How to Leash Train a Dog: The Starting Checklist

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Wearing a leash is not natural for dogs who are curious and keen to explore and smell everything. However, dogs who follow these instincts to explore without leash training may injure themselves. Dogs naturally lean forward when there is pressure on their collar; this can, in turn, lead to neck strain, back strain, and shoulder problems. As a result, owners and their dogs need to consistently repeat the same behaviors to learn how to use a leash safely. This starting checklist on how to leash train a dog will provide you with the background information and steps you need to take to begin training your dog to walk on a leash.

Getting Started

Before you start, ensure you have all the necessary equipment and that you and your dog are comfortable. Ensuring you and your puppy are mentally and physically ready for leash training is just as important as ensuring you have all the right tools.

Is My Puppy Ready for Leash Training?

Before you think about leash training your dog, you should determine if their social, mental, and physical needs are being met. Walking, on its own, is not enough activity to meet the needs of most healthy dogs. Ask yourself:

  • Has my dog had a vigorous play or exercise session today?
  • Has my dog had an opportunity to smell, explore, and interact with the natural environment today?

Equipment

Dogs pull on leashes even when there is pain and discomfort, so you may wish to walk your dog using a harness. Studies have shown that, unlike collars, harness use does not result in intraocular pressure (IOP). However, harnesses and collars need to be fitted carefully for each animal; on their own, harnesses and collars do not increase or decrease pulling.

To leash train your dog, gather:

  • A collar or harness
  • A leash (non-retractable)
  • Treats
  • Toys (if your puppy likes them)
  • Click marker (optional – only if you want to train your dog with click cues)

How to Stop a Dog from Pulling on the Leash

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Over time, dog training techniques changed as methods relying on negative reinforcement became less effective and less common. For example, positive reinforcement methods were shown to dramatically decrease training time for Guide Dogs without compromising the relationship between trainer and dog.

How Do Dogs Learn?

Some trainers use the ABC Method to encourage owners to think from the viewpoint of their dog to understand why the dog is engaging in bad behavior or walking a particular way:

  • A for Antecedent: What happened immediately before your dog pulled on the leash?
  • B for Behavior: Besides pulling on the lead, what else is your dog doing?
  • C for Consequence: What happened after pulling on the lead? 

Positive Reinforcement

Most times positive reinforcement is much more effective than negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement prevents or reverses the behaviors that cause your dog to drag you along on the leash. Maintaining a trusting and loving relationship with your puppy is the most important part of leash training and gaining their voluntary cooperation

Too much negative reinforcement may result in your puppy not trying as many new things. Experience with aversive training may cause dogs to believe they are at risk of being punished when they try new things so they avoid activities altogether. Other studies found that training with punitive techniques leads to more stress-related and aggressive behaviors in dogs than positive reinforcement.

Step by Step Loose Leash Training

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“Luring”, in the context of leash training, encourages the dog to visually follow a treat to bait them into performing a particular behavior or skill.

-Decide which side you want your dog to walk on and carry treats in that hand.

-Hold your dog’s leash in the opposite hand.

-Once the leash has some slack, show your dog some verbal encouragement in a happy tone and give them one or two treats. Holding the treats in line with the seam of your pants can help to position your dog and encourage them to heel.

-Take a step and stop. As long as your dog stayed close enough to you that some slack remained in the lead, give them another treat.

-Repeat step 4, gradually taking more than one step before giving your dog treats. If the dog looks up expectantly at you for more treats, take an additional step or steps before giving it to them.

-Once your dog becomes accustomed to the pattern, begin to treat your pup randomly so they are unsure of when to expect their next treat (e.g. after every 3rd step, 8th step, 10th step, etc.).

Troubleshooting

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No leash training process is perfect. They all take time and rely on the relationship between you and your dog. There will be moments that both you and your dog will be too distracted or overwhelmed with distractions to leash train. Here are some tips that, along with your diligence, will help you and your puppy through loose leash training.

Pulling on the Lead

If your dog pulls on the leash, stop walking and call them back to you or lure them using treats. Don’t treat your puppy right away; walk forward two or three steps so that they understand that walking alongside you, not pulling on the leash, is what earns them the rewards.

Distractions

Tempting distractions for your dog are everywhere. To lure your pup past a distraction, place a treat on or near your dog’s nose to lure them away. Alternatively, use a piece of smelly food to lure your dog’s eyes away from the distraction and towards you. Once your dog makes eye contact, reward them with a positive vocal cue and a treat while guiding them away from the distraction.

Dogs are also hard-wired to smell and if they are never given opportunities to sniff things out, they can become frustrated and aroused. If you are creating verbal cues for your dog to respond to, create a cue (like “Go Sniff”) that permits your pup to sniff things out.

Getting a Dog to Heel

Once your dog is comfortable walking with a loose leash, give your walk time a name or a cue such as “Heel”, “Walk with me”, or “Let’s go”. Practice loose leash walking a few steps at a time and saying your chosen phrase in a cheerful or happy tone so that your dog understands that rewards are available.

How Long does it Take to Leash Train a Dog?

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At first, it is best to start with short training sessions, about 5-15 minutes in length. End these training sessions when they are going well and neither one of you is frustrated or burnt out.

Leash training times are unique to each dog and owner. However, consistent training is central in determining how long it will take to leash train your dog. Walks will take longer while your dog is learning and they are not always possible on days when you are running short on time. In these situations, it may be better to have two collars or harnesses, one for training and one that they know they have permission to pull on.

The relationship between you and your dog remains the most important factor in leash training your dog. Hopefully, this checklist has given you some tips and information to strengthen the bond between you and your dog while you teach them to walk on a leash.

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