Unruly leash behavior is one of the most common reasons people look to professionally train their dogs. And while training polite leash manners is not the easiest feat — hence the popular need for expert intervention — these tips can help you teach your dog all on your own.
Before you get started, Shelby Semel, founder of Shelby Semel Dog Training, says it’s important to identify why your dog is pulling at their leash. If they’re very anxious outside and pulling to get home or just to get away, then you can't fix the symptom of pulling until you cure the root of the problem: the anxiety.
However, if your dog or puppy is just pulling on their leash to get to things they want, we have to teach them good leash manners. Pet parents often think dogs are born knowing how to walk on a leash, while “sit,” “stay” and “shake” need to be taught. But that’s not the case. These tips will help get you and your pup off to a great start before you head out on some long walks.
If you want your pup to continue behaving in a certain way, you have to reward them when they show those good behaviors. Feel free to shower your pet with treats or praise when your dog makes eye contact or responds to your directions during your walks.
“Praise, food, play, a quick jog — whatever your dog loves can be considered a reward,” Semel says. “Do this when you like what your dog is doing. How can you expect your dog to know and continue doing what’s ‘good’ and acceptable if we don't tell them and make it worth their while?”
A well-fitting harness can help keep your dog walking on your side instead of forging forward. Front-clip harnesses work by turning the dog’s body toward you when they begin to pull, stopping their forward motion without choking them. So if your dog is constantly lurching ahead of you on walks, the right harness will turn the dog around to face you.
“I don't suggest using prong, choke or shock collars,” Semel says. “While they may work in the moment, the long term adverse effects, as well as the physical repercussions, make it a no-no for me. They only work because they cause pain and that’s not how I want to build a relationship and work with my dog.”
Harnesses also help dogs learn that walking ahead of their parents won’t get them where they want to go, and many times, the dog settles into a nice pace on their pet parent’s side. This can help while training your pup with the general goal of being able to use a simple collar when ready. On the other hand, some dog breeds will benefit from a harness forever, so you should consult with your vet to determine the best method for your pup’s comfort and safety.
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Not only should you reward your pet with treats and praise, but you can make leash training fun for you both. Playing games like red-light, green-light might take a lot of patience, but it works as a fun training exercise. If your dog steps ahead of you on a walk, simply stop walking and wait (red light!). When your dog stops pulling and focuses on you, start walking again (green light!).
It may take a few times around the block for your dog to get the hint that they need to stay by your side. But if your dog never gets to go forward when their leash is taught, they’ll begin to work with you instead of pulling against you.
You can also begin leash training inside where there are less distractions, and then reward yourself and your pup with a nice walk to the park for even more stimulation.
“Ideally, you start working on your loose leash walking skills indoors and slowly add distractions,” Semel says. “Teaching your dog to be near your side and check in on you are good first steps.”
Having a dog that pulls on their leash to get to other dogs, cars, people or small animals can make walks a real challenge. If your dog is too worked up to focus on you, make sure you have treats and are keeping calm – the more frustrated you get, the more riled up your dog will become.
If you see one of your dog’s behavioral triggers coming at you on a walk, try to find a safe area where you can pull off to the side and allow the distraction to safely pass. You should try to keep your dog’s focus to avoid them bursting into a barking and pulling fit. Be sure to reward them heavily if they can stay with you as the trigger passes.
To help create safe and fun leash practices, you can always reach out to a certified dog trainer or behavior consultant to help identify exactly why your dog’s behaving the way they are and offer solutions for when they react.
“Taking a group class around other dogs is recommended for friendly dogs who need some practice working around others,” Semel says. “It’s always suggested to contact a positive reinforcement trainer sooner rather than later. Once you and your dog get into bad habits it's harder to undo, so be proactive!”
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