Teaching Your Dog to Walk Nicely on a Leash

One of the joys of sharing your life with your dog is going for walks.

You can enjoy your time together, watch your dog react to the world around you both, and socialize with other people as you do. You can watch the sunset (or sunrise!) and smell the flowers. Walking your dog is a wonderful shared experience.

However, if your dog’s idea of a walk is pulling as hard as he can in the direction he wishes to go, well then, a lot of the joy of walking your dog disappears rapidly. Plus, when he’s pulling hard he’s potentially damaging your hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, or even your back—and he could be hurting himself, too.

Granted, your dog doesn’t need to heel by your side watching you every minute of every walk; he deserves to enjoy the walk, too. But there’s a happy medium between asking him to do a strict heel and having him drag you everywhere. So let’s find that happy spot.

Begin at Home

If your dog already has some bad habits that appear on walks, then begin your training efforts at home. It’s difficult to change any habit if you attempt those changes where the behaviors happen. For example, if you love chocolate, your efforts to go on a chocolate-free diet aren’t going to be successful if you’re hanging out in the tasting room of a chocolate factory!

At home, you can find an area where there are few distractions to begin your training efforts. Then, as your dog learns these new things, or relearns them if his skills just need refreshing, you can add distractions gradually.

It won’t hurt your dog to miss his walks for two or three weeks. Just do something else for his exercise and brain stimulation. Play fetch games, do some trick training, or set up some brain games.

dog leash

Teach Attention

When you teach your dog to pay attention to you, you can keep him focused when (or slightly before) he gets overly distracted. For example, your dog may get excited when he sees a squirrel and usually pulls to the end of the leash, leaping up and down, and trying to drag you to the squirrel. If you can tell him before he gets over-excited, “Sweetie, watch me,” and then reward him for that attention; something you can’t do when he’s in full squirrel hunting mode.

Now you’ll bring out the leash. Have your dog on leash and go to your quiet place at home. Have some high-value (appealing) treats. Let your dog sniff that treat and then move it towards your face as you tell him, “Sweetie, watch me.” As his eyes follow the treat to your face praise him, “Yeah! Awesome!” Give him the treat.

Gradually, over several days, increase the distractions as you practice this, but continue to use those high-value treats.

“Leave it” is Awesome

The definition of “leave it” is “ignore that”. So, if we continue with the squirrel example, you could tell your dog to ignore the squirrel. If you think this is impossible, it might be right now—but with training and good timing on your part, it can be done.

To teach “leave it“, put your dog on leash, and go to your quiet place at home. Have something that you know will be a big distraction for your dog. You might want to use a shoe, dirty sock, one of the kids’ toys, or even the cat’s food.

Place the item on the floor. Then with your dog on leash, walk towards that item. Before you get to it but after your dog has spotted it, tell him, “Sweetie, leave it,” and quickly turn away from it, using the leash and a treat in front of his nose to turn him away. When he follows you, leaving that item behind, give him the treat as you praise him.

After a few practice efforts, when he begins to turn away before you do, praise him enthusiastically and give him a handful of treats. Awesome job!

dog leash

Putting it All Together

In a quiet place, such as a hallway in your house, begin walking with your dog. If he immediately pulls forward, ask him to “watch me” and turn around to walk the opposite direction. Do not jerk him off his feet or yank on his leash; instead, just turn and walk away. When he looks at you, catching up to you in the new direction, praise him and pop a treat in his mouth.

You can make a game out of this, going back and forth, cheering him on so he has fun trying to figure out the point of this new game. Don’t scold; praise is very effective instead.

Gradually increase distractions. When your dog does get distracted, use the “leave it” exercise and immediately follow that with “watch me“. In other words, interrupt his distraction and immediately show him what you’d like him to do instead.

Be Patient

If you have ever tried to change a habit, especially one that you’ve enjoyed, you know it can be hard. It’s the same with dogs. Those squirrels (or other distractions) are exciting and great fun.

So do as much training as you can in a quiet place first to build those new habits. Then gradually, very gradually, increase distractions. Set your dog up to succeed.

And be patient. This is going to take time. If you are patient, though, and help your dog through this process, it can happen.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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