How To Leash Train a Dog

Loose leash walking is a goal held by many dog owners, and at its base is a relatively simple concept. While you are walking your dog, the leash is loose rather than drawn tight by a lunging pup.

Even though the concept is simple, the execution is much less so! In fact, this problem is quite common among pets of all breeds, sizes, and ages.

It can be quite a serious problem, as it can be dangerous for your dog, and for you as well! If you have a new puppy that you are proactively training to walk on leash this process should be much easier, if you have an older dog it could be a tad more complicated.

Woman is being pulled out of control by her leashed dog.

The Dangers of an Out-Of-Control Dog

While your pup is small the potential danger of bodily harm to yourself or others is infinitesimal, but your puppy will not stay young forever. If you own a breed that will grow larger than 10-15 lbs. do not underestimate the strength of your dog!

Even a medium sized dog can pack a punch when they see something they want to investigate on leash. If your dog pulls violently it can be damaging to your hands and shoulders, you have the potential of getting fingers caught in the leash, or you be pulled off-balance and fall.

This danger is part of the reason why it is inadvisable to walk your dog on a retractable leash. Unless they are a good candidate (if you are reading this article they are probably not), a retractable leash can be quite dangerous for both dog and owner.

The thin strand of the leash can easily tangle fingers, and when pulled severe damage is possible. Also, because retractable leashes are much longer than traditional leashes, if your dog gets a running start they can gain more speed than a traditional leash.

Once a running dog gets to the end of a retractable leash you should be prepared for a massive amount of force. Finally, because the leash is much thinner than a traditional style lead it is much easier for a powerful dog to break, or a chewer to sever in half.

Dog has broken free from his owner and runs with a leash dragging behind him.

If your dog manages to break the lead, or pulls hard enough to yank it out of your hands, they present a much greater danger to themselves. An uncontrolled dog can potentially run into traffic, or come in contact with an aggressive animal.

Even if another dog is friendly, being approached at full speed can elicit an aggressive response. Your dog also runs the risk of outrunning you and becoming lost if they manage to break free.

Even if your dog doesn’t do damage to you, or break free of their lead, they could still potentially be damaging themselves by pulling on their leash.

If you are walking your dog with a collar, and they are pulling enough to incite coughing, you should stop walking them on a collar immediately.

When a dog pulls on leash they put pressure on their trachea, and can cause increased intraocular eye pressure. In “smooshed-face” breeds, like pugs, this damage can occur at a much faster rate.

The danger of collapsed trachea, and potential eye problems is very real to your dog. Leash pulling can cause long-term damage to your pet, and you should always walk your dog on a safe alternative to a collar if they pull on leash.

Be aware that some harnesses can still put pressure on a dog’s neck while pulling, and choose one that fits snugly on your dog to prevent possible escape.

The harness I recommend the most to dog training clients is the Two Hounds Design, Freedom No-Pull Harness, and I primarily suggest attaching the leash on the front of the chest.

How To Leash Train a Puppy

If you are starting without leash walking difficulty, and are proactively attempting to prevent issues when your puppy gets older, thank you! Too many new puppy owners do not put enough time and effort into working with their dog to prevent problem behaviors from occurring. It is always better to begin working on manners with your dog while they are young, as these behaviors can escalate very quickly as they get older.

Begin by desensitizing your puppy to wearing a collar, harness, and leash. This means that we will expose your puppy to the look and feel of wearing these items, while also pairing them with reinforcement so your pup associates leashes/collars/harnesses with good things happening.

Because we should be accompanying our puppy while we take them out to go to the bathroom (see How To Potty Train a Puppy for more information), we will also take this opportunity to help them become accustomed to wearing a leash.

Whenever possible, put your dog on their harness and leash when you take them outside to go potty. You will be rewarding them when they go to the bathroom anyway, so they will be consistently pairing the action of going on leash with reinforcement occurring.

This constant repetition will make your pup extremely comfortable with being walked on leash, and should help prevent future difficulty with leash pulling. You should follow the “adult dog” steps as well, to perfect your pup’s leash walking skills.

Woman in a dress walks through the park with her dog on a leash.

How To Leash Train an Adult Dog

So you dropped the ball when your dog was a puppy? You let their tiny, fluffy, cuteness hypnotize you, and all of a sudden they are 60 lbs. and dragging you down the street. Or perhaps you adopted a dog that already had leash-walking difficulty, if so congratulations and thank you! Fear not, your dog is not a lost cause; they will just take some time and persistence to whip back into shape (metaphorically speaking of course, please do not use punishment to attempt to train your dog).

You should begin by teaching your pup that when you speak to them, and they listen, good things happen. The best way to do this is to train your dog using verbal commands. If your pup learns that he must differentiate between the things you are asking for, and when he does he receives a reward, he will listen to what you say much more closely. This is particularly important because when your dog is outside they are positively surrounded by awesome distracting stimuli, and to look away from those distractions and pay attention to you will take lots of practice. This process will be much easier if your dog is used to paying attention to you.

Start Out Simple

Begin by calling your dog, they can be standing right next to you or across the room, and reinforcing when they look at you. This is “asking for attention” from your dog, or basically “hey, look at me”.

You can prompt (clapping, kissy noises, snapping your fingers, clicking your tongue, etc.) to get your pup’s attention if they are struggling at first. Practice this in a number of situations, starting with low difficulty and distractions, and slowly building up to higher difficulty and distractions.

Only move up a “level” if your dog is consistently listening to you, and if their attention declines simply move down a “level” again.

Now that we have practiced with our dog we will begin to ask for their attention outside while they are on leash. Our ultimate goal is to have a dog that listens to what we are saying and pays attention to us during the duration of our walk.

If I want to move a dog one direction or another, I call them (and prompt if necessary) rather than pulling them with the leash. A dog that has control over their surroundings is more confident and less likely to develop behavioral problems.

Small puppy receives a reward for his good behavior.

When you work with your dog on leash, start by using a very strong reinforcer, real food is best. Some of my favorite choices are Kraft cheese or plain lunchmeat, our goal is to have something more interesting than what is going on around them so choose accordingly.

Start by reinforcing very heavily, we want to use a 1:1 ratio, every thing we ask for gets reinforced. If your dog sees a distraction (person, dog, squirrel, etc.) call their name and prompt as much as necessary to get their attention.

Repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until your dog is automatically looking at you when they see something distracting, reinforce this too!

The End Game

Once our dog is consistently giving attention when we ask for it, and they are looking at us when they see distractions, we can begin to phase down the number of treats given.

Start by phasing down the treats when you ask for attention with no distractions, but make sure you still reinforce occasionally, and give attention/praise instead. Then begin to phase down the reinforcement in low distraction situations, and build up to high distractions.

Make sure you continue to give your dog a treat for this occasionally, to maintain the strength of the behavior.

Finally, always maintain reasonable expectations for your dog. If you have a young pup that is full of energy, ensure they are getting other mental stimulation as well! Do not expect your dog to remain calm during his walk if it is the only interesting thing to happen to him all day.

Ensure your dog has plenty of events throughout the day that are stimulating and reinforcing for him (See Combatting Dog Boredom With Mental Stimulation for more information).

I’d also like to remind everyone that even though he is your family member, he is a dog! Let your dog be a dog, let him sniff that same mailbox for the 40th time and exchange pleasantries with the neighborhood squirrel.

Don’t expect your pup to robotically move around the neighborhood at your heel the entire time, let him enjoy the stroll. We can improve his behavior, and ask for his attention, and get him to move along if the grouchy cat doesn’t want to play, but please don’t take the fun out of his walk. We are simply adding a little more structure, to ensure everyone is having fun, not just the dog!



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