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Start Leash Walking on a Positive Note

Loose Leash Walking

If Your Dog Won’t Walk On Leash, Start Over With These Simple Steps

A peaceful walk around the neighborhood with your dog can be an excellent way to get some exercise while also spending quality one-on-one time with your four-legged best friend.

But if your pup refuses to walk on a leash or pulls constantly while on a walk, an everyday activity that’s meant to be peaceful will feel like anything but. 

So, should you just give up your dreams of pleasant, easy leash walks? Of course not! 

But you may need to take a few steps back in your training to build the behavior you want using positive methods. Taking the time to re-train your pup can make walks more pleasant for you both!

Common Leash Walking Problems

Problem #1: My Dog Won't Walk On The Leash

If you have a dog or puppy that doesn’t want to walk on a leash, you might think at first glance they’re just stubborn. Many pups are labeled this way because that’s what their behavior demonstrates. 

But, if we dig deeper, we’ll find that a dog may refuse to walk on a leash for many reasons. Let’s take a look at some of the most common. 

3 Reasons Dog Walking Leash Problems
The collar, harness, or leash feels strange

If your puppy has not worn a leash or collar before, it might feel weird or foreign at first. The bottom line is that they’ll need to learn what it is BEFORE they learn to use it.

If you’ve ever had a strand of toilet paper stuck to your shoe, you know the feeling that comes when you realize you are dragging something – you stop until you realize what it is and probably don’t move until you remove it.

This is the same feeling many puppies have towards their leashes, so it’s our job to help them realize it’s safe and okay to use. Here’s a great video to get you started.

They are overwhelmed

Taking your puppy outside for the first time can be overwhelming – there are so many new sights, sounds, and smells, which can be overstimulating and even scary.

Instead of focusing on getting your pup to walk in this brand-new world, the focus should be on proper exposure. Pairing good things (like play or treats) with the new sights and sounds is a great way to start.

The first step may be as simple as taking your pup outside and throwing treats in the front yard for a few minutes. This allows him to enjoy sniffing and eating as he gets accustomed to the environment.

They are confused

Loose-leash walking is a human construct, so it’s unfair to expect your dog to walk near you or with a loose leash without teaching them what you want first.

But training a dog where there are distractions (like outside) is like trying to teach algebra to a child at Disneyland – there are simply too many other things grabbing their attention.

Instead, we must first teach them where we want them to walk (near us) by building positive associations with this position.

Problem #2: My Dog Used to Go On Walks, But Has Suddenly Stopped

Suppose your dog has recently had a behavior change and suddenly refuses to walk on his leash. In that case, something has happened to create a large enough negative association that your dog is practicing avoidance. 

Why Has My Dog Suddenly Stopped Walking On The Leash

Here are two main reasons that this behavior change might occur:

Is Your Dog In Pain?

If your dog is experiencing pain exacerbated by walking, that would cause your dog to put on the brakes. This could be a leg injury, which might be more obvious. But it could also be something subtle, like arthritis. You must rule out pain and injury before doing any further training.

Is Your Dog Worried?

Think back to past walks – did something scare or harm your dog? It could be something obvious – like being rushed by another dog or being on a walk while there was thunder – but it might not be evident to us.

I once had a dog that was scared of the sound of Harley-Davidsons®. She was OK with other motorcycles. So if she heard them in the distance, she pulled to get home. I would not have put that together if my husband didn’t know how to differentiate the sounds of different engines.

The bottom line? Even something as subtle as the rev of an engine can contribute to your pup’s fear or hesitation. 

Problem #3: My Dog Pulls on the Leash!

This is the opposite of the last issue we discussed, but just as frustrating. So, let’s take a look at it from your dog’s perspective.

Being tethered to a human is not a natural feeling for a dog. Dogs want to engage with their environment and be allowed to run free, so they are usually just pulling to get somewhere.

In addition, they are excited about being outside. However, they may get frustrated that they can’t see everything they want to see.

Pulling is a natural behavior. And the only way to change it is to train the desired behavior.  

If we do not train the behavior we want, you and your dog will get more frustrated. This can lead to reactivity (sometimes referred to as leash aggression). 

So, just like with our furry friends who won’t walk on a leash, it is important to start at the beginning, creating positive associations with the behavior we want for better walks.

Problem #4: My Dog Barks and Pulls at Everything

If you are dealing with this issue, you could have a leash-reactive dog, or perhaps your dog is reacting to the environment. Please read our article on How To Train and Calm a Reactive Dog for a more in-depth look. 

If this sounds like your pup, I highly recommend working one-on-one with a trainer (who has experience with reactivity in dogs) to get guidance on reactivity before you take your dogs on walks.

A good trainer can recommend walking environments that won’t trigger your dog.

However, you can do the following exercises in your house and backyard (or anywhere else where there are no triggers) to lay down a positive foundation for loose leash walking, which you can then build on when your dog is ready.

Loose Leash Walking Lessons Broken Into Easy Steps

Step #1: Reinforce the Position

So, you wake up in the morning and decide to take your pup for a nice, leisurely walk. But, before you even reach the sidewalk, he sees a trigger (another animal, person, or grass blowing in the wind) and starts pulling to investigate.

It’s easy to get frustrated because you want your dog to walk by your side. Or, at the very least, you want them not to pull your arms off!

But as we stated before, loose-leash walking is a human construct. We must teach our dogs where we would like them to be on walks, and we need to first do this in a learning environment with as few distractions as possible.

Start in your living room and arm yourself with 3-5 treats. First, put a treat at your dog’s nose and lure them to the area where you would like them to be on walks (next to your leg, on whichever side you prefer –  you get to decide, but you want to stay consistent).

When your pup arrives at this designated spot, mark that position with verbal affirmation (“yes” or “good”) and give them the treat.

Loose Leash Walking Step 1 Reinforce the Position

Important note about giving treats

Treat your dog in the position where you would like them to be for walks. If you mark the position but then move the treat, your dog will start to move in front of you instead of by your side.

This is NOT what you want when walking your dog as it could be a major tripping hazard.

Repeat this action 3-5 times, and remember to let your dog have a break! If your dog is in the right headspace, this activity can be repeated multiple times a day.

After a few sessions, it's time to get your pup thinking about holding the position.

Once your dog is in the walking position, you can reward it with a few treats in a row for staying in the position. Think of it as a rapid-fire pattern of treat, treat, treat. This is just the beginning of a great association with this position.

When your dog quickly gets to position and enjoys staying there, you are ready to move on to Step 2.

Step #2: One Step at a Time

Now that your dog knows the position you want, it is time to start adding movement.

A solid foundation is based on error-free learning. The goal is to create positive associations with the behavior we want, which helps to create behavior that will be repeated. So don’t rush this step!

When your dog is in the position you taught him in step one, take one step, mark, and treat right by your leg (treating them in the desired position, as mentioned above).

Then repeat.

This lesson is best taught in a few short sessions where you mark and treat after each step – this gets your dog excited to be in that position, but it also keeps their focus on you.

Loose Leash Walking Step 2 One Step At A Time

Step #3: Adding Some Steps

Once your dog learns to happily walk by your side while on step 2, you can slowly start expecting more movement.

For starters, you might try walking two steps instead of one for the same reward in a practice session. Then, you’ll slowly begin to expand on this.

If your dog loses interest, you have either pushed them too far or too fast  – or your training session was simply too long. So take a break, regroup, and try again another time. 

Step #4: Adding Distractions by Changing Environments

Once your dog can successfully walk by your side across the living room, it’s time to add distractions by taking them to a new room where you can build on the behavior.

But keep in mind that when you up the criteria in one area (for instance, adding more distractions), you will lower it in another. So, when you decide to introduce a new environment, start again at Step 1. 

Some dogs can work through all three steps quickly. But if they can’t, go at their pace – no matter how slow it may feel.

The more we work with our dogs where they’re at, the easier it will be to get them to repeat the desired behavior in future sessions.

Make a list of environments from least distracting to most distracting, then plan training sessions in these areas and in this order.

You know your dog the best, but a sample chart or training locations may look like this:

  1. Living Room
  2. Kitchen
  3. Backyard
  4. Up and down the driveway
  5. Back and forth in front of the house
  6. A few houses down the street and back

Also, the treats your dog gets should reflect the distraction level of the environment, especially in the early stages of training. In the living room, your dog may work for their kibble. Outside, however, you will want to up the ante to something like cheese or a hot dog.

The learner (your dog) decides what is reinforcing – so if you offer kibble and the dog ignores it, that treat won’t positively reinforce the behavior. You’ll have to use something of higher value. 

In Conclusion

If your dog won’t walk on a leash for some reason, it’s time to start over. You must teach your dog how you want them to walk in a low-distraction environment where they can better focus on the training before hitting the streets. 

If you have a leash-reactive dog, you should get help for the reactivity before attempting to walk them on a leash. However, you can work on these steps with your dog off-leash inside your house, which will help build a foundation while you get guidance on reactivity.

A dog that appears too stubborn to walk on a leash is not trying to give you a hard time – they may just be confused, overwhelmed, or even in pain. Addressing these problems will help you get closer to your leash-walking goals.

Authors

  • Devene Godau, CPDT-KA

    Devene obtained a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University and spent several years working in marketing. However, when she adopted her first greyhound (who came with some behavior challenges), she began researching ways to modify her problem behavior and found help with a local dog trainer. She became a volunteer assistant to learn more, and eventually started teaching classes and conducting private lessons. She currently trains puppies full-time to become scent detection dogs. Devene lives in Michigan with her husband and kids, as well as 4 dogs, 2 cats and a tortoise.

  • Morgan Messick

    Morgan Messick is a content creator for Dog Training Newbie, a website that is all about dog training tips, techniques, news, and more. Morgan has two dogs, three cats, and a lovely wife who support her passion for writing. Morgan loves reading murder mystery novels and listening to true crime podcasts in her spare time. She is also passionate about supporting small businesses by creating dynamic content that customers want to see.

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