Contrary to popular belief, puppies aren’t born with the ability to walk guided by a leash. In fact, much to the surprise of many first-time puppy parents, getting them comfortable on the lead can actually be quite the time-consuming task. Luckily, most pups want to please and are quick to pick up new tricks, so leash training is a relatively short and painless process. The key, like any dog training endeavor, is to know the basics and seek guidance from the experts.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about leash training your brand-new bundle of furry joy, whether they’re mischievous pups or stubborn adult dogs. We’ll guide you towards the best harnesses, collars, training treats, tips and techniques to help you and your little buddy master it with minimal stress. With this guide, you’ll be walking the trails and strutting through the neighborhood with confidence in no time!
Why Leash Training Matters
Dogs, like humans, need guidance, especially when it comes to picking up on new skills. A dog’s natural tendency is to explore and roam, so the new scents and sights along the trail — squirrels, the scent or sight of other pups, even discarded trash or food — tempt them to pull, lunge and bolt. Not only is this uncomfortable and risky for you as their walker, but it’s also dangerous for them.
Taking your dog for a walk doesn’t seem like a high-risk activity, but the reality is that a dog who’s not trained to stay by your side and listen to your cues can put you at risk of injury. In fact, statistics show that over 50,000 people sustain dog-related injuries while out on a walk with their pups each year. Some of the more common injuries include dislocated shoulders, sprained wrists and fractures caused by a dog pulling too hard when the leash is in hand or wrapped around the wrist.
Of course, your dog’s safety is a massive consideration, too. An ill-trained dog is at risk of getting into altercations with aggressive dogs sharing the trail. Proper leash training also ensures that they don’t venture into dangerous territory, like oncoming traffic or steep, rocky terrain. It also helps you ensure that your curious pup doesn’t find his way to the tossed-out chicken wing on the side of the road, which could splinter into shards and seriously injure their digestive tract.
Before You Begin: Starting Off on the Right Paw
Needless to say, getting your dog acclimated with the leash — as well as your audible and physical cues keeping them by your side — is critical to keeping all parties safe and happy. But you want to make sure you take things slow and prepare for the journey ahead, so you and your energetic buddy get off on the right paw. Here are some things to do before diving in.
Invest in a No-Pull Harness in the Right Size — A no-pull harness in the right size is the most important tool in leash training both excitable pups and older dogs who are set in their ways. These essentials are uniquely designed to keep you in control. Unlike a standard collar, which connects to your leash at the neck, a harness disperses pressure all over your pup’s body, which reduces strain and prevents successful pulling. In addition to being adorable, a cute dog harness also prevents active pups from getting tangled up in the leash.
Start Off with the Right Leash — The right leash is key as well. Start out with a fixed-length leash, rather than a retractable one, as these tend to give you better control and help you keep your dog at your side. We recommend picking one made up of a durable, chew-proof material, such as thick webbed polyester. Excited puppies and frustrated adult dogs may express their feelings by chewing, and a low-quality leash will crack under the pressure and release your dog into potentially dangerous situations.
Get Your Pup Comfortable Before Heading Out — Getting acquainted with the harness and leash is one of the biggest hurdles pups have when learning to walk. If they aren’t comfortable in the gear, they’ll spend the entire walk figuring out how to slip out of it or chew it off their body. To deter this, put your new harness on your dog an hour or two before heading out on your first few jaunts. Let them play in the house or in the backyard while wearing it so it’s not a distraction when you finally hit the streets.
Start with a Good, Long Play Session — Whether you’ve got a rambunctious puppy or a particularly high-energy adult dog, you’ve probably already figured out that they tend to be much better mannered when they’re tuckered out. At first, the goal of your training walks should not be to burn off energy. That comes later, once they’re already comfortable with the process. These first few walks are meant to acquaint your pup with the walking process and gear. Starting off with a game of fetch will help them get their zoomies out beforehand so they can focus on learning on their walk.
Stock Up on High-Value Fast-Eating Treats — Healthy, fast-eating treats are critical to a successful training session, whether you’re teaching your pup to walk, sit or roll over. Keep plenty of high-value treats in small bite-sized pieces in your pocket or a fanny pack so you can reward good behavior as you go. Avoid large or high-calorie treats since you’ll be doling them out by the dozen as your pup is learning the basics.
Don’t Use Choke Collars — Choke, poke and prong dog collars and chain collars are not recommended by training experts. Though they promise to help deter one of the most frustrating walking behaviors — pulling — these collars are not safe and can seriously hurt or even strangle your dog. The Humane Society warns against the use of prong, pinch, choke and shock collars in all scenarios. These are harmful to your pet and not useful in training.
Tips and Techniques for Leash Training
Once you’ve outfitted your bestie in an adorable donut dog harness and let them sport it around the house for an hour or two, it’s time to take to the streets. There are a few things you want to keep in mind before taking your first neighborhood walk or trail hike. We recommend keeping your itinerary loose for those first few jaunts and setting small goals, like getting to the end of the driveway. Don’t plan on a set destination or time. Wait to see how things go and don’t be afraid to stick close to the yard or driveway at first.
Here’s what else you need to know when you finally head out the door.
- Choose Your Audible and Visual Cues — The key to successful training is to get your pup to understand and respond correctly to what you want. Naturally, you will want to set some verbal and visual cues for your pet to follow. The most important in leash training include “wait” or “stay” and “heel.” Just make sure to choose your verbal commands and hand cues beforehand and stay consistent with them.
- Don’t use “wait” and “stay” — Pick one or the other and stick to it. Having two words for the same intention will only confuse pups.
- Dogs respond well to verbal instruction, so don’t be afraid to talk them through the process and use phrases like “this way” or “that way.”
- Pick corresponding hand motions to go with your verbal cues. “Wait” or “stay” works well with a corresponding hand up (like you’re signaling “stop”) and “heel” works well with a corresponding hand at your side.
- Reward Good Behavior — The best way to incentivize your pup to listen to you is to reward their good behavior with treats, petting and positive praise. In general, experts don’t recommend using punishment, including yelling or loud clapping, during training. Positive reinforcement is best. And, it should go without saying, but never use physical punishment, during training or otherwise, to get your dog to follow instructions. Here are some behaviors that should be rewarded with a high-value treat:
- In the driveway or yard before your walk, have your pup sit or lay down and reward their good behavior. This lets them know that treats are a part of the equation and that they need to start listening.
- On your walk, give rewards when your dog is holding a comfortable weight on the leash and not pulling or lunging.
- On your walk, give rewards when your dog listens to your verbal or visual cues to sit, stay or heel.
- Reward with positive verbal feedback. Say “yes,” “good girl” and “good boy” as often as they are deserved.
- Reward rapidly. Make sure to have your treats readily accessible in a pocket or waist pack and hand them out often and quickly to ensure that your pup associates them with the right behaviors.
- Take It Slow and Stop Often — For most dogs, the sight of the leash or harness instantly means walk, which leads to lots of excitement and a burst of energy. Try to get your pup used to staying calm on the leash. One of the easiest ways to do this is to keep your walk leisurely, explorative and at your own pace. It helps to take regular breaks, even sitting on the ground or a stoop with your pet, while they’re on leash. This encourages them to resist the urge to pull and get excited automatically when they see the leash.
- Know How to Respond to Pulling and Lunging — Whether you’re working with a high-energy pup or an older dog, pulling on the leash can be one of the most challenging behaviors to correct, especially when negative responses are off the table. This is especially challenging for certain breeds who have been bred for these kinds of behaviors. For example, Siberian huskies were selectively bred to pull sleds, while pit bulls and terriers were bred for their ability to pull heavy carts. Hunting breeds — such as golden retrievers, labs, bloodhounds and some spaniels — tend to lunge at the sight of squirrels and birds.
- It’s important to remain patient with your pup and understand that many of these behaviors are natural and intuitive. But that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to discourage!
- Reward your dog when they aren’t putting any tension on the leash. Be as liberal as you’d like with the treats during those first few sessions.
- Don’t yank the leash when your dog pulls. Instead, stop walking and stand still without moving. This is called the “be-as-a-tree” method and it teaches your dog that pulling stops all the fun!
- Use a loose leash at first and stop or change directions any time your pet gets ahead of you. This will let them know that they are not in charge of the pace or direction of your walk.
Realistic Training Tips for Any Goal
Since you need to start walking your dog the same day or week she arrives home, it’s important to start your training journey with getting them comfy on the leash. But many of the above tips and techniques can be applied to all sorts of training endeavors, from teaching basic tricks like “sit” and “stay” to encouraging them to stay calm and not jump when visitors arrive. Positive reinforcement, good-quality treats and the right gear are critical to helping your excitable pup grow into a well-mannered adult!
Beast & Buckle has you covered when it comes to the gear. We’ve got the perfect no-pull and reversible dog harness options that help you keep your dog under control regardless of age, size or energy level. Pick up one of our high-quality and cute pup harnesses before you embark on your first walk!