allowed, and simply taking a leisurely stroll around your neighborhood.
Dogs that can walk calmly and confidently on a leash are much easier to train in other commands, and it really is the first step to having a long and happy relationship with your dog.
How to Train a Puppy to Walk on a Leash
Puppies love to run and they love to dart about the house. They love to splash in their water bowls and topple over the plants, and they love to run even more when you let them outside. At times, puppies seem to have boundless energy.
And it is at those times when you may find yourself believing that you will never be able to take it out on the street because you fear you won’t be able to control it in public. But you can, and with some time and patience, you will soon be enjoying a trot down the street and down to the park with your puppy at your side.
All you need to learn is how to train a puppy to walk on a leash. Puppies learn at their own pace. Your puppy may only take a few weeks, or it may take two months, but as long as you have patience and follow these guidelines, you can do it. Before long, your puppy will wear a collar, accept a leash, and prance alongside you wherever you go.
1. Start With a Collar
The process of teaching a puppy to walk on a leash begins with letting it grow comfortable with wearing a collar. Puppies as young as six weeks can wear collars, so you can introduce your puppy to a collar as soon as you bring it home.
Your local pet store will offer a variety of collar choices, but puppies of all breeds will typically accept flat collars with simple buckles. Unless your breeder or veterinarian recommends otherwise, there is no reason for you to choose anything else. Be sure to choose the right collar for your pup, and our article which has a comparison of the best dog collars will come in handy for you.
The first time you put the collar on your puppy, he should be preoccupied with eating or playing. The distraction will allow you to buckle the collar around his neck. Don’t make it too tight, you should be able to slip two fingers between the collar and your pooch’s neck. He may try to scratch or shake off the collar which is a natural reaction to a foreign object. Almost like the sensation you’d feel from first wearing a new watch. But as long as the collar fits properly, you can allow your puppy to resist.
The collar won’t come off. Alternatively, you can distract him with a toy. But whatever method you choose, allow your pooch to gradually adjust to its new collar by wearing it for about an hour or two each day for a week.
The whole point is to allow your puppy to get used to wearing the collar to the point where it forgets that it is around its neck. Do not remove the collar while he is actively resisting it as removing the collar while your pet is squirming across the floor will teach him that fighting the collar is the way to get it to come off. If he learns that then both of you will have difficulties transitioning into the next phase.
Before the week is out, your pooch should be used to wearing the collar. The next step in leash training is to let Fido become used to having a leash attached to the collar. You can do this simply by attaching a short leash to the collar and then allow your puppy to wander around the house. He may be intimidated by the leash, at first, but it will soon learn that the leash is nothing to be afraid of.
Also, when he steps on the leash, you should pull it up short. This will help the dog to accept tugging on the collar. If your puppy bites or chews on the leash, you can consider soaking it in Grannick’s Bitter Apple, hot sauce, lemon juice, or other taste deterrent. Puppies learn quickly not to bite things that don’t taste good.
2. Taking the First Walk
Once your puppy gets used to wearing a leash, you can begin the walk training. He or she will most likely need plenty of encouragement, so before you start, ensure that you have treats handy. Also, your puppy will require plenty of patience, so be prepared to have yours tested with stops and starts and tangles around the furniture (your legs, too). Our puppy training schedule is a worthy read if you need to know how to easily train your pup to follow basic commands.
The first step is to make sure that your puppy is in the mood for learning. If he is hungry or bored, it will more likely be interested in learning to walk on a leash than it will be if it just ate or came in from running around the back yard. Next, clear the practice area (preferably your living room or other area Fido is familiar with) of potential distraction.
Don’t forget that potential distractions also include other people so if other people are in the room, your puppy may attempt to engage them in play. Also, make sure that there will be plenty of space for your pooch to stay beside you. After all, having your puppy trot alongside you is your goal.
Once you are prepared, take the end of the leash, and show it to the puppy. Connect the leash and then, holding it loosely, start walking around the house. Train Fido to walk on your left side; the American Kennel Club requires show dogs to walk at the handler’s left, and most professional trainers teach the same. If you heard of using the clicker method to train your dog, an article which we have written about, you may also employ that by all means.
Many also employ the following tips to encourage puppies to walk beside their owners.
- If Fido follows, give it a treat and offer praise.
- If he resists, stop walking. Call him by his name and offer praise when he manages to come.
- If it sits and won’t move, get down on one knee and offer a treat; praise Fido when it finally gets the idea and comes to you.
- If your puppy pulls on the leash, don’t pull back. Instead, stop and wait for the leash to loosen, and then walk forward again.
The object is to encourage your puppy to walk beside you with a loose leash. Holding treats out beside you can help with this, but you should alternate between treats and praise so that you don’t overfeed your puppy. Keep at this for about 15 to 20 minutes, twice a day. Once your puppy is able to walk beside you with a loose leash for the majority of that time, it is time to go outdoors.
3. Out to the Street
Before you take your puppy out for its first walk, make sure to plan your route beforehand. Take into account any stops you will have to make, such as traffic lights, parking lots, and crosswalks.
Remember: the more interruptions in your walk the greater the chance for distractions. Your puppy will want to smell everything, pee on everything, or even cower from everything. There is no simple solution to dealing with these problems, but you can forestall many of them by walking at a fast pace. This will give your puppy fewer opportunities to sniff, pee, or cower. And besides, if you are moving fast, your puppy will be more interested in keeping up.
Begin by holding your leash at your hip. You should hold firmly at your hip the entire time you are walking. Hook a thumb in a belt loop or tuck your hand in a pocket if you must because your puppy may sense if you lower your hand and attempt to take advantage by darting out and pulling the leash tight.
You should handle the outdoor walks the same way you handled them indoors. If your puppy follows with a loose leash, give constant praise. If it resists, stop walking and call for it to come. If it refuses to move, offer encouragement.
If it pulls on the leash, stop and wait. Waiting tells your puppy that no matter how much it pulls, you aren’t going to move. He will eventually remember this process from the indoor sessions, and will comply. Just make sure that you are ready with the treats.
Don’t give your puppy a treat until it has walked beside your for at least thirty seconds. As he continues walking alongside you, alternate between praise and treats every thirty seconds or so. The treats and praise will encourage your puppy to remain beside you, and before long, your puppy will grow accustomed to this position and your pace. As your puppy begins to show discipline, you should reduce the number of treats you hand out during each walk.
One of the things you will find that your puppy will do on its journey to master the art of walking on a leash is that it will often look back at you. Your puppy is looking for praise (or more likely, a treat), but it is also looking for signals of direction. He wants to know if it is going fast enough, or if you are going to make a turn. Take these opportunities to praise your puppy and relax. You’ve taught your puppy well.
Handling Distracting Situations
No matter where you walk with your young friend, it will eventually be confronted with a distracting situation. Cars rolling past, puddles in your path, darting squirrels, walkers, bikers, skaters, eager children, other dogs…
It doesn’t matter if you’re walking along the subdivision streets, in the neighborhood park, or down a nature trail—a distraction will confront your puppy. Whatever the distraction may be, dogs of all ages will react to sudden and unexpected situations, and you must be prepared to handle them.
Your puppy may pull the leash taut to get at the distraction. Or it may bark, growl, or even cower away until the distraction goes way. None of these things are acceptable while training your puppy to walk. The easiest way to deal with these distractions is to command your puppy to sit at your feet as soon as you see a potential distraction approaching. If he doesn’t obey, gather in the leash and hold it firmly by the collar until the distraction passes.
Meanwhile, talk to your puppy in a calm voice. If your puppy obeyed you, offer praise; if you had to pull your puppy away from the distraction, the tone of your voice will help it to calm down.
Handling the Urge to “potty”
It is inevitable that your puppy will need to relieve itself on walks. If he attempts to pull away in order to relieve itself, control it in the same manner as you would any other attempt to pull away. Stop, call for him to come back, but instead of a treat, reward your puppy by allowing it to relieve itself where it wanted. Soon, you’ll find that your puppy is stopping less often to relieve itself.
Maintaining Self Control
Many puppies get excited when they sense it is time for their walk. They may bark, jump, scratch at your legs, or even start to whine while you attempt to connect the leash. This excitement, if not curbed immediately, will continue outside. Teach your puppy that this is not acceptable behavior by standing still and waiting until it calms down.
Reach down to connect the leash, and if your puppy starts to misbehave again, repeat the process. It may take some time, but eventually, he’ll learn.
Some puppies can be aggressive when learning to walk and they will pull on the leash every time you take a step, sometimes to the point where they jerk their owner’s arm out in front of them when stopped. A common solution to this problem is to give the leash a slight jerk when your puppy gets near to the end of the leash, a method that some trainers refer to as “leash pop” or “collar correction.”
Collar correction requires a delicate balance between timing and pressure. Walk with your arm slightly bent. As your puppy approaches the maximum length of the leash, give it a verbal warning. If it slows down, give it praise. If it continues forward and pulls the leash taut, reach out for slack and then give the leash a slight jerk. This should always be a slight jerk and never a yank or a pull, which could cause permanent damage.
The resistance from a jerk or two is an adequate signal to your puppy that it is doing something it shouldn’t. Larger breeds may require a little more effort behind the jerk, simply because they are stronger and weigh more, yet the principle remains the same. Over time, your puppy will learn that it gets a jerk every time it tries to get out too far ahead of you, but receives treats and praise when it remains at your side.
Professional trainers can teach you how to walk your young friend, but, if you’re confident in your relationship, you can do it on your own. You can read on more puppy training topic in our in-depth basic dog training guide. Start with allowing your puppy to get used to its collar, and then its leash.
Next, with an abundance of patience (and perhaps a pocketful of treats), lead Fido through the steps that will take you both to the streets. The journey may be a little rough at times, and you may have to backtrack, but eventually, your puppy will walk beside you with a proud gait. And look back at you often with love.