February 27, 2021
Poor leash manners are one of the most common reasons dog owners initially reach out to a professional dog trainer, only to be surprised to learn that their dogs inability to walk on a leash was often the source of a lot of other behavior problems.
If your dog is difficult to walk on a leash, it’s unlikely they’re getting walked very much at all, which can contribute to a lot of behavior issues at home, like incessant barking, territorial marking, and even aggression. Regular walks are an essential part of stress relief and stimulation for dogs living in urban enviornments, and even well-meaning dog owners will often turn to the use of tools — like flexi-leads or prong collars — which allow the behaviors to continue without ever addressing the dogs underlying understanding of the problem.
To train your dog to walk on a leash, you have to teach them to do something else instead of pull on the leash. While training tools can provide leverage over your dog (for example, prong collars provide severe corrections for pulling, and no-pull harnesses use pressure to not allow a dog to pull in the first place) no tool adequately addresses what to do instead of pulling. That’s where leash training comes in.
It’s important to remember that the concept of a leash is in no way natural or understandable to a dog. When some dogs pull against their collar the unpleasant resistance makes them stop, but with many (arguably most) dogs, it only makes them pull harder. Without first teaching your dog to walk by your side, and yield to leash pressure, your dog risks injury over time even with the mildest collar or harness, which is why leash walking should be seen as an essential part of all training.
Like most things in dog training, it’s often easier to start leash training at home and gradually work up to more challenging locations. This is because in a controlled environment you can focus more on your dog and less on other distractions — even if your dog only pulls in the presence of distactions — it’s still better to set the foundations in a quiet, familiar place so that your dog has a solid understanding of whats expected before moving on.
The first step in teaching your dog to walk on a leash is teaching them that coming back to you when you call their name is actually fun and rewarding. This sets the precedence for all of your dogs future learning, and teaches them that when they’re near you they're likely to get rewarded, encouraging them to be near you more often.
Even if you normally use correction collars like prong collars, fur saver collars, or e-collars when you walk your dog, you shouldn’t use them during their training. This is because you’re trying to build a positive association with the training, and correction collars can unintentionally set you back if they’re used at the wrong time.
With your dog on a leash in your living room, backyard, or other quiet area, call them to you and reward them as soon as they get to you with a treat for short periods of time everyday. Training sessions can be as short as 10 minutes, as you’re simply teaching your dog to associate coming to you with getting rewarded.
In the beginning, it’s not all that important to worry about whether or not your dog comes to you quickly or gets distracted. If they’re confused and don’t come to you at all, you can use gentle leash pressure to try and guide them to you, or even use your treats as lures. As long as your dog starts to understand that coming to you equals a tasty treat, you can build on this extremely basic knowledge in a variety of ways.
If your dog was doing great responding to his name in the house, you may be dismayed that he seems to forget all of his training the moment he steps outside. This is actually completely normal, and happens because dogs brains are not wired to generalize very well. When large details about the environment change, like going from the house to the park, their behavior changes, too. Your dog may also have years of “bad behavior” ingrained, so as you start to advance your training to the park, remember to bring along extra tasty treats, and try to stick to a park or area of your neighborhood with little traffic or distractions.
After you’ve taught your dog to come to you when called at home, the next step is to get your dog to do that in progressively more distracting situations. At a park or in a quiet place in your neighborhood, you should start by repeating exactly what you did at home and see how your dog responds. Does he listen? If not, keep trying until he does and reward every attempt.
In practice, what this looks like is walking with your dog on a 6’ leash, and the moment they get ahead of you, calling them back and giving them a reward. In your initial sessions at the park, you may not be able to walk very far at all! But even if your dog pulls every other step, the trick to successfully teaching them what you want is being consistent and patient.
When you’re teaching your dog something for the first time, you shouldn’t be too concerned with how quickly your dog is “getting it” — only that they’re making progress with every session. What progress looks like will be very different for every dog and owner, so be careful not to get too caught up in comparing your dogs progress with your friends, neighbors, or trainers!
If recalling is essentially the first half of teaching your dog to walk on a leash, then yielding to leash pressure — or the word “No” — is definitely the second. Teaching your dog “No” helps you stop bad behaviors from escalating. For example, if you’re on a walk with your dog and a cyclist passes, you can use the word “No” while the cyclist approaches, followed by calling your dog to you to redirect him back to the right behavior before continuing on your walk.
One way to teach your dog “No” is to simply stop walking anytime your dog starts pulling on the leash and wait for them to turn back to you. And if that’s not enough, you can even turn the other way, walking away from the thing your dog is pulling toward, until he has no choice but to turn back to you.
Some dog owners choose to use correction collars, like prong collars or ecollars in conjunction with the word “No,” but this is generally a matter of individual preference. Even if you do use corrections, you should start teaching any new exercises without them
In the beginning of your training, it can be helpful to divide your walk into sections. 15 minutes of walking next to you, 15 minutes of letting your dog roam and sniff freely, and so on. This “give and take” style of training can ultimately speed up your dogs learning because rewarding them with regular free time to sniff, roll, and do dog things makes the overall training less stressful — especially if your dog has been used to doing whatever they wanted on walks up until now.