Tips for Leash Training Your Dog

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA
By Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA on Mar. 1, 2016
small black puppy getting a treat while wearing a red leash

By Victoria Schade

Harmonious leash walks are one of the great joys of pet parenthood, but if you have a dog that pulls on the leash, walking can become an uncomfortable chore. So how do you train your dog to walk politely on the leash without pulling? The following tips outline the foundation for helping your dog learn that staying close to you when you stroll is the best way to walk.

Getting Started

Before you begin training, make sure you’ve chosen equipment that will make both you and your dog feel comfortable while walking. Select a flat collar that fits your dog properly (it should fit snugly while fitting two fingers beneath it) and the right length leash. The standard leash length is between four and six feet, which gives your dog enough room to roam and do his business, but isn’t so long that it could put him in danger. Anything shorter than four feet might make it difficult for your dog to explore and eliminate without dragging you around. The weight of the leash is an important consideration as well. Watch out for overly heavy leashes that might be uncomfortable for smaller dogs. You’ll also want to consider the leash clasp (some types can accidentally unsnap during a walk if they’re hit in the wrong spot) and if you should use a harness with your leash instead of a caller. Small dogs and brachycephalic breeds should be harnessed, as pulling on the leash long term can cause damage to the trachea and these dogs are already pre-disposed to tracheal collapse later in life.

Aside from the right leash and collar, the next most important item required for a tranquil leash walk is treats. Load up with small, tasty treats before you venture out. The goal is to use the treats to reward your dog when he’s walking close to you without pulling. Keep in mind that you should select high value treats that are moist, meaty and aromatic. The goodies you use have to trump the environmental distractions you’ll encounter as you walk, like squirrels and other dogs, so make them count!

How to Leash Train a Dog

Good leash walking doesn’t mean keeping your dog in a strict heel by your side. While a heel is fine for the competition ring, there’s really no need for it during a recreational walk. A walk should allow your dog the freedom not only to relieve himself but also engage in some sniffing and exploration. The requirements for a polite leash walk are basic; your dog keeps the leash loose, walks close to you and checks in with you every so often.

The foundation for a mannerly walk begins the moment you pick up the leash. If your dog jumps at you and acts pushy as you’re getting ready to head out, simply put the leash down, walk away and wait until your dog is quiet and calm. This is an important lesson that will teach your dog that impolite behavior makes you stop what you’re doing and polite behavior makes you continue. Repeat the process until your dog can wait patiently as you clip on the leash and head out the door.

Because you have to compete with a variety of environmental distractions, it helps to use some sort of “marker” to let your dog know when he’s in the right spot near you and can collect a treat. A clicker is a training tool that makes a distinct noise to precisely denote when your dog is in the correct position. You can also use a consistent word to acknowledge your dog’s polite walking, like “good” or “yup.” Simply say the word and then quickly follow up with the food reward, creating a bridge between the word and the treat. With enough pairings of the word and the resulting treat, your dog will understand that when he hears the special word he’s going to get rewarded for what he’s doing. Try to treat your dog in the same spot every time, either on the left side or right side of your body, so your dog learns that there’s a very specific and lucrative “hot zone” right next to you.

Be generous during the early stages of leash training (your dog doesn’t have to be right next to you in order to earn a reward). Walking near you without any tension in the leash is enough to warrant a reward during the foundation stages. Also make sure to reward him any time he looks up at you during your walk. Paying attention to you in a distracting environment is a huge compliment; let him know that you appreciate it with a tasty morsel.

Over time, as your dog gets better at walking close to you, you can make him work a little harder in order to earn a treat. For example, get him to walk beside you for longer periods of time before you treat him or only reward him when he’s in the “hot zone” right next to you. Then gradually wean down the number of treats you give your dog until he’s only getting an occasional reward during your leash walks together.

How to Stop Your Dog from Pulling

Dogs pull on leash because it works; they pull, we follow. The first step to curbing a dog that pulls is teaching him that pulling never works, which means that every time he pulls you should immediately stop walking. This step requires the human walker to be mindful of what’s happening during the walk – it’s very easy to lose focus and not realize that your dog has been pulling you for blocks.

Once you stop walking, your dog will probably do one of two things: either look back at you as if to say “why did we stop?” or ignore the fact that you’ve stopped and keep trying to move forward. If your dog looks back at you, mark his focus on you with a click or your special word, and then encourage him to come back to your side to collect the treat. Continue walking, and if possible mark him again for remaining close to you as you move on.

If your dog ignores the fact that you’ve stopped, begin a “penalty yard.” A penalty yard is a gentle punisher that teaches your dog that when he pulls, it actually makes him move farther away from his goal. Walk backward with your dog without jerking him until he turns to acknowledge you, which should only take a few steps. Once your dog finally looks at you, mark his focus on you with your clicker or marker word and then give him the reward in the hot zone. If your dog is pulling towards an obvious goal like a food wrapper, you might have to repeat the penalty yard a few times before he understands that pulling doesn’t work. In time, you’ll only have to do a single step penalty yard and your dog will self-correct or come back to your side without further prompting.

Polite walks require that you remain focused and ready to work every time you take your dog out on the leash. There is no such thing as a “training walk” and a “regular walk,” your dog is learning a lesson every time you walk him. With patience, time and more than a few tasty goodies, you can train your dog to walk on the leash without pulling.

Leash Walking Safety and Etiquette

Although flexible leashes seem like a good idea because they give your dog freedom, they can actually be dangerous for both ends of the leash. The thin rope and pulling mechanism can cause rope burn or other injuries and can pose a behavioral threat by encouraging your dog to roam at a great distance ahead of you, allowing him to rush up to whatever or whomever he pleases without the benefit of your guidance. Flexible leashes can also malfunction, causing the leash to get stuck at the full length, which can lead to problems if you need to suddenly “reel” your dog back in.

Even if your dog is the neighborhood goodwill ambassador, do not permit him to rush up to unknown dogs or people. Not all dogs tolerate a strange dog at close range, which can lead to scuffles or worse. Always ask the other pet parent if it’s okay to approach and respect their wishes if they opt to pass without a meeting. Finally, don’t forget to bring bags with you during your leash walks. Dog waste is a contaminant, and no one wants to see it or accidentally step in it if you fail to scoop the poop.

Image:  / Shutterstock

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA


Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA


Victoria Schade has been a dog trainer and writer for over twenty years. During that time her dog duties have included working behind the...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health