“Walkies” is a word that brings excitement and delight to any dog. After all, walks are without a doubt the best part of their day – awesome smells, quality bonding time, new things to explore. What could be better than that?
Sadly, if your dog gets a little too excited on the leash and loves to pull you left, right and center, the word “walkies” probably doesn’t bring as much delight to you as it does to them. In fact, it likely brings you nothing but dread.
Walking a dog that pulls is more akin to a battle, in which you’re not left with fond memories of the time you shared together but aches and sores and endless envy over those well-behaved pups that trot with grace.
Luckily, you (and your aching arms) will no longer have to battle their poor leash manners alone – we’re here to help. In this guide, we’ll go over exactly how to effectively leash train a dog and also cover tips and tricks to tackle poor leash behavior.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of leash training, you’ll first need to make sure you’ve invested in the right equipment.
Choose an Appropriate Leash
We recommend a sturdy leash that’s around 4 to 5 ft in length. This particular length is ideal since it’s short enough to give you control over your pup but long enough that they can still explore their surroundings. Another factor to consider is how easy the handle is to grip; make sure to pick a leash you can hold firmly with ease!
We also can’t stress enough the importance of not using a retractable leash. Retractable leashes can be exceptionally dangerous for both owner and dog if faulty or misused, and they actually encourage bad leash walking habits. Plus, if your dog does have a habit of pulling, this behavior could cause the retractable leash’s mechanism to break.
Of course, there are plenty of leashes on the market, so identifying the best one for your furry companion can be difficult. For further guidance, check out the best dog leashes in 2021 here.
Purchase a Harness
A harness has a whole host of advantages that will come in handy when leash training your dog, especially if they have poor leash manners. A harness discourages pulling, gives you greater control, and also reduces the chance of your dog injuring themselves if they do pull or lunge on the leash. It even helps to lessen the strain on your arms and back.
Loose Leash Training
Loose leash training is essentially training your dog to walk near you at a similar pace. To do this, you need to teach them that being by your side is a much more rewarding experience than walking far away from you.
Below, we cover all the training steps in detail. We recommend training your dog in your yard or inside your house at first. Wherever you choose, make sure it’s a secure, quiet area where distractions aren’t about. The more chaotic the area is, the harder it’ll be to gain their undivided attention!
- Make sure you have plenty of high-value treats for your dog at the ready.
- Encourage them over to you by acting excited and happy; smile widely and talk in a high-pitched tone. When they eventually come to your side, reward them with a treat and praise them.
- Continue to act excited and happy, but this time take a few steps away from them.
- When your dog comes to your side again, reward them with another treat.
- Keep repeating this process, gradually increasing the distance you move away from them.
- Now, start to change direction from time to time. This will encourage your dog to get into the habit of keeping an eye on you.
- Once they begin to stay by your side consistently and follow as soon as you start moving, go to the next step.
- Do the exact same process again, but this time with their leash and harness equipped.
- When your dog is finally walking by your side on the leash, you’ll now need to practice this outside in a public area. You may find it helpful to find a quiet space to begin with.
- Gradually expose them to more distracting environments. Gradual exposure is key here; if you bombard them with tons of distractions from the get-go, chances are, they’re going to find it too overwhelming.
If your companion struggles at any point to ignore the distraction, it’s a telltale sign you’ve upped the difficulty by too much too quickly. So you’ll need to take it down a notch.
Make sure to wait until they’re calm before doing this. If you take the distraction out of the picture while they’re acting up, you’ll only be encouraging poor behavior as you’re teaching them that their reaction is what caused it to go away.
For more tips and tricks on how to get your dog to ignore distractions, check out the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) comprehensive guide.
If you notice your dog looks like they’re about to lose focus and wander away from your side, give them a treat before they have a chance to do this. The treat should regain their attention.
Heel training involves teaching your dog to walk directly adjacent to your side (traditionally the left). Compared to loose leash walking, heel walking requires them to maintain the exact same pace as you and be exceptionally close at all times (mere inches away). Heel walking helps your dog to develop self-control, something which will benefit them not just in their daily walks but in all facets of their life.
With that said, heel walking shouldn’t be treated as an alternative to loose leash walking, especially if your dog is not a working dog.
In leash training, your goal is to ensure they stay fairly close to you and don’t pull, yank or lunge when something piques their interest. It isn’t to have them constantly glued to your side, never exploring or sniffing their surroundings. They won’t be able to enjoy themselves, nor exercise properly.
The heel command should mostly be used as a way to regain your dog’s attention while loose leash walking, and as a safety measure; if you walk them through a busy or potentially dangerous place (like a high traffic area), using heel will ensure you have full control.
Below, we’ll cover how to train heel using the lure-and-reward method, which involves luring your dog with treats into the desired behavior. Just like leash training, it’s best to start in a safe, secure place with little to no distractions.
- Put on your furry friend’s leash, and make sure to have plenty of high-value treats at the ready.
- Using a treat, lure your dog as close as possible to your left si
- Once they’re directly at your left side, command them to sit. Then reward them with the treat.
- Repeat this process until your dog exhibits this behavior without you having to lure it out.
- Now, clearly say the command cue “heel,” and slowly walk forward a few steps.
- While walking, hold the treats near your dog’s nose to encourage them to walk with you.
- Feed them the treats as they walk, but do not give them a treat if they don’t stay in the correct position at your side or match your pace.
- Keep repeating this process, gradually increasing the distance you walk with them.
- You should also slowly decrease how often you give them treats. Instead of rewarding them every step, reward them every few steps, then once every few yards.
- Begin to incorporate in random halts and sporadically change up your pace. To get a reward, your dog should halt when you halt and match your pace. You should also change direction every so often.
Once your dog is able to walk at heel for several yards, you can begin to introduce distractions. Just like you did with their loose leash training, start with small distractions and gradually work your way up.
Introducing distractions is a whole other playing field, so keep in mind you will likely need to decrease the difficulty to help them succeed. Then resort back to short distances and give them treats consistently until they’re able to focus on you and not the distraction. Then, you can slowly build your way back up.
Since this training method involves feeding your dog a generous number of treats, make sure to break down each treat into individual pieces. That way, you won’t have to use dozens of treats as each one will allow you to reward them several times.
If your dog is consistently breaking their heel, you’re likely pushing them too fast. First, decrease the duration of the heel, then slowly increase it again at their own pace.
While a traditional heel requires your dog to walk on the left, you can teach them to walk on the right if you prefer. Whichever side you choose, just make sure you stick to it.
Fading the Lure
For both loose leash training and heel training, it’s important to fade out the lure once your dog is reliably giving you the desired behavior. Otherwise, they will end up only performing the behavior if a treat is in their sight!
Luckily, fading out the lure isn’t a difficult process; you simply gradually decrease the number of times you reward them for the behavior (intermittent rewarding).
Tackling Poor Leash Manners
To leash train a dog that has already developed poor leash manners, you’ll need to take some extra measures, depending on the type of problematic behavior they exhibit.
If your dog is pulling on the leash, it’s because they have learned that this behavior gets them to where they want to go quicker. So, to stop them from pulling, you need to teach them that walking at your pace gets them to where they want to go instead.
If your dog pulls, stop walking and stay absolutely still. Do not move an inch until they make their way back to your side. Repeat this process whenever they pull, and they’ll soon catch on.
To help speed up the process, you can also try the “change direction” technique. If your dog pulls on the leash, say “let’s go” and walk in the opposite direction.
Be aware that you should never jerk the leash in an attempt to stop them from pulling. Doing so can be harmful to their physical and mental wellbeing, and it also does not directly tackle the pulling behavior – it only suppresses it. Suppression never works in the long term and can cause your dog to develop even worse behaviors, like redirected aggression.
Lunging and Barking
Lunging and barking are common behaviors exhibited by dogs with leash reactivity.
To stop this type of behavior, you need to redirect your dog’s attention back on you before they have the opportunity to lunge or bark at whatever has caught their eye.
Look out for the telltale signs that your dog is going to react, and interrupt the process by holding a treat in front of them. Then move them away from the thing that has grasped their attention, and ask them to perform easy tricks like “sit” and “paw.”
We also highly recommend desensitizing your dog to the things that are “triggers” for their reactivity. PetMD has an in-depth guide on how to go about this.
Chewing and Biting
If your companion can’t help but see the leash as a tug toy, there are a few things you can try:
- Use the “leave it” command.
- Take a durable chew toy with you on walks.
- Ensure your dog is getting enough mental stimulation and exercise throughout the day. The more excess energy they have, the more likely they’ll turn to “unsavory” ways to release their energy.
- Don’t give them any form of attention when they chew on the leash.
- You can also use the same approach as the one used for tackling lunging and barking. As soon as you see them about to go for the leash, redirect their attention.
Make sure not to tug on the leash while walking them; it will only encourage their chewing and biting since you’ll be reinforcing the idea that the leash is a tug toy!
How Long Does It Take to Leash Train a Dog?
Keep in mind the training process can take a long time – sometimes even several months. Every dog makes progress at a different rate, so be patient and don’t get frustrated if your companion takes longer than expected.
Also, be aware that progress isn’t linear. Your dog might walk with perfect etiquette one day, then revert back to their pulling and lunging ways the next; as long as you’re consistent with the leash training, they’ll get there in the end.
While fixing lousy leash etiquette might seem like an impossible task, rest assured it’s entirely possible. By using the training methods above, your dog will soon become a well-mannered leash walker and be the envy of the park.
With that said, if the methods above are proving ineffective, make sure to seek help from a professional for further guidance, such as a positive reinforcement based dog trainer or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB).