Training a dog to walk on a leash comfortably and safely is a skill that you will use throughout his 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.
Whether you are leash training a puppy, or an older dog who has been practicing bad leash habits for years, the process is the same.
What You’ll Need Before Leash Training a Dog
Lots of high-value treats
4 to 6-foot leash
Getting your Dog Used to a Harness
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.
I like to teach dogs to walk in a harness until they develop solid loose-leash skills.
Before training your dog to walk on lead, take a few days to help acclimate your dog to his new training equipment if he isn't already familiar with wearing a harness:
Hold the harness near your dog.
If they sniff or even look at it, CLICK and TREAT for any interest. Repeat a few times.
Place the harness on his body.
You don’t even need to attach the buckles. CLICK and TREAT for your dog allowing the harness to be near him. Repeat a few times.
Practice “getting dressed” by putting on the harness.
CLICK and TREAT each time you connect a buckle.
Reward your dog for wearing the harness.
Once your dog is wearing his harness, give him an awesome reward! You can offer him a delicious array of treats or play his favorite game.
Increase harness wearing time.
Allow your dog to wear the harness for a few minutes without actually training anything. Gradually start increasing the time. Allow him to play, relax, or eat a meal. Take off his harness before he becomes bothered by it.
Once your dog appears to be at ease wearing his 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 leash, CLICK or say “Yes!” and reward with a high-value treat at your knee on the side you wish for him 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 him 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 he stays 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 his leash and harness.
Leash Training a Dog Takes Practice and Patience
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!