One of the first challenges faced by most dog owners is how to potty train our new puppy. The second big challenge is how to leash train our hyper young dog, without incurring any bodily injury whenever a squirrel decides to dash up a tree.
Even though walking a dog is often portrayed as a Zen moment that is both peaceful and enjoyable, the reality of the situation is often not quite so perfect. In fact, leash training a puppy is probably one of the more challenging aspects of dog training.
When our puppy is out on a walk, he is exposed to a lot of new stimuli, including new sights, sounds, and smells. Everything will be very exciting, even leaves flying in the wind and he will want to chase, smell, and see all of it at top speed. That is part of the joy of spending time with a puppy; sharing the excitement, joy, and wonder of youth.
However, all that excited energy can also cause crazy pulling, barking, jumping on people, and sometimes aggression. Here, we consider some of the key leash training ingredients that will help make dog walking into a fun, relaxing, and enjoyable experience.
Putting on a Collar
In the beginning, a puppy will be unfamiliar with collars and leashes. He may get apprehensive about having something new around his neck, and the weight of the leash may feel strange. My Shiba Inu was very sensitive to wearing collars during puppyhood. When we tried to put one on him on the first day, he tried to bite us, as well as the breeder’s husband.
From the puppy’s point of view, having some unknown person put a strange object on a vulnerable part of his body must seem extremely dangerous.
One of the best ways to start the leash training experience right, is to slowly desensitize our puppy to the collar. Help him learn that the collar is a positive thing that gets put on before a fun outing. Here is how I desensitized my dog to wearing a collar –
- First, I get some food that my dog really likes. Then I ask him for a Sit, show him the collar and reward.
- I keep repeating this until he gets comfortable and is looking forward to seeing the collar.
- Next, I briefly touch my puppy with the collar and treat him for staying calm. I repeat until he is comfortable with this new step.
- Then, I drape the collar on his neck and reward. I repeat until he is relaxed and comfortable.
- I continue doing a little more each time so that the collar becomes more and more familiar, in a positive way.
- If I observe any kind of stress from my dog, I back off, and go back to the previous step. This ensures that collar training sessions are always fun and rewarding.
Note that the snap sound made when fastening a collar can sometimes startle a dog. A useful added step, is to have some snap sessions. First I snap the collar without it being on my dog’s neck, treat, and so on. Later, when I snap the collar around his neck, he will already be comfortable with the sound.
In the collar desensitization process, make sure to always go slowly and not overtax our puppy. Remember that the main idea is to get our dog comfortable with the collar and help him associate it with something positive. Do not force the collar on because he will start to associate it with a negative experience, and will likely fight us every time he sees the collar.
Putting on a Leash
Some dogs may also be uncomfortable with the feel and weight of a leash. When I first got my puppy, I would fasten a light leash onto his collar, let him move around, and play with the leash on. While using a drag-lead –
- I make sure I am around to supervise.
- I use a flat collar and *not* an aversive collar. An aversive collar such as a choke chain or a prong collar can cause physical harm to a dog when not properly used. They should not be used with a drag lead or when a dog is off-leash.
- I ensure that the leash does not get caught on any furniture or fixtures.
When my puppy is comfortable with the light leash, I may play with him and occasionally pick up the lead during play. This will help him to associate being linked to me through the leash, as something fun and positive. Next, I use a heavier leash and so on.
In general, I start small, pair the leash and collar with positive experiences, and very slowly increase the challenge one step at a time.
Dog Walking Speed
Most dogs, especially larger dogs, will naturally walk faster than we do. In leash training, we want to get our dogs to reduce their natural walking speed so that their much slower two-legged companions can keep up.
An effective way to get a dog to slow down is to teach him the following –
The fastest way to get to where he wants to go, is by slowing down and walking with us.
When my dog starts to pull, and the leash gets taut, I non-mark (Ack, Ack) and stop walking. Initially, my puppy continued to pull and even tried to pull harder to get forward. However, I just calmly ignored him and stood still.
As soon as he stops pulling, I start moving forward. In this way, he learns the following lesson –
- Pull = We stop moving,
- Don’t Pull = Get to go where he wants to go.
For this method to work, it is important to be very consistent with our starts and stops. I do not let my dog pull sometimes, but not at other times. This will encourage our dog to pull even more because the next pull may cause us to give in and to move forward. I always make sure to stop as soon as the leash gets taut, and start again once the leash is loose.
In the beginning, I had to stop very often and did not get very far from my front door. But I kept at it and made sure that I consistently stopped every time there was any pulling. My puppy quickly learned that it is in his best interest to slow down and walk with me because if he does, he gets more freedom, he gets to choose his favorite smell spots, and he also gets to stop to smell the roses.
As with everything else, I set my dog up for success by starting small and taking things one step at a time. Initially, I would practice leash training inside the house. The house environment is more familiar to a puppy, it is safe, and low stimulus. In this way, we can both focus on walking together at a measured pace, without pulling.
Once he is comfortable with walking on-leash inside the house, then we move to the backyard and practice there. Each successful session will help to build his confidence, as well as teach him to associate leash training with being calm and having a fun outing.
Here is a list of other leash training methods, together with their pros and cons.
I do not walk my puppy in the neighborhood until after he has had all of his vaccination shots.
Young puppies are especially vulnerable when out on walks because they want to explore everything and still have developing immune systems. Therefore, they can easily pick up germs and parasites from contaminated water or poop from other dogs and wild animals.
I do early dog socialization by going to puppy class or puppy play sessions in daycare centers. I make sure that both places check for health and vaccination records, and are clean, well-run, and well supervised.
Leash Training – Greeting People & Dogs
Another challenging part of leash training is what to do when our puppy gets over-excited because he sees new people, new dogs, or a squirrel running up a tree. How excited a dog gets and how much he pulls will depend on the dog’s temperament and prey drive.
Dogs with high prey drive will frequently go rear-brain when they spot any nearby prey, especially if the prey is moving. Once this occurs, the dog starts reacting based on instinct, and is no longer able to listen to commands, or redirect onto food or toys. At this point, I can only move my dog away to a more quiet area, where he can calm down.
Therefore, the key is to be vigilant and take action *before* our dog switches to instinct mode. If we catch things early enough, we can teach our dog to stay calm and to use the right behaviors while greeting people and other dogs.
Remember that distance is our friend.
My Siberian Husky gets very excited when people give her any kind of attention, including just eye contact. Usually I just cross the street and move on. When this is not possible, I move into a driveway and engage her in doing simple commands. This creates space between my Sibe and the passing people and ensures that she does not invade other people’s space unless invited to.
Some other steps I take to deal with meeting people and other dogs –
- Slowly desensitize my puppy to people and other dogs.
- Be vigilant and engage my dog in alternate activities (e.g. obedience exercises) before he gets over-excited and goes read-brain,
- Always be calm and decisive, so that my dog learns to be calm and look to me for direction.
Leash Training Supplies
When people think of dog walking supplies, they usually think about the collar and lead. My favorite collar is the no-slip Premier martingale collar, which I use together with a nice leather leash.
Leather leashes may be a bit more expensive but they are easy on the hands, durable, and are secure even under heavy pulling. Make sure the metal clasp on the leash is high quality and well-built. Most nylon leashes I have gotten tend to have small clasps that break open whenever there is any serious pulling.
In addition to collar and leash, here are some other important leash training supplies –
- I make sure to bring enough water. A dog water bottle is great because it contains a bottle of water as well as a fitted bowl for easy drinking.
- I bring some treats or rewards with me so that I can practice obedience exercises during walks.
- I always have several poop bags available and scoop up after my dog. Leaving poop on the sidewalk and on other people’s lawns dirties the neighborhood, makes walking unpleasant, encourages dog poop eating, as well as gets people angry at all dogs and dog owners. Ultimately, it may even lower property prices. Therefore, it pays to take care of our neighborhood by picking up after our dog.