Aside from good crate behavior, proper leash walking is perhaps the single-most important thing a new owner can teach their puppy. It’s also the safest way to get from point A to point B with you puppy. Folks must know this because it’s also a question that gets asked by a new puppy owner in every litter we’ve bred. So, how do we do this?
First, let’s consider the fact that loose leash walking is a human-initiated phenomenon. It’s a behavior we want our dogs to master so they don’t make it difficult for us to be out and about in public with them. [See also: No dog ever wakes up thinking, golly, I can’t wait to lollygag at a snails’ pace with my human today while politely ignoring everything I might be interested in.] Because of this, getting your dog to reliably walk well on a leash is a skill that will require lots and lots of practice, lots and lots of repetition, and finally, lots and lots of places.
Being dragged down the sidewalk by a pulling dog is no fun for anyone
Every puppy at Barrett HQ is taught how to walk properly on a leash. We first teach it at home on the driveway multiple times throughout the day, then we go for short walks up and down the street, and then we proof the behavior when we go into town for errands (usually Home Depot, Tractor Supply, Starbucks and the vet’s office). Our dogs understand that when a leash is clipped, they are expected to follow us without pulling, and nothing is allowed in their mouths if it’s not a treat given by a human.
Note: We don’t leash walk as a form of exercise for our dogs. [We’ll talk about why in a separate post.]
Okay, so how do we do this?! Before you can teach your puppy to walk on a leash, you need to know what rewards are good enough to motivate your dog to learn a new skill. For a 10-12 week old puppy, a ration of your puppy’s dry kibble might work. If you have some string cheese, try that. Next, your puppy needs to understand when they’re doing something right. The best way to teach your puppy this is to marker train or clicker train your puppy. At Barrett HQ, our marker is a verbal “good” delivered in an upbeat tone of voice. Other folks we know use the word “yes” or a clicker. Do whatever works for you. Your puppy needs to have a reliable recall on his name. And finally, get your puppy acclimated to a leash.
- Knowing Which Treats to Use in Which Circumstances
- Using Marker Training to Communicate with Your Dog
- Reliable Puppy Recall
- Leash Acclimation – Clip a leash on your puppy while he’s awake and wandering around the house, and then ignore the fact that you just put it on. If he’s distracted by it, redirect him with a game of fetch, a game of tug, or some short obedience drills, like sit, down, or target. Remove the leash after 5-10 minutes, and try again later. Get to a point where your puppy is moving along throughout the day, not noticing that he’s dragging a leash around the house.
Got your prerequisite skills done?! Great, let’s move onto how we teach loose leash walking to young dogs.
- Gather supplies. Appropriate treats, pockets or a pouch to stash the treats into, and a six foot leash. Your puppy should also be wearing a flat collar with a ring on it.
- Find a proper location. At first, find someplace quiet and familiar to your puppy. This space should have 15-20 feet of distance and be relatively free of distractions (other people, other animals, the television, etc.). A large family room when no one else is home, a covered backyard patio, or the driveway are good places to start. Later on, you can practice in new places. We like using the garden center at the Home Depot after 7:00 PM because 1) no one else is ever there, and 2) night-time exercises also help puppies acclimate work in dark environments.
- Set a timer. The first few times you do this, stop at five minutes, and eventually work your way up to 20 minutes.
- Clip the leash. Attach the leash to your puppy and hold onto the other end.
- Get your puppy to come. Walk backwards while encouraging your puppy to come towards you. Keep the leash loose; it should look like a letter J when you’re holding it. Mark and reward him for looking at you and coming towards you. Do this a few times, until you can get about 10 feet of distance in.
- If the puppy stops dead in his tracks, lure him with treats in your hand and reward him for coming towards you.
- Get your puppy to follow. Once your puppy has figured out that he’s supposed to come with you, turn your body around and get him to go with you. Start by taking just a few steps and stopping to mark and reward. If your puppy is busy earning rewards from you, what he’s not doing is forging ahead and dragging you along with him.
- If the puppy starts to forge ahead and pull you, stop dead in your tracks and don’t move forward again until the pulling has stopped.
- If the puppy starts biting and chewing on his leash, go back to the leash acclimation step and redirect his behavior by asking for him to look at you, sit, lie down, or wait. Reward him for that behavior, and then try moving forward again.
- Proof the behavior. Over time, increase the distance in which you ask your puppy to walk while focusing on you. Increase the duration of time in which you ask your puppy to walk on a leash. Target 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30 minutes. Increase the distraction level by practicing this behavior in busy places, like a downtown sidewalk, strip mall, or the middle of a busy park. And finally, increase the difficulty. For example, when starting out, you may have decided that picking up sticks is appropriate while leash walking in the neighborhood. Now, increase the difficulty by adding commands along the walk, like drop it, so your dog understands it’s not appropriate to pick up sticks along his walk. Or nail down the precision to keep him next to you instead of six inches in front of you. Walk him past other dogs on the sidewalk without stopping for a meet and greet. Walk him past a neighborhood cat without losing his mind. The list goes on.