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The 3-Step Method for Leash Training a Puppy

Image via iStock.com/Gemma DiLullo

By Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB

Walking a puppy doesn't have to be a struggle. With the right method, leash training a puppy can be a fun bonding experience for you and your new puppy.

Puppies (and dogs, for that matter) pull on the leash because they're excited to be on a walk, or because they want to chase a squirrel or run up to a friend. The behavior persists because owners either physically aren’t strong enough to stop their dog or they are inconsistent, sometimes correcting the dog and sometimes not.

Think of it this way—each time that your puppy pulls on the leash and is allowed to get to whatever he’s after, you are rewarding him for pulling. That's right; you are telling him that it is okay to pull. That experience will be well remembered by your dog, and the next time he wants to see something, he's going to pull to get there. So what's the best way to make it stop?

Training a puppy to walk on a leash is like teaching any other behavior. Follow these three steps: define the behavior (i.e., what you want your dog to do), gain control, and recognize and reward appropriate behavior.

1. Define the Behavior

If you don’t know what you are trying to teach, your puppy won’t know either. Before you can ask him to do something, you should have a definition of that behavior. Do you want your dog to walk next to you? A foot in front of you? Does he need to walk on the left side or the right? All of this must first be determined. Once you know what you expect him to do, you can start to teach your dog to walk nicely on a leash.

2. Gain Control

Because many leash-training techniques such as pulling on or popping a dog leash depend on precise timing, they usually fail. So if you only sometimes tug on the leash when your puppy pulls on the leash, or if you pop the leash just at the moment when he is not pulling, your puppy will become confused about what you want because he is being corrected when he is not pulling. Eventually he will learn to ignore the correction. 

A better method for leash training a puppy would be to use a tool that acts as "power steering," requiring very little of your input. There are a wealth of tools currently on the market to help owners walk their dogs. Some of the best include headcollars, like the PetSafe Premier Gentle Leader headcollar, and the no-pull harness. When the dog pulls, the headcollar or no-pull dog harness automatically slows the dog.

3. Recognize and Reward

By now, you should have defined the behavior; for example: walking on your left side no more than one foot in front of you. You should also have started using a headcollar or no-pull harness that does the work for you, so when the leash is tight, your puppy slows down.

Now, you just need to recognize when your puppy is doing the "right thing" and reward him with dog treats. Each time your puppy is on your left-hand side, call his name and hand him a treat. Soon, he will be walking right next to you. Once he can consistently walk next to you, you may choose to reward less frequently.

Bear in mind that if you stop rewarding him completely, the learned behavior will disappear. Try to see it from the dog's perspective. How long would you work if you didn’t get a paycheck? A little treat is a small price to pay for great behavior. 

4. Bonus Step: Be Consistent

The key to success for leash training a puppy is consistency. This means that your dog can never be allowed to pull towards something. As soon as he pulls toward a squirrel and you let him pull you, he will understand that pulling earns him a reward. The good news is that if you follow through on steps 1-3, step 4 is easy.

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