Image via NagyDodo/Shutterstock
By Vanessa Voltolina
Imagine this scene: You’re walking down the block with your dog, and suddenly you see a pet parent strolling along with his or her reptile. While it may seem outlandish, many pet parents wonder if this is a possibility for themselves and their scaly friends. Here, we ask the experts whether leash training a reptile is a good idea and how to go about doing it.
Can I Leash Train My Reptile?
The short answer: yes–but with some major considerations to keep in mind. “In theory, just about any animal can be trained to varying degrees,” said Lisa Abbo, DVM, MS, at Woods Hole Science Aquarium and the Capron Park Zoo in Massachusetts. However, it’s more complicated than it may seem.
“Reptiles can be leash trained, but it takes a lot of dedication by the owner,” she said. “Despite doing everything correctly, some individual [pets] may never accept being on a leash.” As with any pet, success is complex and depends on the species as well as on the individual personality of your pet.
How Do I Know if My Reptile Is a Good Candidate for Leash Training?
Reptiles best suited for leash training enjoy being handled and tend to be less aggressive. This can be somewhat predicted by species, said Abbo, but also depends upon individual temperament.
Reptiles have unique personalities, like all other animals, and some are more amenable to handling than others. Some species, such as bearded dragons and geckos, tend to be easy-going and enjoy handling, so they may do better at leash training. Anoles and chameleons, on the other hand, tend to dislike handling and may prove difficult to leash train.
Margaret Wissman, DVM, avian and exotic veterinary consultant, agrees that temperament is a huge factor. “I have seen [reptiles] happily wearing harnesses and walking around with their owners and even bearded dragons complacently seated on their owners’ shoulders as they walk around,” she said. It’s also a trust issue, and calm reptiles that let you handle them—and even seem to enjoy it—are the best candidates, she said.
“[Leash training] is not for the skittish and flighty. The reason reptiles may be more difficult to leash train than other animals may have to do with motivation, sociability and stress level,” she added.
Not sure if your reptile is easily stressed? Common signs of an easily stressed reptile include agitation and aggression or skin color changes that only certain species can display. For example, bearded dragons turn the area under their chin–their “beard”–black when they are stressed or upset. Stressed iguanas, on the other hand, will lash out with their tails to strike a hand or face, said Wissman. And, as one may imagine, “biting or an open-mouth stance also indicates a stressed and threatened animal,” said Wissman. Beyond these obvious signs, reptiles may also display chronic stress by changing their eating and defecating habits, hiding or spending more time in one area of the enclosure, and abnormal shedding patterns, said Abbo.
To optimize leash training, keep your reptile as stress-free as possible by providing an appropriate habitat (more below), as well as handling them properly. Handling the pet in a non-threatening manner on a regular basis is important for prospective leash training, as well as for general socialization. “In other words,” said Wissman, “no swooping in and just grabbing up a lizard, which will prove frightening and often will prompt a fight or flight adrenaline response.”
Instead, gently open the reptile habitat, slowly move in to pick up the pet, or allow it to climb onto your hand. Repetitive gentle handling may work to tame skittish lizards, but some will just never take to being handled, said Wissman.
What Equipment Will I Need?
Both experts recommend a harness, rather than a collar, so that any pulling done by the pet will distribute tension and minimize injury. Plus, said Wissman, reptiles can easily back out of collars and potentially scamper away.
Look for something that is easily adjustable, so that it fits snuggly (but not too tightly) around the lizard’s body, said Abbo. Of course, be careful if your lizard has prominent dorsal [backbone] spines–you don’t want them to become damaged by the harness. Additionally, Wissman said she has heard of pet owners commissioning custom harnesses, depending upon the type of reptile, as well as utilizing ferret harnesses, which tend to be a good fit for some reptiles.
Tips for Leash Training Your Reptile
Start early: “Ideally, one would start with a young animal,” said Abbo. She recommends handling the animal for a short time every day and carefully observing behavior to determine if the animal appears stressed. Generally, stress stems from situations where a reptile feels afraid and which may be manifested as aggression.
Get adjusted: “I would recommend doing any handling or training in a room with an ambient temperature close to what the reptile prefers—usually in the 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit range for most commonly kept reptiles,” Abbo said. During this time, you can also get your scaly friend habituated to wearing a harness, too, said Wissman.
Start slow, and keep it positive: Once you have carefully considered whether your reptile will be able to handle the great outdoors, start slow, said Abbo, and make sure interactions are always positive. “If the animal becomes difficult to handle or aggressive, stop the session—but try to end on a positive note.” One negative experience with a harness or leash can derail weeks of work.
Maintain a preferred environment: As mentioned above, most reptiles are comfortable in a warm climate. If they are out in hot sunlight, said Wissman, it may add stress and change their temperament to one that is more aggressive or active than when in a controlled environment. So, it’s important to ensure reptiles are maintained within their mean optimal temperature range which can vary from species to species.
Offer rewards: “Offering a favorite piece of food each time the animal is handled may also increase the chances that it will be amenable to social interaction with the owner,” Abbo said. While offering food when reptiles are being handled or trained may be beneficial, be sure that they aren’t too hungry, she said, as they may be more aggressive. Insects, such as worms, may be good treats for your reptile, depending upon the species. Turtles may also enjoy chopped, leafy greens.
Be conscious of your surroundings: While your bearded dragon may be the apple of your eye, it’s important to remember that to some, reptiles can be scary. Be a good pet parent by strategically deciding when to go for a walk—and when to hold off, notes Wissman. In addition to being a good neighbor, you should try to minimize the stress and tension you cause your pet reptile to increase the chances that he or she will take to the whole leash-walking process. This means not parading your pet near local schools or dog parks, where others may fear your reptile—or it, them!
A private backyard or outdoor space is the ideal place to begin walking your reptile, since you can exercise more control over the noise and potential stress in this type of environment. If you do not have a private area, use your best judgement about when and where to walk your pet. Choose the quietest, least-trafficked time of day with the fewest distractions. Also, be sure that the time of day is conducive to the reptile’s ideal temperature for training (as mentioned above).
Are There Benefits to Leash Training a Reptile?
Sure! First, the obvious: leash walking allows reptiles to be taken outside safely. “Being outside provides the reptile with the required natural sunlight and also is mentally stimulating for the animal, thereby decreasing stress,” said Abbo.
Wissman agrees that while sunlight from the great outdoors is certainly beneficial, pet parents shouldn’t rely upon it entirely. She recommends that natural sunlight is always provided in tandem with a good UVB bulb. She suggests either a fluorescent tube light or a compact fluorescent bulb with a UVB index of 0.5-1.0, placed 12 to 18 inches from the the animal and not filtered through glass or plastic, which takes away the UV rays.
“Even though the bulb will still be emitting light, the UVB portion will diminish after about six months, so bulbs should all be changed every six months,” said Wissman. UV bulbs should be on as part of the normal lighting, with a normal day to night cycle. which can vary in length depending on the species, she added (unfortunately, many people just use the twelve hours on and twelve hours off cycle which isn’t appropriate for all reptiles).
Spending time with a pet reptile in the outdoors also increases the bond an owner has with his or her pet, said Abbo, and makes for a better quality of life for both the lizard and the owner.