How to train a dog to walk on a leash

The most common difficulty people have when walking their dogs is pulling on the leash. However, it’s not unheard of for a dog to simply “refuse to move” when out on a walk.

Dog refusing to walk.

Some dogs will suddenly flatten themselves to the ground, sit, or lay down and not want to go any further. If your dog is one of these, you need to take steps to make him feel more confident.

For some dogs, many things out in the world are frightening or overwhelming. Couple that with the fact that being on leash can make some dogs feel as though they are trapped and could not run away if they needed to; and you can see why a less-than-confident dog might panic and not want to walk on his leash. In order to help a dog like this feel safer and enjoy his walks, start small. Begin by acclimating your dog to being on his leash in an environment in which he’s comfortable. Simply let him sit or walk around the house with his leash on. Periodically, walk over and give the leash a gentle tug; just enough so that your dog feels the pressure. Then say, “yes,” give him a treat, and walk away. Once your dog is moving comfortably around the house with his leash on, begin to ask him for a little movement. Hold one end of the leash and walk as far away from your dog as it will allow without becoming taut. Kneel down and encourage your dog to come to you. When he does, use your reward marker and give a reward. The next step might be to encourage your dog to follow you just a step or two while you’re holding the leash.

Once your dog is comfortable walking the way you’d like in the house, you can begin practicing in the back or front yard. Moving outside may still be quite frightening for your dog, so you may need to use even better rewards and start the process over (reward your dog simply for feeling a periodic tug on the leash, then for walking to you across the length of the leash, then for walking with you a few steps). When your dog is comfortable in the yard, begin taking him off your property only very briefly. At this stage, heading back home will probably serve as a powerful reward for walking just a handful of yards down the sidewalk.

This process may sound monotonous, but once you get your dog moving outside just a bit, he should gain confidence very quickly. Once that happens, walking will become its own reward; for you and your dog!

Guest Contributor–Danielle Grand has spent the last decade working to parlay her affinity for animals into a dog training career. While earning her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, she was involved in an experimental study on canine cognition. She has also obtained her dog training certification from Animal Behavior College and attended numerous dog training seminars conducted by respected behaviorists. At home in New York’s capital region, she works closely with colleagues and mentors to expand her expertise; she hopes to help forge strong, happy relationships between many dogs and their humans.

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Tips to help you teach your dog how to walk on leash

  • Make sure your dog has had plenty of time to run around.  A tired dog is less likely to pull.
  • Make sure your dog has had plenty of time to just be a dog.  Dogs like to sniff and explore.  Give them every opportunity to do something that is interesting to them before you start training them.
  • When ever you can, allow your dog to explore the space he or she will be working in before starting the training.  It’s not always possible, but a long leash might allow you to do this in some areas.
  • Work on a longer leash to begin with (provided it is safe to do so).  This will decrease chances of pulling.
  • Work up to challenges and lower your expectations as you increase them.  Don’t expect your dog to be able to walk down the street with a loose leash if they have only ever practiced in the livingroom.
  • Remember that walking is not a preferred gait for all dogs.  Some dog might want to walk faster then you usually do.  Stepping up the pace may help some dogs.  Alternatively, moving too fast may get some dogs too excited.  Judge the best speed based on how your dog responds.

You might also be interested in these articles:

5 reasons why leash training is so important  (especially for aggressive dogs)

Fitting the Gentle Leader like a Pro.

Why Dogs Pull on a Leash

5. Don’t forget rewards

Teaching a dog to walk without pulling requires plenty of rewards. Each time your dog masters the leash walk (even just for a few seconds) reward him/her with praise and by feeding a treat. It’s a good idea to bring your dog’s favorite treats to encourage the leash training. Give a treat every few steps at first and then increase the distance you walk between treats until he/she forms the habit of walking at your side without treats. In general, soft treats are best so your dog can eat them quickly and continue training.

dog leash training

Training a dog to heel: the stages

The process of training a dog to heel goes through four key stages

  1. Establish heel position
  2. Walk at heel
  3. Add distractions

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ heel position. I suggest you use the dog’s shoulder or collar as a guideline and aim to have that level with your knee.

His head will be just a little bit in front. This is a comfortable position for both of you.

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Traditionally Labradors and other gun dogs were required to heel on the left hand side, this is simply to leave the hander’s right  hand and arm free for his gun. Left handed hunters heel their dogs on the right.

It doesn’t matter which side you choose unless you intend to shoot over your dog. Just pick a side and be consistent about it.

Stage 3: Adding distractions

Walking to heel in your yard or in a quiet field is a very different matter from walking to heel past the school gates, or where other dogs are playing

Your dog is not naughty if he can’t do this yet. He is normal.

The heel cue doesn’t mean ‘walk to heel anywhere’. At this point it means ‘walk to heel in the yard’. You have to teach him that it also means ‘walk to heel past those people playing frisbee’ and that takes time.

So be patient with him and with yourself.

How to add distractions successfully

There are lots of ways in which dogs learning to walk to heel can easily get distracted.

Changes in the surrounding environment need to be tacked first. Moving from hall to kitchen or vice versa, and from indoors to outdoors.

Be aware of how exciting doorways and gateways can be. Dogs need practice to be able walk to heel through a doorway, especially if they associate what’s on the other side with pleasure.

You are thinking “I’ll just open this door”. But your dog is thinking “OMG, OMG, we are going for a WALK!!!” And before you know it, you are being dragged down the path again.

Use high value rewards (roast chicken is good) and treat the dog generously every step or two to keep attention focused on you the first few times you heel him through your garden gate into the roadway outside.

In successful dog training we add distractions by diluting them or making them less strong to begin with. One way to do that is to put some distance between your dog and the distraction. Another is to try to control the intensity of the distraction.

For example, your dog may not be able to walk to heel while your kids kick a football about just yet, he might be able to walk to heel past a single child holding a football. If he can, treat him and practice this.

Then get the child to put the ball on the ground, then to roll the ball gently around with his foot, and so on.

QUICK HEEL TIPS: If you are not sure whether your dog will succeed, try to make the task a little easier. Training will go faster in the long run

Gradually increase the power and excitement level of distractions, rewarding your dog for success, and reducing the intensity if it is too much for him.

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This is what ALL successful dog trainers do. They gradually increase the challenge to that the dog succeeds most or all of the time. Building success upon success.

When it comes to dogs that love other dogs, you will benefit from the help of a friend with a relatively calm dog. Teach your dog to walk to heel past her dog while it is sitting at her side. Then while she walks her dog up and down some distance away. Build up gradually to walking at heel right past the other dog

Remember that a new location is a distraction too, and if we are to add distractions such as people and dogs one at a time, the best chance of success is through introducing them at home in the familiar location where you have been training so far.

That way you won’t further complicate matters by introducing new locations alongside these other factors of difficulty

If you don’t have a friend to do this with you’ll need to find a good modern dog training class where you can work with other dogs under controlled conditions

Succeeding with distractions

Proofing your heelwork or teaching a dog to heel past distractions is achievable for everyone. And you’ll find it easier if your dog is clear as to what is expected of him and if you prevent him rehearsing mistakes.

It’s a great idea, once you have started this training, to avoid walking your dog on a leash in situations where you cannot control how far you walk or what kinds of distractions are likely to come along.

You don’t want to give him opportunity to release his old bad habits.

Pulling is a habit, and walking to heel its polar opposite. It can be pretty confusing for a dog is you allow him to do the pulling thing on some occasions and the expect the heel thing on others.

If you are trapped in a situation where you have to walk your dog through distractions before he is able to do so ‘at heel’ then use a harness that is specifically kept for those occasions. A ‘tracking’ harness for example.

Avoid using the collar and leash he wears in during heel work training, in situations where you know you won’t be able to train successfully

Teaching a dog to heel can be quite a challenge - The Labrador Site helps you succeedSummary

Training a dog to walk to heel is one of the most important tasks for any large dog owner. But it is not as hard as you think once you get started and have a plan to follow.

Remember that your dog will learn faster if he is clear what is expected of him and you use plenty of high value rewards to begin with.

Master each stage in training before moving on to the next and give yourself and your dog some great rewards for making progress!

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