To train a puppy or dog to walk next to you on leash takes a lot more than just clipping a lead to their collar or harness and expecting they’ll follow you! This comes as a surprise to many new dog and puppy owners. Puppies may just sit there as you pull on them, looking confused, or may take off after an interesting sight or smell pulling you along behind them. But this doesn’t have to happen! In this article, I’ll cover one technique for teaching a pup how to walk next to you, so you and your dog will be happily walking along together very soon!
I’ve used this technique on many foster pups with great success. It works best with dogs that aren’t super shy or super hyper, and who are treat, praise, or play motivated. (For others, consult a professional trainer.) When reading this article, “treats” can be food treats, but also verbal “treats” (i.e. verbal praise) or playing with a highly valued toy.
You’ll see the steps take about 2 weeks. Some dogs can go through the steps more quickly, but rushing can lead to failure! Take your time and enjoy the process. To make the instructions below more easy to follow, I’m calling the example pup “Rover”.
1. Get Rover used to dragging a short lead around: This is while you supervise, not holding on to the leash. I use a 4-foot length of lightweight cotton rope (so there’s no leash handle to get caught on things), soaked in a puppy-no-chew liquid. Attach to Rover’s collar, and immediately start a game with another toy, feed him treats, and/or work on teaching “sit” and “come” while you walk around to make “leash time” fun, and to distract him from the new sensation of the rope dragging on his collar.
Do about 5 sessions a day, each 5 minutes long, for about 5 days. This works best in a place that Rover is used to, like his own fenced yard or kitchen, so he is focusing on you, not on new interesting smells.
2. Get Rover used to someone holding the end of the lead: After 5 days of playing and ignoring the rope dragging, pick up and hold the end of the rope while you do more 5-daily 5-minute play/training sessions. Try your best to NOT PULL ON THE LEAD! So sometimes he’ll be following you, other times you’ll be following him. Do this for another few days. Switch to a regular leash.
Trainer’s Tip #1: Don’t use a “retractable” extending leash. The changing leash lengths will often teach unskilled leash walkers to pull to get more slack. They are also unsafe as dogs/puppies can dart out into traffic or after a squirrel or cat, and with more than 6 foot of leash, you have no control even if you’ve put on the brake. If you must, they are safest used only within large areas like parks or beaches.
3. Teach Rover that tiny tugs on the rope mean come towards you: Try this on yourself… if someone pulls steadily on your arm, what is your natural reaction? To pull away from them! This is the same for puppies and dogs. So use tiny tugs, not a steady pull. I like teaching a word for this, and I use “here”… I find this blends well into “heel” later if you’d rather use that word for the command to walk next to you without pulling.
These sessions I make shorter, about 2 minutes. You can add them on to the end of your #2 exercise after a day or two of those.
While on a slack lead, give a tiny tug (think of someone tapping you on the shoulder to get your attention) and immediately say “here” and TURN YOUR BODY AWAY at the same time you reward with a treat, so you are not directly facing Rover. Think about this: if you are out walking with your dog on leash, are you facing your dog head on? No. You will be walking along with Rover beside you or a little behind you, and when you want to go a new direction, when you step away Rover may feel a tug on the leash as you are not facing him.
Rover doesn’t even have to move towards you at first. Think of it like “hey, (tiny tug) look HERE I have a treat for you in my hand next to my leg!” Also, by immediately, I mean right after each other, it’s like a tug-here. Timing in training is so important! Over the next few sessions or possibly sooner, you will see Rover quickly associate a tiny tug with a treat, and at the tug, will look up at your treat hand and even move towards it.
4. Get Rover to follow you after a tug: Now you can add a small step away from him Rover in between the tug and treat. Take a small enough step so the leash is still slack after the step. So… tug-here, step, treat. Look mostly where you are going, not at Rover. You are luring him to follow you. When Rover moves towards you, then next time add another step away… tug-here, step, step, treat. Rover eventually will be following right along next to you, anticipating that treat! HOORAY YOU TAUGHT HIM TO WALK ON LEASH! Now you just need to cement that behavior for longer durations and in new places, so keep reading.
Walk around doing this exercise, staring with 2 minute sessions, gradually adding in more steps between treats and lengthening the sessions up to 5 minutes. If Rover looses interest because of too many steps (or he’s full of treats), stop the session for at least a few hours until he’s hungry again, or the next day.
5. Get Rover to walk on leash in other places: It’s one thing for Rover to walk on leash next to you around your kitchen or yard, and quite another out in the “real world” with new exciting/scary distracting sights, sounds and most importantly for a dog – smells! Gradually try one new location at at time. The first few sessions in new place, do your best to have Rover really hungry so he’s more likely to focus on you and your treats, like first thing in the morning before his breakfast.
Trainer’s Tip#2: Dogs don’t generalize well so be patient if it seems like Rover totally forgot how to leash walk! He didn’t, he just needs to set the behavior in a new environment and you’re there to help him with that. Patience and gentle, positive energy will help him realize he can walk on leash just as he did in his kitchen, but now in this new awesome environment. Be prepared with higher value treats as you move to the outdoors. The greater the distractions, the greater the rewards should be for him to realize the best behavior is always based on checking in with his handler.
The first new area could be your front yard, or a short stretch of sidewalk right in front of your house. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until he is walking and following you. You can also add in other training exercises (sit, come, etc) while in that new area. This might take a number of sessions/days.
Try to pick a quiet time for the new area where you’ll be less likely to have people or other dogs adding to the distractions.
You might want to start off by letting him have a minute of ‘free time’ while on leash but not focusing on you, to smell the entire new area before you start “work”.
Trainer’s Tip #3: Plan a few “free time” sessions (at times YOU decide) during your walks when he can just relax, be a dog, sniff and engage in silliness! That way he won’t try to force those times himself.
Don’t let Rover pull you around! If he starts pulling, get him to refocus on you. If he won’t refocus, take a step back to the kitchen/yard and do another few days of reinforcement, then try the new area again. Teach him can only sniff and explore if he’s NOT pulling on the leash. You will have to be the judge, and the positive, patient leader.
Soon you will be walking along with Rover happily next to you on leash, where ever you want to go!
Trainer’s Tip #4: Once Rover is walking with you on leash, you can start pairing down the treats. Sometimes he gets one for walking on leash next to you, sometimes he doesn’t. It’s kind of like us when we play slot machines!Written by Adopt-a-Pet.com’s Jennifer Warner with
tips by Katya Friedman, CASI Certified Dog Trainer.