Puppy Lead Training

Leash training a puppy can pose quite a challenge for new owners, especially when the puppy refuses to budge or makes a habit of pulling and biting on the leash. Many exasperated owners declare “He just won’t walk on a leash!” and just stop walking their dog altogether.

Dr. Ian Dunbar, Author of Doctor Dunbar’s Good Little Dog Book and Godfather of modern dog training, ensures us that these common problems can be addressed and corrected with the right method.

Before training can begin your pup will need to meet some basic requirements and master a few commands, let's first make sure your puppy is ready for the task!

What age to start leash training a puppy?

Dr. Dunbar states that “It is not safe to walk your puppy on public property until it is at least three months old”. Before this time your dog will not have had its vaccinations and is at risk of catching parvo, which is a leading cause of death in young puppies.

You can, however, practice training a puppy to walk on a lead at home or in your yard before three months--just make sure Fido is not in contact with faeces from other unvaccinated dogs.

But don’t wait too long either, Dr. Dunbar warns owners that “by the time the puppy is 18 weeks old the following exercises start to lose effectiveness.”

Bottom line: Start lead training early, but take precautions.

Acclimate your dog for leash training

The wearing of a leash and collar is not a natural concept for a dog since these simply do not exist in the wild. Wearing a collar or leash can be a very scary notion for a timid puppy.

Getting your puppy accustomed to these newfound devices is essential to success in on-leash walking later on.

  1. Start by letting your dog sniff the collar and leash you plan to use. Give him lots of treats and gentle praise for exploring his new equipment.

  2. After a while, put the collar (or harness) on and let your dog adjust to the idea of wearing it, combine this with lots of gentle praise and treats.

  3. Once your dog has realised the collar and harness are not enemies, attach the lead and let him explore with the leash dragging behind him.

  4. Eventually, you can begin to hold the leash and while your dog explores.

Make sure the leash cannot get caught on any items and create tension on the leash--this could be a major setback for a young dog.

Bottom line: Gradually introduce walking equipment you plan to use, this will decrease the likelihood of a fear response. Make wearing leashes and collars an enjoyable experience with lots of treats and praise.

Commands to Master Before Lead Training Can Begin

1.  Settle Down

The settle down technique is exactly what it sounds like--giving your dog a simple command such as “settle down” to halt any activity immediately.

This command is important to get your dog in the right mindset to walk nicely (on OR off leash).

2. Sit

A puppy must grasp the concept of sitting on command before polite on-leash walking can be achieved. The good news is, most owners find this is the easiest concept for their dog to learn.

3.  Heel (off-leash)

Heeling off-leash is a simple (and fun!) training exercise for dogs and owners and is, in essence, an exciting game of chase!

Bottom line: The key to successfully leash training a puppy is for them to first learn to calmly interact with you off-leash--this will require them to know how to sit and settle down on cue, as well as mastering heeling off-leash. As with anything, practice makes perfect...but lots of treats and affection will help too! 

Commands to Master Before Lead Training Can Begin

All the options for puppy lead training equipment can be perplexing for a new owner. However, these devices are not created equal; you must discover which type will work best for your canine.

1. Basic Collars

Best for: Easy-going, well-trained dogs who never pull

Pros: Easy to use, affordable, pet ID tags can be attached

Cons: Comes off easily, can cause injury to a strong puller

2. Choke Collars

Best for: We DO NOT recommend this type for any dog.

Pros: Some outdated training manuals suggest this style collar for difficult dogs, but they are much too dangerous and easy to misuse to ever be a valuable training device

Cons: Can cause serious injury, distress, fear, and even death when used improperly

3. Harnesses

Best for: strong pullers, brachiocephalic (flat-faced) breeds like pugs and french bulldogs.

Pros: Gives more control over dogs, much more gentle on the dog, several options such front clip styles that prevents pulling and styles that use calming acupressure to soothe the dog--Cesar Millan suggests this style

Cons: Can cause chafing, more expensive than a traditional collar and leash

4. Basic Leashes

Best for: easy going dogs, hiking or situations where you need to keep your dog close by

Pros: Compatible with most collars and harnesses, inexpensive, comes in reflective options for on-road walking, good to keep on hand, 6ft (or shorter) leashes are commonly required by law

Cons: Little to none if you purchase a high-quality leash, too much lead-way can cause the dog to wrap the leash around you

5. Gentle leaders

Best for: Cesar Milan highly recommends this style for training dogs (and even has his own brand of gentle leaders)

Pros: Does not require a collar, can be worn in several ways including over the snout like a muzzle, much more gentle than a standard collar and leash, harder to slip off than a collar

Cons: Usually doesn’t have a place to put ID tags, improper usage can cause injury

6. Retractable Leashes

Best for: small, well-behaved dogs, who no longer need training

Pros: Gives the dog the freedom to sniff and do their business at a distance

Cons: Detrimental to training, teaches the dog that they are in control, can be dangerous if used around busy roads or unpredictable animals

Bottom line: ​​Front clip and acupressure harnesses are fantastic tools for leash-pullers and excitable puppies who are still learning. Once your dog is trained, a collar and retractable leash may give him more freedom. Any training tool can be misused; it is up to the owner to use the products responsibly.

How to Teach a Puppy to Walk on a Lead

Once your dog has met the prerequisites, you can put Dr. Dunbar’s puppy lead training strategies into practice.

Before you begin, make sure all you have taken care of all your dog’s needs. A hungry, under-stimulated dog with a full bladder is going to have a hard time concentrating on leash training!

Prior to training, make sure your puppy:

  • Is feeling well

  • Has been fed

  • Doesn’t have to potty

  • Has had plenty of time to play and socialise beforehand

  • Isn’t tired

Dr. Dunbar’s Steps for Training a Dog to “Heel” On-leash 

  1. Command your dog to sit by luring it with a treat in your right hand.

  2. Move treat to your left hand

  3. Say “heel” while holding the treat in front of the dog’s snout and take three steps forward.

  4. Move the treat back to your right hand to lure him to sit.

  5. Offer treats and praise when your dog successfully completes the sit-heel-sit sequence.

  6. Practice in your home first and then move to practice in more distractive environments like the park or your yard.

“Before walking your puppy on-leash, teach it to heel on-leash. You will pay much more attention to the tension in the leash when heeling rather than walking.” - Dr. Dunbar

The most common lead-training issue is when the puppy won’t stop pulling on the leash. This makes walks a literal drag for everyone involved! Using this method, leash-pulling should never be an issue--because you never allowed it to become one!

  1. Teach your puppy that pulling is never okay, not even when standing still! Dr. Dunbar teaches us to “Hold (the) leash firmly with both hands and refuse to budge until your dog slackens the leash. Not a single step!”

  2. It may take a while, but eventually, your dog will stop pulling and sit. This is your cue to praise and treat. Then take ONE large step forward.

  3. Your dog will most likely start tugging again, DO NOT MOVE. It won’t take as long this time for him to realize you will not move until the tugging stops and he sits.

  4. Once you have taken several successful single steps, practice this with three consecutive steps, then five steps, and so on.

“Your dog quickly learns that he has the power to make you stop and to make you go. If he tightens the leash, you stop. But if he slackens the leash and sits, you take a step.” -Dr. Dunbar

Dr. Dunbar’s Tips for On-leash Walking:
  • Practice in and around the home with few distractions before taking training to the sidewalks.

  • Frequently change speed, use the command “Quickly” when quickening the pace and “Steady” when you slow the pace.

  • Speed up when making right turns, this will prevent your dog from making a shortcut.

  • Slow down and use the “Steady” command when making left turns, this will prevent your pup from bumping into you.

Some outdated training methods used by Cesar Milian (and even previously by Dr. Dunbar), suggest forcefully jerking a dogs leash to get him to walk properly. This will only startle the dog (and could injure it). The practice is no longer supported by Dr. Dunbar or his training courses.

NEVER hit, jerk, scream at, or otherwise purposely intimidate your puppy. These practices can be detrimental to the human-canine relationship as well as create major physical and emotional problems for the dog.

“You must become the centre of your dog’s universe. You need to stimulate and strengthen your dog’s gravitational attraction towards you by moving away enticingly and heartily praising your dog all the time he follows.”- Dr. Dunbar


Bottom Line: The keys to successful leash training is practising on-leash heeling first, not allowing pulling to ever become an issue, patience, and keeping a positive disposition!

FAQ - Puppy Lead Training

Help! I am leash training a puppy who bites the leash constantly, how do I stop this?

Biting and chewing is a natural way for puppies to explore the world around them. It is also a way of displaying excitement and expending energy--just like a small child clapping or jumping up and down.

Leash-biting Solutions:

  1. A modified version of Dr. Dunbar’s red-light/green-light method (we discussed this in the section regarding on-leash heeling) can be very effective to halt leash chewing. If  your puppy bites the leash, then stand completely still--do not take a single step! This will teach Fido that biting will not result in the walk progressing. Eventually, your dog will connect these two behaviors and likely stop this behavior.

  2. Making sure your dog is not overly excited before a walk will also decrease mouthing. A dog who is tired from vigorous play before the walk will be less likely to bite, jump, and pull.

  3. Alternatively, bringing a toy along for your dog to carry can keep his mouth busy, thereby eliminating the opportunity to mouth the leash.

When I put the lead on my dog, he struggles to escape the collar by bending his neck and pulling away from the leash, how do I deal with this?

The standard collar and leash setup may be intimidating your dog, try switching to an acupressure harness to reduce stress as well as the tension on the dog's neck. Introduce training equipment gradually and in a positive manner (lots of treats and praise), so your dog will associate good feelings with these tools.

We would love to hear your experiences with leash training! Tell us your success stories and lead-training troubles in the comments below!

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