Leash training your dog is not just about teaching your dog how to heel. Training your dog to walk on-leash is also about safety, communication, and having better control in various environments.
Why Leash Training is Important
The biggest reason that owners focus on leash training their dog is so that they can walk together uneventfully. The heel command teaches your dog to walk directly beside you without pulling ahead, lagging behind, or getting into trouble!
Failing to teach the heel command can result in danger for you and your dog, your dog may pull too hard and damage your shoulder or elbow joint, your dog may get into altercations with passing dogs, or they may encounter pedestrians who are fearful of dogs and cause them to panic.
A leash isn’t just a method of keeping your dog by your side while walking together, it’s also a crucial tool in keeping you and your dog safe. Used properly, a leash allows you to pull your dog out of the way of danger, avoid your dog walking out into danger, and stop your dog from pulling you into dangerous situations (like into the street!)
Without a leash for safety, most dogs would run and never look back. The reason for this isn’t that they want to get away from you, it’s simply the result of an instinctive need to roam, chase pray, and run from anything which may make them feel in danger (like traffic).
When using a leash with your dog, it isn’t a tool so much as it’s an extension of your arm. Using controlled movements and practicing on-leash commands often, you will soon find that you can communicate what you want from your dog with a simple movement of their leash.
Without control and practice, however, the leash becomes nothing more than a tool that pulls your dog around and causes them aggravation. When this happens, you will find that your dog is reluctant to be leashed and may try to pull out of their collar and leash when walking.
Control is, of course, another important function of your dog’s leash. Using a well-made leash and using it properly will help you to control where your dog moves and how they move. This is particularly important when it comes to unexpected situations that may arise while you are walking. For example, if your dog has a high prey drive and a squirrel jumps into your path when you are walking, your dog’s natural instinct is to chase the squirrel. With a good leash and enough training, however, you can maintain control of your dog and avoid your dog taking charge of the situation and dragging you around the park!
Introducing the Leash to Your Dog
- The first step in training your dog to work with any new item is to familiarize them with it. Do this by simply leaving the leash on the ground where your dog can investigate it. This helps your dog to understand that this new thing poses them no risk and is just an everyday item.
- Once your dog shows interest and begins investigating the leash without fear, you can hold the leash in your hands and show them that you aren’t afraid of it either. Your dog will also take note that you aren’t doing anything “scary” with the leash while it’s in your hands.
- Once your dog has become accustomed to your holding the leash, get closer to them with the leash in your hand and a treat in the other hand. When your dog approaches without fear, reward them with praise and a treat. This creates a positive association for your dog with the leash.
- When your dog is fully familiarized with their leash, hold a treat in one hand to keep your dog’s focus while you hood the leash onto their collar or harness. Give your dog the treat after hooking on their leash. In the safety of your home and where you can monitor them constantly, allow your dog to walk around with their leash on. Be sure that they don’t get the end of the leash caught on anything. You are simply letting your dog get to know the concept of walking on a leash.
- When your dog is calm and familiar with their leash being hooked on their collar, begin taking the free end of the leash in hand and walking around the house with your dog. Use your voice and praise to get your dog to follow you closely. If your dog is reluctant to move, sits down, lies down, or tries to pull out of their collar, let go of the leash and continue familiarizing your dog with the leash in less active ways. Never pull your dog’s leash in an attempt to get them to obey you, this creates a negative association with the leash forcing your dog to do something that they don’t want to do. Continue practicing familiarizing your dog with their leash until they get a little more comfortable and then try walking them in your home on-leash again another time.
- Finally, once you have had some practice with walking your dog around the house on-leash, take your dog to a safe, small outside area where you can practice walking on-leash outside. Over time you should increase the length of time that you are walking outdoors with your dog on-leash.
Soon your dog will recognize their leash and associate it with the fun of going outdoors!
Teaching Your Dog to Heel On-Leash
The heel command keeps your dog by your side while you are walking so that they are not pulling you ahead or lagging behind you.
- Put your dog on their leash making sure that you have plenty of treats in your pocket.
- Hold your dog’s leash in the hand furthest from your dog.
- Hold a treat between the thumb and forefinger of the hand closest to your dog making sure that they are aware of it.
- As you begin walking, keep the treat slightly in front of your dog’s face and give the “heel” command. Use the treat to keep your dog on pace with you as you walk.
- After walking a few steps with your dog on pace with you, stop, give them praise and give them the treat.
- Repeat this practice and make the walking distance further each time.
If your dog begins pulling or lagging behind when you are walking, use the treat to focus them and keep trying. If your dog is noticeably distracted or just not in the mood for training, take a break and try again tomorrow.
Commands to Cover When On-Leash Training
The following commands will require some basic obedience training before you attempt them. These are important commands designed to keep your dog safe and provide them reference points should they ever get lost.
Sitting at the Curb
It’s important to have your dog sit at the curb to wait for your cue whenever you are walking outdoors. This gives you time to check for traffic to ensure that crossing the road is safe for you both.
- As you approach the curb come to a full stop.
- Give your dog the “sit” command.
- When your dog sits at the curb, tell them to stay or wait as you check for traffic.
- Have your dog hold this position for a few minutes before giving a “good boy, let’s go!” command and beginning to walk across the street.
Be sure to practice this command every time you come to a curb.
- Take a few treats out with you when you take your dog out on their leash to go potty.
- Give your dog time to find a place to go to the bathroom and wait for them to eliminate.
- Once they are finished eliminating give plenty of praise saying, “Good boy, go potty!” and reward them with a treat.
Repeating this process every time your puppy goes to the bathroom for a few weeks will help them to make a connection between the command and what you want them to do. Eventually, you will be able to give the “go potty” command to initiate potty time!
Up / Down or On / Off
The up and down commands (use on and off if you use the word “down” for the lie-down command) are simple to teach as you walk your dog on their leash.
- Take a treat from your pocket and give your dog the up / down command and use the treat to lure them into stepping up or stepping down.
- Give your dog the treat when they complete the action.
These commands can also be taught through simple repetition of the words as you step up or down curbs or go up and down stairs.
- If you are walking close to home, as you approach your home on the way back, speak the words “go home” to your dog.
- Make this a habit and when you get to the front door of your home give them praise “Good boy! Go home!”
While this is not a mandatory command, it is a good reminder for your dog should they ever get loose from their leash or escape home.
A Note About Leash Flagging
Leash flagging is a practice designed for the safety of dogs and their owners and involves tying a colored “flag” to your dog’s leash to notify others of potential issues. Below is the generally accepted color code for leash flagging:
- Yellow: Dogs that need space. Give these dogs plenty of room and keep your dog away.
- Red: Dogs that are reactive or aggressive. Do not approach these dogs. Instead, take an alternate route by crossing the street or pulling your dog off the path and putting them in a sit so the other dog can pass.
- White: Dogs that are blind or deaf. Be considerate of these dogs and their owners as you pass with your dog.
If your dog has any of these issues it is your responsibility to use the flagging system to warn others and to hire a behaviorist to work with your dog to overcome their behavioral concerns.
Dos and Don’ts of On-Leash Training
When teaching your dog to walk properly on-leash, it’s important to avoid these common mistakes and follow these easy tips to increase your success.
- Do maintain control of your dog at all times especially when being approached or approaching other people and their pets. The best way to do this is to step off to the side of the path and put your dog in a “sit” position.
- Don’t jerk your dog’s leash roughly or violently. This can cause damage to your dog’s head/neck/spine and cause them to become leash-shy or leash-aggressive.
- Do regularly practice manners when leash training your dog and don’t get lazy about enforcing commands.
- Don’t ever use the leash to strike or punish your dog. This too will lead to fear or aggression as well as set you back considerably in training.
- Do remain aware of others around you, don’t let your dog sniff, lick, or jump at them. Also pay attention to other dogs, if they are pulled away by their owner or have a red or yellow tag on their leash (meaning not friendly or nervous respectively) give them a wide berth.
- Don’t continue with leash training if your pup just isn’t in the mood to learn. Teaching a puppy is hard enough without having to drag out training because they have too much energy to focus. Have a play day instead and try again with leash training tomorrow.
- Do consider using a harness with your dog’s leash if you have a hard time maintaining control of them while training.
- Don’t spend hours at a time working on leash training. Your dog will get bored and begin to “act out” and the whole experience will be exhausting and non-productive.
- Do remain calm and don’t get frustrated if your puppy isn’t catching on quickly. Keep in mind that your puppy has a very short attention span and limited understanding of what you expect from them. If your dog is failing, it’s because you are failing at teaching in a way that they can understand. Take a break and try a new approach later.
- Don’t let your dog off-leash to test their understanding of commands like “heel”. Instead, invest a few dollars in a long leash so that your dog remains in your control but has space to feel more freedom.
Sometimes it Takes a Professional
If you find that you are having a lot of trouble leash-training your dog, consider bringing in a professional to help you. Some dogs require a little more time to catch on than others and some humans just aren’t cut out to be teachers! Whatever your reason, consult your local veterinarians for a trainer referral.