How to leash train your dog

How to Leash Train Your Dog Like a Pro

If you just got a new dog or puppy, you may be wondering how to leash train your dog.

Teaching your dog to tolerate being walked on a leash is a simple process and as easy as getting your dog used to wearing a collar. Be patient while your dog acclimates, then praise and reward for following where you go.

Training her not to pull, on the other hand, can take a lot longer and will require some tune-ups throughout your dog’s life. You will need to set criteria for how your dog is allowed to behave on walks and be consistent about sticking to them.

I have been training and showing dogs since I was a little kid. Some of my dogs have been fantastic walking on a leash… others not so much. I’ve learned lots of tricks and strategies for getting your dog to walk nicely on a leash, and also some mistakes to avoid!

In this article we’ll go through the basics of leash training, strategies to teach loose-leash walking, the difference between basic loose-leash walking and heeling, and some tips and tricks for when things just aren’t working out.

Leash training gear

Collar or harness

Personally, I prefer a collar so that I have control of my dog’s head. Harnesses can make it easier for a dog to pull, depending on the style of the harness and the size of the dog. A Labrador’s chest has a lot more muscle and power behind it than a Labrador’s neck.

Toy breed dogs, like Pomeranians and Chihuahuas, are prone to collapsing tracheas. This is where the cartilage in the trachea can fold in. This can happen on its own, or if pressure is applied to the neck. When it happens the dog will often cough to set everything back where it should be. For these little guys, a harness is the way to go.

Harnesses are also the best option for dogs who have had a neck injury.

Whichever option you choose, it must be fitted snugly. You should only be able to get two fingers comfortably between the collar or harness and your dog’s body. A loose collar can easily slip over your dog’s head, and dogs are surprisingly talented at wriggling and backing out of loose harnesses as well. A snug collar or harness could save your dog’s life.

Leash

For training purposes, use a standard leash in a length of your choosing. Four to six feet long is the most practical length for most walks.

Personally I love the feel of a soft leather leash, but there are endless styles and materials out there. Pick a leash that feels good in your hand and that has an appropriately sized snap for your dog (small snaps for little dogs, big sturdy snaps for big dogs).

Do not use a retractable leash for leash training, because these leashes always have some tension on them. This can make learning not to pull very confusing for your dog. You can use one out in open spaces when your dog has some leash walking experience.

A word on retractable leashes

Retractable leashes are not appropriate in buildings of any sort or in public places with lots of other people and animals. Not in the pet store, not in the vet clinic, not strolling down the sidewalk in town.

If you aren’t paying direct attention to your dog, it is very easy for her to wander around a corner or wrap around something and get into trouble.

If she goes up to an unfriendly or stressed dog, she could get hurt. If she goes up to a sick dog at the vet clinic, she could catch the same disease. In town, she could bounce into the road and get hit by a car, or duck into an open door and get into trouble.

Retractable leashes can also be dangerous themselves, especially if they have a cord instead of tape. That cord can cut through flesh very easily when powered by a running dog, and could seriously injure a dog or person if it gets wrapped around a leg. Dropping a retractable leash causes it to shoot toward your dog as the cord winds up, and the impact can hurt your dog.

I am not saying that retractable leashes are evil. They are a wonderful tool if you live somewhere that your dog doesn’t get to have off-leash running time. I use retractable leashes every day walking my dogs through farm fields and open pasture, and they can be a good fit for hiking trails that aren’t heavily traveled or open spaces in parks. But in close quarters there are just too many opportunities for something to go wrong. Please use a regular leash if going into a store or the vet clinic with your dog.

How to leash train your dog 

Leash training isn’t particularly hard, but it can take some time and patience, especially if you have an exuberant dog!

Start with a collar and a harness

Ideally, your dog should have a chance to get used to her collar or harness before starting leash training. Wearing an item for the first time can be confusing and distressing (one of my dogs melts the first time I put a new thing on him and acts like it weighs 400 pounds, miraculously recovering to get treats).

Praise your dog while she is wearing the collar or harness, and let her walk around freely. Playing with toys can sometimes help drama queens forget about the new outfit.

Most breeders have some sort of collar on their puppies at an early age for identification purposes, and shelters and rescue groups may also keep a collar on dogs in their care.

Acclimation

The first time you attach a leash to your dog’s collar or harness, she will likely be confused. She may try to tug away against the pressure from the leash.

To help her get used to it while minimizing stress, follow her around the room or yard. Let her choose the route, and try to keep tension off the leash.

Praise and give treats when your dog loosens the leash on her own and comes toward you.

Make your dog come to you

Once your dog has relaxed a bit, use your best happy voice and treats and/or toys to encourage her to follow you. If she stops to sniff, wait for her, then praise when she starts to catch up. Do the same thing if she balks.

Introduce the rules of loose leash walking

No one likes to get pulled around by their dog. It’s annoying, can cause blisters, and can be dangerous.

There are a couple things you can do to teach your dog to walk on a loose lead. You can use a combination of strategies, but the most important thing is to be consistent with your criteria. If you let your dog pull some of the time but require her to walk nicely other times, she is going to be unsure what you actually want.

One great strategy is “be a tree.” If your dog hits the end of her leash, stop moving. Don’t say anything, just stand still. Eventually she will look toward you to see what the holdup is, and when she releases the tension on the leash, start walking again. This strategy makes maintaining a loose leash your dog’s responsibility, and the reward is getting to keep moving.

Good ol’ positive reinforcement can play its part too. When your dog is walking nicely, praise and give her a treat or some pets. Give random rewards for good behavior even to experienced leash-walking dogs to let them know how perfect they are.

Teach a cue

You don’t actually need a formal cue for walking on a leash. The leash itself is the cue to your dog that you are going for a walk, and you will always want your dog to walk nicely on a loose leash as her default behavior.

I do teach my dogs a couple situational cues that might also be useful for you and your dog. You are welcome to use the same words and phrases that I do, or to come up with your own. Just be consistent!

“Heel” to my dogs means that I want her to be on my left side right next to my leg. This is “heel position.” If you want to compete in obedience or rally obedience competitions, your dog will need to be able to stay in heel position. “Heel” also means that my dog should be looking at me and paying close attention, and that I want her to sit when I stop moving unless she is told otherwise. “Ok!” is my release word that means she is free to do whatever.

To teach “heel,” I use a treat as a lure to get my dog’s nose right at the seam of my pants. This keeps her close. As we take a step or two I will draw my hand up away from her, then immediately bring it back and reward if she sticks with me. Gradually increase the number of steps that you do. When I stop, I ask her to sit, and use my lure to keep her in position.

Once the dog is regularly staying in position, I introduce the cue by saying, “Heel!” before I start moving. You can also teach or perfect heel position by shaping with a clicker.

“Heel” can be useful when going past a tempting distraction, such as another dog or a picnic table with food. It keeps my dog close to and focused on me. Once we are past the distraction, I’ll praise her for a job well done and give my release word to let her know that she can roam freely on her leash again.

The other cue that I teach my dogs is “with me.” This cue means that my dog should be close to me, within arm’s reach, but does not need to be in a particular position or to be totally focused on me. I might use it to call my dog closer when navigating a tricky part of a hiking trail, or to remind a puller that she is not supposed to be dragging me down the path.

To teach “with me,” I shorten my leash so that my dog only has three or four feet of slack. I’ll say, “With me,” and give her a treat when she comes to me (the first few times she won’t really know what the words mean, but she should look up when I talk and will see the offered treat).

If she pulls, I stop moving and stand until she steps toward me to release the tension on the leash. She gets quiet praise for releasing the tension, and we resume walking. If she stays close to me and doesn’t pull for a step or two, she gets praise and a treat. To release, I say, “Ok!” which means she can range farther away again.

If your dog already knows the rules of loose leash walking, she will pick this up very quickly. The rules for “with me” are the same, just she needs to stay close to you rather than having the entire leash to work with. You can also use “with me” when your dog is off leash but you want her to stick with you.

Practice at home

Start leash training at home in a familiar area with few distractions. This will make it easier for your dog to focus, and easier for her to succeed as she is learning. Starting indoors can be a good option, especially for dogs with a strong prey drive who lose their minds at the sight of a squirrel.

Continue practicing outside

Once your dog has the basics of leash training down pat, take it on the road! Go for short walks outside, and gradually range about your neighborhood or visit local parks.

Each time you go to a new place, your dog will be tempted by new distractions. She may need help to remember what she is supposed to be doing. Be patient, arm yourself with treats, and use the same strategies that you did during initial leash training to give her a refresher.

If your dog is too overstimulated by a new location, such as a park during a baseball game, and is unable to focus, back off the pressure. Take her somewhere quieter so she can get her brain back, then do a short, easy training session so she can be successful. Increase the level of distractions gradually on another day.

When should you start leash training a puppy?

Immediately! Leash training can start as soon as you bring your puppy home. Keep the first few sessions very short though, because moving into a new home can be a bit overwhelming.

If you have a fenced yard, you can delay leash training for a couple days while your pup settles in.

But for those of us who don’t have a fenced yard, being on a leash when outside is absolutely necessary to keep your puppy safe. In some cases the breeder or rescue that you got your puppy from may have already started introducing leash training.

For the first few outings, carry the puppy to the general area where you would like her to be and place her on the ground. Then follow her as she bounces and balks. She may put on quite a rodeo act if she has never had a collar and/or leash on before! Be patient and praise her when she settles.

 

What can your dog learn during leash training? 

Leash training teaches dogs about self control, and can also introduce attention and focus.

Loose leash walking

Loose leash walking is the default, everyday behavior that your dog should follow whenever she is on a leash. She can use the full length of the leash and roam about sniffing and exploring, but she should not be pulling.

If you want your dog to stay at your side and not walk in front of you, you can absolutely add that in to your criteria for loose leash walking. If she starts to forge ahead, stick out your foot to gently block her, then praise when she collects herself and holds back.

Every walk is a loose leash walking practice or training session, so always be mindful of your criteria for loose leash walking and enforce them consistently. Praise and reward when your dog is walking nicely, and when she starts to pull, stop moving and wait until she releases the tension on the lead.

Heeling

Heeling is used in obedience competitions, but can also be helpful in real life. When heeling, your dog should be directly at your side and paying close attention to you. Only use your heel cue when you actually want your dog to heel.

Heeling is useful in crowds or when there are a lot of distractions that you don’t want your dog to get excited about.

How long does it take to leash train a dog? 

How long it takes to leash train your dog will depend on your dog and how often you practice. Most dogs catch on very quickly if you work on it at least a little bit every day.

Adult dogs may take longer to adjust to being on a leash than puppies, simply because they are used to being unencumbered.

Even if you have a fenced yard or a large property where your dog can run loose much of the time, it is extremely important for your dog to learn to walk on a leash. This is a critical life skill, and will make situations where she HAS to be on a leash, like going to the vet’s office, much less stressful than if she is confused about the leash as well as the outing.

Reward good behavior

Everybody loves a paycheck! For most dogs, going on a walk is extremely rewarding. So many sights and smells to check out, and maybe friends to visit with.

Take advantage of this love of motion. If your dog is pulling, stop and stand still until she releases the pressure on the leash. When she does, resume walking. Most dogs quickly figure out that they will make more progress if they match their speed to yours and don’t pull.

Use additional rewards, such as treats, praise, petting, and maybe even a tug toy, to give your dog even more reason to want to walk nicely with you. When your dog is being good, tell her how perfect she is and give her a reward.

If you notice your dog starts to charge forward but catches herself on her own and slows down, give her lots of praise and a big prize! She has just shown amazing self-control and regulated her own speed without you needing to remind her or hinder her progress by standing still.

When is it necessary to use a leash?

For the most part, leashes are necessary at all times unless otherwise specified. This is for the safety of your dog as well as the safety of other people and animals. Many towns and cities have leash laws, requiring your dog to be on a leash at all times unless in a fenced area.

Remember that some people are afraid of dogs or allergic to them. Not everyone wants a kiss from your friendly pooch, just like how not everyone wants a random hug from you.

Places to use a leash include, but are not limited to:

  • Pet supply stores
  • Veterinary clinics
  • Parks (unless otherwise noted)
  • Sidewalks and public property
  • Hiking trails (unless otherwise noted)

If you are somewhere that your dog is allowed off leash, think long and hard about how reliable her recall is and if running loose could potentially result in harm to your dog or someone else. Just because your dog can be loose doesn’t mean she should be. If she is liable to ignore your call and charge up to another person or animal, keep her on the leash. Be respectful of others’ space.

Troubleshooting 

How do I get my dog to stop pulling on the leash?

There are a variety of strategies you can try to stop pulling.

Be a tree

When your dog starts to pull, stop moving and wait until she lets the leash go slack again. This might take a while the first few times, especially if your dog is a chronic puller! Be patient and stick with it.

You may have to shorten some of your walks to make up for the slower progress. The good news is that mental exercise like this (“What on earth is her problem and why does she keep stopping me?!”) will wear your dog out faster than physical exercise anyway.

If you are getting frustrated with your dog, call it a day and go home. Getting angry will only confuse your dog and leave both of you feeling bad.

Reward walking nicely

Many dogs don’t mind pulling, and are happy to drag you around everywhere. Make walking nicely more attractive by rewarding your dog with special treats and praise when she is being good.

Keep your dog’s collar high

Set your dog’s collar so that it fits snuggly right behind her ears and jawbone. This is the thinnest part of the neck, so having the collar here gives you the most control and gives your dog the least leverage when she pulls.

Try a head halter

There’s a reason why horses wear halters instead of collars! Head halters, such as the Gentle Leader and Halti, can be great options for some dogs. When your dog pulls while wearing a head halter, her nose will turn back toward you. She can’t get her full body of muscle behind the pulling as easily.

Head halters do have a learning curve. Start by introducing the halter at home, and give lots of rewards when your dog is wearing it. You want her to associate the head halter with good things. Discourage your dog from pawing at the halter, and reward her for relaxing with it on.

You will still need to combine the head halter with other strategies to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash.

Escalating consequences

If you have some time to work on your dog’s pulling, this can be helpful for some dogs. Put her leash on and start out on your walk. The first time she pulls, stop and wait until she releases the pressure on the leash. The second time, take one step backward and wait until she releases the tension.

The third time she pulls, takes two steps back, and the fourth time, three steps back. If she pulls again, quietly and calmly take her back in the house. Try again in 15 minutes or so.

If at any point your steps back take you to your door, the walk is over. Calmly take your dog inside, and then try again in about 15 minutes.

As you can see, for dedicated pullers this strategy might take a little while before you actually go on a walk. But for some dogs, the escalating consequences with each pull make it more clear to them that they need to walk nicely to go for their outing.

Change direction

Each time your dog pulls, turn and go the other way. Don’t jerk the leash, just turn and walk steadily. Your dog will figure out that she doesn’t control the route. If you get dizzy easily, this may not be the strategy for you!

No-pull harness

There are a variety of harnesses marketed to stop pulling. None of them are magic bullets. My worst puller happily pulled even in a front-clip no-pull harness. Different styles also may or may not fit your dog’s body well, so if at all possible try it on your dog before buying.

You will still need to combine the no-pull harness with other strategies to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash.

How do I get my dog to stop lunging?

Lunging is usually the result of your dog being overstimulated (squirrel, ball), but could also be triggered by fear or aggression. There is even a phenomenon called leash reactivity, which is when a dog who is well-mannered off leash turns into a psycho on-leash.

Fixing these issues is more about behavior modification and management than it is about the leash itself.

Start by identifying what things make your dog lunge, and avoid them as much as you can. If caught by surprise, just remove your dog from the situation. Turn and walk away, and once you are far enough away that your dog gets her brain back again, ask her to do something easy such as sit or a hand touch. Praise for good work.

At home, work on a rock-solid heel cue and some other behaviors you can use to redirect your dog, such as a hand touch, sit, or “watch” cue.

When you have some tools under your belt, try to expose your dog to something exciting in a controlled setting. For example, if your dog lunges when she sees other dogs, take her to a dog park but stay far away from the actual play area. Allow her to see the other dogs, but stay back far enough that she is still able to focus on you. Ask her to do several tricks and practice your loose-leash walking.

If she is successful, move a little closer. Make the challenge more difficult a little bit at a time, always ending training sessions on success.

You can also enlist a friend with a non-reactive dog to help. Have your friend walk his dog where your dog can see them, but not too close. Reward for good behavior. Gradually get closer over time as long as your dog is able to stay under threshold.

Key takeaways on leash training dogs

Teaching your dog to accept a leash is usually pretty easy. Teaching loose leash walking, on the other hand, takes time and patience.

Be consistent so that it is clear to your dog that pulling means she isn’t going to get anywhere. Self control is hard! Be patient when your dog is struggling, and praise and reward when she makes a good choice and is walking nicely, even if it is only for a few seconds at first.

To navigate distractions, be on the watch for things that get your dog overexcited and be prepared to ask her to do some easy behaviors to keep her focused on you.

With patience and consistency, your dog will learn to walk nicely and you can enjoy lots of long walks together!

Kate Basedow, LVT