Is leash training a puppy turning out to be more challenging than you expected? All that pulling on the leash, cutting in front of you while walking, stopping and refusing to move… can drive you crazy!
And it can be frustrating for your puppy too because puppies aren't born knowing that they should walk nicely next to you! And that leash and collar are unfamiliar too.
But with a little time and training, you can achieve a pleasant loose-leash walk down the street with your dog, garnering much admiration from your neighbors.
Why Puppies Pull: The Opposition Reflex
Did you know that dogs have a natural instinct to resist pressure? This is called the opposition reflex. Humans have this too.
If you’ve ever had someone grab you unexpectedly, your first instinct was probably to pull away. That same instinct is what makes your puppy pull away from the pressure of the leash. Here’s why.
When animals in the wild get caught on something, they need to free themselves quickly for their own safety, instead of sitting there in a vulnerable position. So they pull until they’re able to break free.
To a puppy, the tug of the leash feels like they got caught on something. They do not know that the leash is for their safety. It takes time and lots of practice for them to understand that they need to ignore their natural instinct and, instead, “slow down” or “stop.”
If you can keep this in mind while practicing leash work and training, it can help you stay calm and patient so your puppy can continue to learn.
It’s tempting to add more resistance, or pull the puppy back toward you, when a puppy starts to pull on the leash. But this actually increases the puppy’s oppositional reflex and frustration level.
Frustrated puppies are not learning new things. And, over time, this could really lead to a breakdown in your relationship… especially if your puppy will grow to be an adult dog that is stronger than you are.
You also might be tempted to give in to the pressure and simply go in the direction the puppy wants. Trust me, this isn’t a good idea… especially when the puppy sees a squirrel or other fast moving object and suddenly you’re being dragged behind.
Let’s find a compromise with our puppy where we can teach him how to walk nicely on a leash and he is happy to do it because he’s had a lot of practice and is rewarded handsomely.
Types of Walks
Before we get into leash training a puppy, let’s talk about three different types of walks you might take with your puppy.
A decompression walk is usually the first type of walk we do with our puppy. It gives the puppy an opportunity to get some much-needed exercise and exposure to the outside world.
The purpose of a decompression walk is to let our puppies sniff and explore, with little or no expectations. Puppy brains are doing a lot of learning and growing and these little guys need some time to relax and learn more about what the world is telling them.
This exposure to new smells and sights and sounds is so good for them! And not having a lot of demands on where they have to walk really allows their brains to… decompress! Think of this like a quiet nature walk for a human. It’s relaxing!
If you’re wondering how your pup is going to burn up all that puppy energy just sniffing and exploring, do not fear!
Sniffing and processing all those new smells is a lot of work and can make your pup just as tired as a vigorous walk. Much like humans get tired when listening to a very complex lecture or taking a difficult test, those puppy brains are similar when they are sniffing.
Because the puppy may not yet understand how to walk nicely on a leash, we encourage you to use a long leash (20-30 feet) and harness with a back clip.
If vaccinations aren’t complete, head to a more secluded spot that is not typically visited by other dog such as:
- A business parking lot after hours
- An unused sports field or trail or path that is rarely used
These spots will be less likely to have diseases that your pup is not yet protected against.
If your vet tells you to avoid all outdoor activity until your puppy is 16 weeks old, I would recommend finding another vet. This is a critical period for development and the benefits of exposing our puppies to new things far outweigh the risks of diseases.
Decompression walks should be done as often as possible – even daily if you can. Often, your puppy will settle better and have more focus during training if he’s had this time to just be a dog!
The type of walk you might be picturing in your head when someone says “take a dog for a walk” is a loose leash walk. A loose leash walk can be a walk in your neighborhood or through the pet store with your dog. These are good for dogs too but they are a little more work, and definitely involve some teaching before they go well.
When a dog is on a loose leash walk down the streets of the neighborhood, it’s like he’s reading a book. If he wants to go a particular direction, it’s for a reason! He probably smells something interesting that he’d like to check out in more detail.
He’s learning who had a barbeque last night, which dogs had some extra treats with their breakfast and what cat might have passed through a few hours ago. If it’s safe, let him (without pulling, of course).
Allowing the dog to sniff means you’re allowing him to read a book or check his “pee-mail”. Don’t interrupt him if you can. He will move on when he’s done with that section and ready for a new part of the book!
We recommend that you allow your dog to lead as much of the walk as possible. After all, he gets very little control over his life. The more you relax your own expectations of a walk and allow the dog to enjoy it on his own terms, the more beneficial it will be for both of you!
Loose leash walks are normally done with a 4- or 6-foot leash and you can use a collar or a harness. If your dog is pulling, even a little bit, a harness with a front clip will be best.
When walking in the neighborhood we strive to have the leash with a nice relaxed J shape, which means the pup is walking at your side, but not in a tight, controlled way. This enables your pup to sniff and explore while allowing you to pull him close if something threatens his safety.
The third type of walk you might be thinking of is a heel walk. In a heel walk your dog has his head directly at the seam of your pants. His head is tilted so his eyes remain in contact with yours 100% of the time.
Think of this like a military march for humans. Is it relaxing? Nope! Did they have to practice a lot to get it just right? Yep!
Most of the time the heel walk is not necessary for our canine companions. It’s function is mostly for times when we need the dog to be 100% focused on us for a period of time, mainly to keep them safe. This would be useful when moving through a crowd of people, for example.
Heel walks require a huge amount of focus for the dog and are not relaxing at all. Most dogs under the age of 6 months do not have the impulse control required to successfully accomplish a heel walk. You might evaluate if a heel walk is really important to you and plan your training schedule accordingly.
Now that we’ve talked about the different types of walks, let’s get back to training for that nice loose leash walk we all love.
Working on Leash Skills – 3 Things Happening Simultaneously
When training for the loose leash walk, you’ll be working on 3 important things at the same time.
A puppy’s brain is developing fastest when the puppy is between 8 and 16 weeks old. This critical developmental window is when it is easiest to teach new skills that become lifelong habits.
This window is ripe for helping shape their impression of new things and help them set up a life-long healthy relationship when new people, places or things come into their world.
If the experience is pleasant and positive, your puppy will learn to be confident and look forward to new things.
On the other hand, if a puppy is scared, startled, or overwhelmed by a new experience, your puppy may become timid, fearful, aggressive, or skittish.
So you can see how important it is to give our puppies positive experiences… especially when they are exposed to new things.
Exposing our puppies to new things does not mean dog parks. It means:
- Taking them to new places for sniffing
- Sitting in parking lots watching new people and animals
- Going to friends’ houses so they can smell new foods or cats (who are likely tucked away in the back bedroom)
- Occasionally meeting a fellow dog of a similar size and temperament.
Not all exposure should involve a meeting. Most of the time simply observing the sight and smell of the new thing is plenty. After all, we would find it exhausting to interact with everyone who we came in contact with in a day. Puppies are similar!
And remember to incorporate new textures like:
- Tile floors and linoleum, like in a store or the vet’s office
- Wet surfaces
- And more
into your exposure training so your puppy will learn to be comfortable and confident wherever you want to take him.
I once had a client who carried her dog everywhere. When it came time to take him for a walk, he was so afraid of the cement texture, it required weeks of work just to overcome that fear!
Remember, just because it’s No Big Deal to us, does not mean it’s the same for our puppies!
Decompression Walks for Exercise
While working on that exposure training, we are also taking our puppies on decompression walks to help them burn off that energy and decompress from all that puppy learning. This will help the puppy be more focused during training sessions and sleep better at night.
Training in Quiet, Calm Environments
In addition to that exposure work and those decompression walks, you will also begin working on leash skills.
Many inexperienced puppy parents think they can just grab the leash, put the puppy in his collar or harness and head down the street. But your puppy will likely tell you that he’s not ready for that.
He will likely pancake, his ears might go back, he’ll stare at you intently as if he’s trying to communicate something and he might cower in fear, indicating that he wants to return home. This is a puppy who is not ready for the environment that he’s been placed in.
Leash skill training has to start at home, inside, with limited distractions.
As the puppy learns what he’s supposed to do on a leash, you can gradually add in more distractions (people walking around the room where you are training, new sounds, etc).
Then as he continues to do well on the leash, you can start to work in different environments, such as the backyard, then maybe the garage with the door open, moving on to the driveway and finally the sidewalk or street.
This may take months and it’s important to go at the pace your puppy can tolerate, not the pace your human brain wants!
Pre Training Games
The process of practicing at home — starting in a calm, distraction free environment and slowly increasing the level of difficulty or distractions — is what we call “pre-training.” Much like a dance rehearsal in preparation for a show, or sports practice preparing for a game, effective leash training is all about practice. And practice is so much more effective when it’s fun.
In our online program – 30 Days to Puppy Perfection, you can watch and follow along with our team of professional dog trainers as they work with real life, untrained puppies. You’ll get to see, first hand, how effective and fun our training games are for teaching all the skills and positive behaviors you want your puppy to learn.
Here’s a sample of what you’ll learn inside our program:
- Name Game: Teaching your dog his name
- Focus Game: Teaching your dog to make eye contact with you (to avoid distractions you might encounter like other dogs, animals or people)
- Bump It: This fun game could be used in a variety of ways on a walk, including getting your pup to focus, helping him have a “reset” after an exciting situation or even for recalling the pup closer to you without using the cue “come”.
- Go Zone: This game specifically teaches your pup that good things happen when he’s at your side. This game ends with an auto-sit when you stop moving. This is one of the most common games you’ll use when on a walk.
- Blocking: This game teaches your dog to focus on you when you move in front of him, so he can remain calm when seeing something exciting. It’s often used when the situation is too exciting for a simple “focus” cue and you have to take it up a level to get his attention.
You might be tempted to skip a few steps of this leash training and just wing it. But here’s a little secret you may not know: walking on leash is much more complicated for your puppy than it seems to you.
To master a calm and enjoyable neighborhood walk, your puppy has to learn 13 different skills and be able to perform them each consistently, in spite of any distractions. This means that you need to work on each of these skills at three levels of distraction – low, medium, and high.
When you take training shortcuts, you set your puppy up for failure.
Let’s imagine you head out on a walk and your puppy is allowed to pull you all over. While on the walk, he barks at other dogs, joggers, and kids. When cars or cyclists drive by, he wants to chase after them, so he lunges and barks. Your puppy’s still little so you’re able to regain control.
At the end of the walk, you’re tired but everyone made it home in one piece so that’s a win. Right?
Over the next several weeks, this scenario plays over and over each time you take your puppy for a walk. And each time your puppy repeats these behaviors, they become stronger habits. These unwanted behaviors grow stronger and your puppy gets bigger and stronger… until suddenly, one day, your puppy overpowers you and drags you or one of your kids down the street, or worse.
That’s a dangerous situation you definitely want to avoid. Do yourself a favor and start off on the right “paw” and work on these skills before you need them and don’t let him do them if he’s not ready.
Mechanics of The Walk
Once you’re ready to head out on that walk – which at first may only be one or two houses before you turn back – always make sure that you have a firm grip on the leash.
Along with this firm grip you want to be careful that you are not adding pressure to your dog’s collar. I like to have my left hand as close to the clip as possible but relaxed at my side.
Remember that the more pressure your dog feels, the more they will instinctively pull in the opposite direction.
Walking on a loose leash is no easy feat for your puppy or for you! Be patient with your furry friend and with yourself. If you are struggling, ask yourself if your puppy is ready for the environment you are in. Remember that this takes time and is not something you will conquer in a week!
Now that you've learned some tips for leash training a puppy, you'll want to know about the best tools for training a puppy to walk with ease.
You may also be interested in:
- Puppy Training 101: 3 Essential Things to Teach Your Puppy First
- How to Stop Puppy Biting: 10 Tips That Work Like Magic!