How to Leash Train A Dog: Learning to Lead

How to Leash Train A Dog
John Walton
Written by John Walton

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.

Dog straining on a leash

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.

The basics

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.

Teach your dog to walk politely on a leash

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!

Trained dog

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.

Dog on a leash pulling the other way

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!).

Collar with buckle

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:

  • Simple buckle collar. If your dog has no problems walking on a leash, then this is probably the best option. Inspect it regularly to make sure the plastic buckle has no signs of wear and replace it immediately if the fabric begins to fray. Remember that a collar should be snug, but not tight, around your dog’s neck.
  • While this may be a good option for small and toy breed dogs, harnesses are not appropriate for larger dogs unless you are purposefully wanting to be pulled (dogsledding, anyone?). Harnesses encourage your dog to pull, but may be a good option for smaller canines or any dog that has a neck or throat injury. There are many special harnesses available that actually discourage pulling by tightening around the dog’s chest if the dog pulls on the leash. Consider this option for toy breeds or for dogs rescued from abusive or traumatic situations.
  • Head halter. Although it looks similar to a muzzle because it fits over the dog’s mouth, this special leash teaches dogs not to pull because it exerts pressure on the dog’s face, which is unpleasant. However, it is not listed as a training method since the dog will simply revert back to his behavior once the halter is removed.
  • Slip chain collar. Made of interlocking metal pieces, these collars are considered training collars as well and are typically used for leash corrections. Many owners use slip collars to discourage pulling since they tighten (usually without pinching) when pulling occurs.
  • 6-foot leash. Six feet is the ideal length of a lead for most professional dog trainers. Four feet is acceptable (especially for smaller dogs) but may not allow enough freedom for your dog to roam when not actively heeling. If you’re feeling a bit crafty, you can learn to make your own in this article on making a paracord dog leash.
  • Retractable leash. While this can be a great option for walks in open outdoor areas, it is not beneficial for teaching your dog to not pull—since the leash “magically” extends wherever the dog runs. The thin cord can easily cause injury to other people or dogs if it gets wrapped around legs.

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.

Hold dog's leash

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.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.