Leash Walking: Building Skills and a Relationship

A dog’s natural inclinations and leash walking skills are somewhat at odds.  Dogs love to gather information via sniffing and move along as their interests lead them.  This can be an engrossing activity, where the human is – for the most part – ignored.  Rushing to investigate an area, urine marking, and reacting to stimuli in the environment are all part of the routine.  Polite leash walking is a skill set that requires other behaviors.

It Starts During Puppyhood

It is so very tempting to place a collar or harness and leash on an inexperienced leash walker and head outside.  Behaviors range from pulling and frenetic movement, balking or lying down and refusing to move, biting the leash, weaving around the handler’s legs, and wanting to chase squirrels, cars, other dogs, people, etc.….  There is no real motivation or practice for the dog walking beside his person.

For a start…. forget the leash.  Work in the house or other small contained area.  Take a handful of kibbles or treats.  Elicit the puppy’s walking with you, by your side. Reinforce this behavior with bites of food.  Make this fun for the puppy and easy for him to learn.  After some practice, attach a leash and let it drag.  Then move to holding it while walking in a low distraction area.

Time to Move Outside

Leash walking should be a training time until there is consistency in your dog’s walking.  In the meantime, use other activities for physical and mental exercise.  Up the ante with food reinforcement.  Exposure to higher levels of distraction require higher value food to obtain and sustain your dog’s attention on you.  This usually translates to human food:  chicken, cheese, liverwurst, hot dogs, and the like.  You will need lots of very small bites.

Reinforce all attention to you and walking in the correct position with a bite of food.  Keep walks short (10-15) minutes and go 3-5 times each day.  Vary the routes somewhat. No on leash greetings with other dogs.  (People greetings are OK if jumping can be redirected.)  Allow the dog to take “sniff breaks” at your prompting and not his pulling.

The Relationship with your Dog is Key

Dogs who walk beside their owners in a relaxed and reliable way do so because they want to!  They are out in the natural world with their trusted human.  Leash walking is not a pulling contest between dog and human.  As time goes along, dogs should bond closely with their person(s).  This is a process, as is learning great leash walking skills. 

There are many elements in the natural world that interest and, sometimes, frighten dogs.  In the absence of this tight relationship, a true handler/dog team is not likely.  Remember that your dog is looking to you for leadership and learning.     


Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel  CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC