Training your puppy to walk on a leash is a crucial skill for both your dog and you. Walks are infinitely more fun when you don’t have to fight a dog that pulls or becomes aggressive while using a leash. But getting a dog to walk by your side calmly is more challenging than it seems. So, what’s the secret to leash train your puppy?
Some trainers suggest attaching a leash to your dog’s collar, then let him drag it around the house. If you do that, keep a close eye on your pup so he doesn’t get caught on anything.
Others recommend making walks part of your dog’s daily schedule from the beginning. For example, use short on-leash walks as part of your potty-training routine.
When your puppy is young, she’ll likely have little bursts of energy, so keep the walks short. You may only be able to take a trip around the block.
For the first day or two, don’t worry about trying to control your puppy on the leash. This is a time for the dog to get used to wearing a collar and understanding that they are attached to you.
Whether your dog walks on your left side or your right is up to you. Dogs that compete in obedience or agility walk on the owner’s left side. Most owners prefer to keep their dogs on the left because they are right-handed. Holding the leash in your left-hand keeps your dominant hand free to carry treats or the all-important poop bag.
Focus on basic commands
When you’re ready to start training, attach the leash, and make your dog sit. Get your dog’s attention and give a “walk” command. Walk slowly and keep the dog a short leash. If you have a dog that won’t walk and you need to motivate him to move, hold a treat in front of your pup’s nose.
If your dog is moving well, stop every five to 10 steps to praise your dog and give her a treat. Once your dog understands the concept, start increasing the distance before you give praise or treats.
Stop immediately if your dog pulls on the leash. Stand still if your dog continues to pull. Your dog will quickly learn that pulling ends the walk (at least temporarily). Some trainers also recommend stopping if the dog tries to walk ahead of you or behind you.
Make your dog sit again. When you have your dog’s attention, give the “walk” command, and start moving again. Most dogs master this concept quickly. They love spending time with you, and they love walking.
While training a puppy to walk on a leash is easier, both because they are smaller and more flexible, it’s never too late to leash train a dog. If you’re working with a big, strong dog, one that is especially stubborn, or one that already developed bad habits, you’ll need to be patient.
The process will take longer, but it can be done. A Michigan State University study shows a sweet spot for training older dogs at age six after they pass the excitable puppy stage, but before they become too set in their ways.
Use the right equipment
Start by getting your puppy used to wearing a quick-release collar. Most dogs adjust quickly to wearing a collar, but others act like they are choking.
Be sure the collar isn’t too tight. You should be able to slip a finger between the collar and your puppy’s neck. If there’s more space, it’s too loose. That can be dangerous because your dog could catch it on something and choke or slip his head through it and run off if you’re outside and he gets frightened.
Choose a six-foot leash that works for you. Most dog-training classes require the six-foot length.
Some people prefer leather leashes, while others prefer nylon. Whatever you do, don’t choose a retractable leash. They don’t let you adequately control your dog, and their design encourages pulling.
Rather than hook the leash to your puppy’s collar, consider using a harness to reduce the risk of injury to your puppy’s neck or throat.
Using a harness also makes it easier to keep your dog by your side. Most harnesses manufactured now are easy to slip on and off.
When I got my dog, Browning, several years ago, the harness I bought was a complicated mess of straps and buckles. It was hard to put on and take off, and we rarely used it.
After I got my dog, Sydney, I purchased a soft, cloth Cloak & Dawggie harness that she stepped into and that hooked on the back with Velcro. It was quick and easy to put on and take off.
For the past month or so, we’ve been using an All-In-One No Pull Harness from Pug Life provided by the company. Despite the company’s breed-specific name, it manufacturers harness for all sizes (over 12 pounds) and breeds.
The company says the harness prevents pulling and helps train your dog to walk beside you. It also says the harnesses are durable and easy to use. They also offer a reflective strip that runs across your dog’s chest to make you both more visible on nighttime walks.
It was easy to adjust the harness to fit Sydney, who weighs about 26 pounds. Now, when we’re ready to walk, I slip it over her head and buckle the strap that runs under her belly. The buckle is stiff, which gives me confidence that it won’t pop open, but it could be challenging to use if you have weak hands or suffer from a condition like arthritis that limits strength or mobility.
Because she already walked by my side, I can’t say if the harness helped us with that, but with multiple rings, it is designed to help you control your pup and keep her by your side.
Make it fun
In the beginning, keep walks short and fun. Use lots of treats and praise to encourage good behavior.
Be sure to include time for sniffing and going potty. I find if I let Sydney take care of business and do some sniffing at the beginning of the walk, she’s ready to go and can walk for several miles without interruptions.
Practice, practice, practice
Repetition is your friend. Dogs love routine, so especially in the beginning, taking walks at the same time of day is helpful. For example, take your puppy out for a short walk first thing in the morning.
Not only will this help your dog with potty training, but it also helps establish that walking is part of the morning routine.
Consider adding walks at other times during the day – at lunchtime, after work, right before bed. The walks don’t have to last the same amount of time, and they don’t have to cover the same route.
Taking your dog on different routes through the neighborhood serves several purposes.
One, it helps your dog understand the area where you live, which will make it easier for your dog to find his way home if he ever gets out.
Two, walking different routes provides more opportunities to socialize your dog by letting her meet your neighbors and their dogs. Socialization helps build your dog’s confidence and reduces the risk it will become aggressive. And meeting your neighbors is a bonus for you, too.
Three, by getting your dog out in your neighborhood, your neighbors become allies who will help your dog get home if she gets out.
Develop this critical skill
Give your puppy the skills he needs to be a good dog and focus on leash training from the beginning. If you walk your dog the right way starting on the first day home, that establishes a foundation for creating a calm, well-mannered dog that you can take almost anywhere.
Sara B. Hansen has spent the past 20-plus years as a professional editor and writer. She’s also the author of The Complete Guide to Cocker Spaniels. She decided to create her dream job by launching Dog’s Best Life. Sara grew up with family dogs, and since she bought her first house, she’s had a furry companion or two to help make it a home. She shares her heart and home with Nutmeg, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi puppy. Her previous dogs: Sydney (September 2008-April 2020), Finley (November 1993-January 2008), and Browning (May 1993-November 2007). You can reach Sara @ [email protected].