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Oh boy! Your puppy has finally reached one of their most important milestones: going for walks on leash.
If dogs ruled the world, leashes wouldn’t exist. Instead, every time you took them out they’d be free to roam without being physically restrained. But dogs don’t rule the world, cars do, and leashes are a necessary evil.
While the leash takes some of the fun out of being outdoors, as long as you introduce it to your puppy properly, they’ll come to accept it willingly. So, first things first, let’s convince puppy that the leash is a good thing, not something to be afraid of. For this, we will use “classical conditioning,” a form of learning in which your dog learns patterns of association.
How Puppies Experience the Leash
When a puppy is first born, they don’t know a food bowl from a tennis ball. But as the days pass, they begin to notice that the same thing happens every time before they get to gorge on yummy food—a human pulls a bowl out of a cabinet. That bowl predicts that the food is coming and because food makes puppy happy, the food bowl, itself, becomes an object that makes them happy, even when there isn’t any food in it.
In theory, the leash works this way, too. The leash appears before puppy gets to go for a walk. So, if your puppy likes walks, then the leash, itself, becomes an object that makes them happy. In reality, though, it doesn’t always work this way.
Puppies sometimes find their initial encounters with a leash unpleasant. When hooked into a leash, they can’t roam and play and go anywhere they want to go. They may feel annoyed or frightened by the object dangling above them and, if the leash is attached to a collar, they will feel discomfort when they strain against the tether.
Because of all these potential pitfalls, I recommend that puppies be desensitized to a leash. This means that you introduce your puppy to a leash even before they are ready their first leashed walk outside and you do it s-l-o-w-l-y.
Leash Training a Puppy: First Steps
1. Begin by showing your puppy the leash and associating it with treats.
- Pull the leash out from behind your back. When your puppy looks at it, mark the moment with the word “Yes!” or a clicker and give them a treat. Then make the leash disappear behind your back again. Repeat until your puppy is interested in or excited by the leash when it appears.
2. Now that puppy thinks that leash-thing is pretty cool when you’re holding it, help them to form a positive association with attaching it to their collar or harness.
- With your high-value treats locked and loaded, gently attach the leash to your dog’s collar or harness. Mark the moment you do with a “Yes!” or click and reward your dog. Remove the leash. Repeat until your puppy is comfortably accepting the leash.
3. Next, we want your pup to get used to the weight and restrictiveness of the leash.
- Leash them up inside the house and take them on mini “walks” of a few minutes at a time, letting them explore nooks and crannies. Sweeten the pot by throwing treats into corners as you go. You can also reward them for any good leash behavior you notice (i.e., they look back at you, they stay close to you without pulling away, and so on).
Leash Training a Puppy Outdoors
Now you’re ready to hit the outside world. At this stage of their lives, puppies haven’t had much interaction with the outdoors so everything—smells, sounds, sights—are all novel (and sometimes scary).
If you have the option, it’s best to begin “walking” them in a controlled location like a yard, where distractions are relatively minimal. Otherwise, try to hit a quiet neighborhood street instead of heading straight for the closest shopping district where your pup may become overwhelmed.
I find that puppies tend to fall in two major categories on their first walk: daredevil or wallflower. The daredevils are the ones who rush from tree to tree, zigzagging at top speed to get up close to everything new they see. The wallflowers are more nervous about the big wide world and may have to be coaxed just to take a few steps. No matter where your puppy falls on the spectrum, encourage them with your voice and reward them for anything you want to encourage, especially “checking in” with you (i.e., looking your direction) or walking without pulling on the leash.
A Beginner’s Rules to Loose Leash Walking
Within your first couple of walks, begin implementing these simple rules around the leash.
Red Light, Green Light
In this “game,” your puppy only gets to walk if they are not pulling on the leash. If they pull you, plant your feet and stop moving (red light!). Either wait for puppy to loosen up on the leash or encourage them with your voice to turn towards you. When the tension is gone from the leash, start walking again (green light).
This simple game helps your puppy to understand that you are not taking them for a walk, you two are walking together. If they look at you, reward them for the effort it took to pry their eyes away from all the excitement. The more a dog is rewarded for an action, the more they will practice that behavior, thus forming a habit.
As you walk, regularly say your dog’s name in a happy tone of voice. Mark the moment they look at you with a “Yes!” or clicker then reward them Be sure to do this all while moving! If you stop walking to mark and reward, your pup will think that is what they are being rewarded for.
Touch or “hand-targeting” is a way to get your dog to move without pulling their leash. If your dog knows how to touch, holding your hand close to your side when you say the cue will bring them back to you instead of pulling in a different direction.
Don’t know about touch yet? Take a look at our guide on how to teach it. Use this cue anytime you feel too much tension on the leash. Mark and reward your dog (while moving!) when you feel their nose boop your hand.
The point of a leash is to keep your dog safe, not to forcefully control them. If you’re using your leash to pull your dog or make corrections, your dog isn’t learning how to do things on their own. Avoid yanking on the leash whenever possible.
Avoid flexi-leads or retractable leashes. These leashes make it hard to keep your dog safe from potential dangers. Just as problematic, a dog walked on a retractable leash will learn to walk farther away from you and pull on the leash rather than stick close. All you need is an old-school nylon or leather leash around six feet in length.
Leash Pulling or Biting
If your dog pulls on the leash, you will have more success walking them on a harness than a collar. A dog that strains against a collar throughout their walk is an uncomfortable dog, not to mention one on their way to causing a collapsed trachea. For a dog that pulls, an anti-pull harness that clips to the leash at the chest is a better choice than a harness that clips to the leash at the spine.
Many pups think that the leash is a plaything. Spraying bitter apple spray on the bottom half of the leash works for some, but in my experience, training your dog to leave the leash alone is a more effective long-term strategy. Failing this, try a leash with a lower section is made from a metal chain. Puppies don’t like to bite metal so this should manage the problem.