By Vanessa Voltolina
Imagine this scene: You’re walking down the block with your dog, and suddenly you see a pet parent strolling along with his or her reptile. While it may seem outlandish, many pet parents wonder if this is a possibility for themselves and their scaly friends. Here, we ask the experts whether leash training a reptile is a good idea and how to go about doing it.
Can I Leash Train My Reptile?
The short answer: yes – but with some major considerations to keep in mind. “In theory, just about any animal can be trained to varying degrees,” said Lisa Abbo, DVM, MS, at Woods Hole Science Aquarium and the Capron Park Zoo in Massachusetts. However, it’s more complicated than it may seem.
“Reptiles can be leash trained, but it takes a lot of dedication by the owner,” she said. “Despite doing everything correctly, some individual [pets] may never accept being on a leash.” As with any pet, success is complex and depends on the species as well as on the individual personality of your pet.
How Do I Know if My Reptile a Good Candidate for Leash Training?
Reptiles best suited for leash training enjoy being handled and tend to be less aggressive. This can be somewhat predicted by species, said Abbo, but also depends upon individual temperament.
Reptiles have unique personalities, like all other animals, and some are more amenable to handling than others. Some species, such as bearded dragons and geckos, tend to be easy-going and enjoy handling, so they may do better at leash training. Anoles and chameleons, on the other hand, tend to dislike handling and may prove difficult to leash train.
Margaret Wissman, DVM, avian and exotic veterinary consultant, agrees that temperament is a huge factor. “I have seen [reptiles] happily wearing harnesses and walking around with their owners and even bearded dragons complacently seated on their owners’ shoulders as they walk around,” she said. It’s also a trust issue, and calm reptiles that let you handle them—and even seem to enjoy it—are the best candidates, she said.
“[Leash training] is not for the skittish and flighty. The reason reptiles may be more difficult to leash train than other animals may have to do with motivation, sociability and stress level,” she added.
Not sure if your reptile is easily stressed? Common signs of an easily stressed reptile include agitation and aggression or skin color changes that only certain species can display. For example, bearded dragons turn the area under their chin – their “beard” – black when they are stressed or upset. Stressed iguanas, on the other hand, will lash out with their tails to strike a hand or face, said Wissman. And, as one may imagine, “biting or an open-mouth stance also indicates a stressed and threatened animal,” said Wissman. Beyond these obvious signs, reptiles may also display chronic stress by changing their eating and defecating habits, hiding or spending more time in one area of the enclosure, and abnormal shedding patterns, said Abbo.
To optimize leash training, keep your reptile as stress-free as possible by providing an appropriate habitat (more below), as well as handling them properly. Handling the pet in a non-threatening manner on a regular basis is important for prospective leash training, as well as for general socialization. “In other words,” said Wissman, “no swooping in and just grabbing up a lizard, which will prove frightening and often will prompt a fight or flight adrenaline response.”
Instead, gently open the habitat, slowly move in to pick up the pet, or allow it to climb onto your hand. Repetitive gentle handling may work to tame skittish lizards, but some will just never take to being handled, said Wissman.
What Equipment Will I Need?
Both experts recommend a harness, rather than a collar, so that any pulling done by the pet will distribute tension and minimize injury. Plus, said Wissman, reptiles can easily back out of collars and potentially scamper away.
Look for something that is easily adjustable, so that it fits snuggly (but not too tightly) around the lizard’s body, said Abbo. Of course, be careful if your lizard has prominent dorsal [backbone] spines – you don’t want them to become damaged by the harness. Additionally, Wissman said she has heard of pet owners commissioning custom harnesses, depending upon the type of reptile, as well as utilizing ferret harnesses, which tend to be a good fit for some reptiles.
A type of system that is used to compare animals within a given group to one another
Refers to something being toward the back, as in a dorsal fin
Term used to indicate something that involves birds.
A hormone produced by the adrenal glands, also often referred to as epinephrine. Adrenaline is used in the body's response to traumatic situations or emergencies.