Updated - Feb 17th, 2022
Reviewed by Richard Lovejoy, Professional Dog Trainer.
While some people think that dogs are born ready to go for walks, this isn’t the case! One of the most important skills your new puppy needs to learn – for their safety, enrichment, and exercise – is how to walk on a leash. Leash training may seem daunting at first, especially with young puppies, but with these training tips (and a lot of patience) you’ll be strolling along with your best friend in no time!
Puppy leash training supplies
There’s so much to check off your new puppy checklist, but these supplies are among the most important for leash training. Let’s dig into why.
Like so many training activities, the key to leash training a puppy is positive reinforcement. Your puppy needs to associate the leash with food and fun! Make sure you prepare for training by having plenty of yummy dog training treats or food and a treat pouch for easy access as you’ll be rewarding them a lot at first.
Collar and conventional leash
You’ll also need a quality collar and a four to six foot conventional leash. You’ll want to avoid using a retractable leash for training for several reasons. For one, loose leash training (where your dog is trained to walk with you without pulling) is impossible with a retractable leash because there is no slack. Not only do retractable leashes give your dog too much freedom to wander when you’re trying to train them to stay close to you, but if they wander too far, the situation can potentially become dangerous. There will be plenty of time for wandering and sniffing around once your pup gets the hang of leash walking basics. Until then, stick to a conventional nylon dog leash.
The final piece of equipment is a harness. Your pup will definitely be pulling and lunging until they’re fully trained, which is totally normal – every sight, sound, and smell is new and exciting. It’s also much safer for your dog’s neck if their leash is attached to their body harness then their collar. There are several types of harnesses, and while some (like head halter) are specifically designed to deter your dog from pulling, you’ll want to use a basic back-clip or front-clip harness for puppy training. The goal is to train your dog to walk on leash using positive reinforcement techniques. Beware of anti-pull harnesses – they actually make it harder for your dog to learn their leash manners!
Help them adapt to the feeling of a leash and harness
Once you’ve got all your training supplies, you’re ready for the first step: getting your pup used to wearing a leash and harness. Start by attaching the leash to your dog’s collar, making sure to give them treats and praise, especially the first time. For loose leash training – and all training activities, really – it’s helpful to use a simple verbal cue such as an enthusiastic “Yes!” or “Good boy/girl!” while treating your dog. This verbal cue marks the good behavior you are trying to teach them.
When you attach the leash to their collar, give them a proud “yes!” (or whatever verbal cue you choose) while giving your dog treats. Let your pup walk around dragging the leash so they can get used to it. You can even have playtime with your pup while they have their leash on – it’s all about creating positive associations, and the more your pup equates their leash with fun, the easier your training is going to be.
Getting your puppy used to a harness can be a bit more challenging, especially the first time. Make sure to have plenty of treats on hand and praise your pup while you’re adjusting the harness to their size. It’s important that the harness fits well, but isn’t too tight or restrictive. If your pup seems uncomfortable, they’re going to form a negative association with the harness and leash walking by extension. Depending on how well your pup adjusts to the harness, you may only want to use it during outdoor training sessions where there are more distracting stimuli and your pup is more likely to pull and lunge. If you do choose to forgo a harness during indoor leash training, you should still have your puppy practice wearing it inside for short periods of time, giving them lots of treats and praise so they learn that the harness isn’t so bad after all!
Indoor leash training
The bond between pet parent and fur baby is the key to successful leash training. You want your pup to stay close to you, but to do that, you have to convince them that you’re more interesting than a world of distractions. But how? Treats, obviously! During your first few indoor leash training sessions, keep it super simple. If your pup makes eye contact with you while they are on leash, give them a treat and praise! You don’t need to be moving just yet – just encouraging your pup to look at you while on leash is a great start.
When you’re ready to start actually walking, choose a location like a hallway where there aren’t a lot of distractions. You want your pup to learn the basics, and since those puppy brains have a short attention span, it’s best to keep external stimuli to a minimum. It can be helpful to choose a side to consistently walk your dog on. Whichever side you choose, you’ll want to keep your treats in the hand closest to them. When you want to give them a treat, you should bend down to their level and keep your hand close to your body to encourage your pup to stay as close to you as possible, also known as “heeling.”
Tip: If you’re planning on entering your pup in competitions later in life, they’ll have to walk on your left side
Take a few slow steps, encouraging your pup to follow either by using your dog’s name or even a recall command like “come.” It’s helpful to chat with your pup as you walk together – they know you’re paying attention to them and it encourages them to engage with you, too. Treat your pup whenever they make eye contact to reinforce closeness to you. As with all puppy training exercises, keep your sessions short and fun and try to stop on a positive note. It’s better to do shorter training sessions several times a day than one long session. Your pup will get tired and more easily frustrated if you don’t space out their training.
If your pup is a puller, you’ll need some serious patience! The best way to discourage pulling can be incredibly frustrating (for both you and your pup) but it is effective. If your dog reaches the end of the leash and pulls, you should stop walking and stay frozen in place. Do not pull or tug your dog back towards you. Don’t call for them or offer up treats as motivation. Just ignore them and wait them out until they make any movement that causes the leash to slacken. At this point, give some excited verbal praise and take a few steps forward. Continue walking until the leash tightens again, then repeat: stop walking, wait until the leash loosens, give praise, and keep walking. Deterring pulling does not involve any treats, which is why it can be so frustrating for your pup, but if you stick it out and stay strong, your pup will learn quickly that there is no benefit to pulling – they aren’t getting anything good out of it!
Outside leash training
Once you’ve got the basics down – you can move things outside. This is where it gets trickier because the outside world is filled with distractions. It’s one thing for your pup to maintain eye contact with you in your hallway – it’s another for them to choose you over a squirrel or dog across the street.
Your first outdoor leash training sessions should be in a fairly controlled environment, such as a yard or quiet street. If you’re potty training your pup and have a specific place outdoors you would like them to go, it can be helpful to combine potty trips with leash training sessions. Remember that when they’re outdoors, your pup is more likely to pull and lunge. You’ll likely find that you won’t be getting the near-constant eye contact you got from your pup during your indoor walking sessions – this is perfectly normal. That’s why it’s so important for you to mark, treat, and praise when you get that coveted eye contact in the outside world. Your dog could have been looking at that bird or squirrel, but they chose you! How cool is that?
Leash training safety tips
Once your fur baby gets the hang of things, you can really start to branch out. Moving your training to busier streets, more crowded parks, or other areas with a lot of stimuli is a great way to challenge your puppy – just make sure they’ve already received all of their necessary vaccines. Sure, they can stay by your side and make good eye contact in their own backyard, but what will they do when there’s a little kid to play with or a dog barking at them? The more they can learn to ignore distractions in favor of you, the safer their walks will be.
Of course, a puppy is a puppy, and as a pet parent, it’s your job to anticipate the problems you may come across in high-activity areas. For example, if you’re walking your puppy and you see a bigger dog coming your way, you might want to redirect your puppy’s attention by offering treats and creating some distance. This is especially important if your pup hasn’t yet been socialized with other dogs. The same goes for little kids – you may be in the park and an excited kiddo wants to pet your puppy. If your pup isn’t used to being around small children, it’s best for everyone involved if you redirect your puppy’s attention.
If you stick with a consistent leash training routine, and walk your pup in different places with different levels of stimulation, they’ll learn how to walk on a leash in no time.
Of course, every puppy is different and some dog breeds are more trainable than others. If you find that your efforts aren’t going as smoothly as you’d like, don’t hesitate to call in reinforcements! Personal dog trainers or training classes can be beneficial for any pet parent (especially first-time dog owners). If you devote enough time, energy, and resources to your puppy’s leash training, you’ve got a lifetime full of amazing walks to look forward to!
Even the most well-behaved walkers run into ruh-rohs like dog attacks or limb fractures. That’s why Pumpkin’s puppy insurance plans help pay 90% of covered vet bills for accidents and injuries so you can always say ‘yes’ to the best care pawsible.
*Pumpkin Pet Insurance policies do not cover pre-existing conditions. Waiting periods, annual deductible, co-insurance, benefit limits and exclusions may apply. For full terms, visit pumpkin.care/insurancepolicy. Products, discounts, and rates may vary and are subject to change. Pumpkin Insurance Services Inc. (Pumpkin) (NPN#19084749) is a licensed insurance agency, not an insurer. Insurance is underwritten by United States Fire Insurance Company (NAIC #21113. Morristown, NJ), a Crum & Forster Company and produced by Pumpkin. Pumpkin receives compensation based on the premiums for the insurance policies it sells. For more details visit pumpkin.care/underwriting-information and pumpkin.care/insurance-licenses.