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How to Leash Train Your Dog

By Laura Nativo

Training a dog to walk on a leash comfortably and safely is a skill that you will use throughout their entire life. Think about leash training from a four-legged perspective: It isn’t natural for dogs to walk at our slow human pace. The world is full of sights, sounds, and – most of all – smells that motivate dogs to walk anywhere but in a straight line by our side. That’s why it is our job to become the most interesting thing in our dog’s environment! We need to give our dogs a reason to check in, engage with, and remain connected to us.

We also need to remember that dogs “see the world” through their noses, and allow them plenty of opportunity to disengage for sniffaris once they have learned to walk nicely.

Whether you are training a puppy who is first learning how to coexist with a leash attached, or an older dog who has been practicing bad leash habits for years, the process is the same.

What You’ll Need

  • Clicker
  • Treat pouch
  • Lots of high-value treats
  • 4 to 6-foot leash
  • Harness

Preparing to Leash Train a Dog

I prefer not to walk dogs by their collars to avoid them pulling on their vulnerable necks and help prevent collapsed trachea or other medical harm. Don’t think of the leash as a control tool, think of it as a life preserver – and a GPS if need be.

I like to teach dogs to walk in a harness until they develop solid loose-leash skills.

Before you even think about training your dog to walk on lead, take a few days to help acclimate your dog to their new training equipment if they aren’t already familiar with wearing a harness.

  1. Hold the harness near your dog. If they sniff or even look at it, CLICK and TREAT for any interest. Repeat a few times.
  2. Place the harness on their body. You don’t even need to attach the buckles. CLICK and TREAT for dog allowing the harness to be near them. Repeat a few times.
  3. Practice “getting dressed” by putting on the harness. CLICK and TREAT each time you connect a buckle.
  4. Once your dog is wearing their harness, give them an awesome reward! You can offer them a delicious array of treats or play their favorite game.
  5. Allow your dog to wear the harness for a few minutes without actually training anything. Gradually start increasing the time. Allow them to play, relax, or eat a meal. Take off their harness before they become bothered by it.

Once your dog appears to be at ease wearing their new harness, leash training can begin!

Step-by-Step Leash Training

Step 1 – The Road to Nowhere

Begin training without having a destination in mind – you’re just having fun right now. Start inside in a quiet, familiar environment so there are less distractions.

Step 2 – Attach the Leash

Attach your dog’s leash and stand still. When your dog releases tension on the least, CLICK or say “Yes!” and reward with a high-value treat at your knee on the side you wish for them to walk. Repeat this until you feel confident that your dog is catching on (usually about 10 times).

Step 3 – Click for Eye Contact

Walk to the end of the leash. When your dog moves toward you and makes eye contact, CLICK or say “Yes!” and give them a treat at your preferred knee.

Step 4 – Drop the Leash (only if you’re in a confined space)

Drop the leash and walk away. When your dog follows, CLICK or say “Yes!” as your dog catches up next to you. Reward at nose-height by your side or just behind you so that your pup knows that good things happen when they stay close.

Step 5 – Let’s Take it Outside

Practice all of the same things that you did inside – only outside. This is much more challenging because of the different smells and noises. Remember to reward generously when your dog does as you’ve learned together! And balance rewarding your dog for eye contact – especially around other dogs and distractions – with plenty of opportunities to freely sniff around while safely attached by their leash and harness.

Dog with tongue sticking out walking along water

Remember, dogs can’t possibly wrap their minds around our walking objectives. Maybe you want your puppy to go potty before going in the crate for two hours, or maybe you want your active breed dog to get some exercise before you head off to work. Dogs don’t always understand our motivation on walks and we need to be realistic with our expectations.

Whether you have a young puppy, or aging senior dog, it’s important to keep their unique needs in mind on a walk. Young, energetic dogs, like my Delilah, will instinctively want to move quicker, usually in a zig zag pattern as they explore the world around them. But older dogs, like my Preston, and some with medical conditions will enjoy a slower pace with frequent sniff stops and rests in the shade.

When I walk my dogs, I joke that if I let everyone move as they wish, I would be getting a serious arm stretch workout. With my canine family, I set up our walks to satisfy everyone’s needs by taking Delilah out for a jog or fast walk on her own first, and then walking all three of them together. Sometimes I’ll let Preston walk a few minutes, then relax in a stroller while Penelope and Delilah get their exercise.

And remember, good training will make daily walks more fun for both ends of the leash. Happy training!

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