How to Help Your Dog Love Being On Leash

A leash should be a sign of fun things to come, and it can be if you follow these four tips.

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What is the one training tool every dog owner eventually uses? A leash. We also need leashes to keep dogs and humans safe. However, not all dogs understand what a leash is or how we humans expect them to behave on it.

Here are some tips from my May 2016 book, The Midnight Dog Walkers (I-5 Publishing), on getting your dog to that happy-happy joy-joy place on leash:

1. Build a relationship and connection with your dog

Work first inside — a controlled environment — to increase the intensity your dog has in wanting to be near you. One neat trick is to randomly “leak chicken” as you go about your day. Okay, fine. It doesn’t have to be real chicken, but you could every so often, without saying a word to your dog but preferably when he is looking at you, drop a yummo treat to the ground and walk off. In the beginning stages of connecting to a dog, I click and treat (or mark it with YES!) ANY TIME we make eye contact. Think of eye contact as being an invisible leash that connects you to your dog.

2. Make the leash a sign of fun and safe things about to happen

I don’t like dogs displaying unwanted behavior just prior to a walk, such as frantic jumping or spinning. Once a dog has paired the leash with happy-happy joy-joy time, I do love rewarding her for sitting nicely by attaching the leash to the harness as a reinforcer for the sitting.

Make the leash predict any number of great things, such as quiet time on a mat with lots of good things to chew. Perhaps you won’t go on a walk with it attached, but instead leave it on your dog in the house while you watch TV, working on fun obedience skills during commercial breaks. Let training sessions be short and sweet so your dog will pay attention when you get up off that couch!

3. Make sure the leash stays loose when walking

Tightness is not friendly or fun, and it encourages a reaction in a dog, usually a counteraction such as pulling, also known as an opposition reflex. There are many creative and pain-free ways to help your dog learn that the tether connecting you to him is a good thing.

Dog pulling on leash by Shutterstock.
Dog pulling on leash by Shutterstock.

Here’s how to start: In your home, put your dog in a harness (my preferred harnesses are the Freedom Harness and the SENSE-ation Harness), and have your treat bag attached to your waist, out of sight behind your back. Please ensure it is filled with terrific reinforcers. Start walking around inside with your dog on leash. Gently toss a primo treat a few feet behind you. Your dog will try to find it if you start in a quiet place and are using something truly motivating. Only take a step or two forward once he finds and gobbles the treat.

He will naturally come back toward you looking for another treat. As he approaches your leg, mark it with a click or a YES! and gently toss another a few feet behind you. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And then repeat some more.

Soon enough, your furry friend will understand that being right next to your leg and looking into your happy eyes and smiling face is where he wants to be because — WA LA! — treats fall from the sky. It is important that you possess a very generous sky.

4. Head outside but don’t go far

Next, take the first few outside walks in front of your house, moving back and forth and utilizing many U-turns as you throw the treat behind you and allow the dog to catch up. Reinforce every single time your dog checks in and looks you in the eye. Once that is fluid, THEN go on a longer walk.

Start to randomize the treat delivery. Permit sniffing along the route! If your dog tries to yank you over to some delightful smell, stop ask for him first to return his gaze to your face. The second he does, mark it (YES!), and then take him directly where he wanted to go in the first place.

This procedure is a small but miraculous tool because the dog does what you want — checking in, looking back, and most likely taking a step toward you and releasing the tightness of the leash, and THAT you can reward with a treat or a chance to sniff. Soon your dog will be checking in with you like crazy. I actually had to teach my dogs a “go” cue because they were sticking to me like glue and I wanted them to get some exercise.

We need leashes for safety — that’s a fact. Leashes also constrain and trap our dogs, and that can create unwanted behavior issues in many dogs. The solution is to make sure that when a dog is leashed, his need for freedom and decision making  (i.e. let him decide to check in with you — something you wanted any way — and then reward immensely) is addressed. A leash allows us to go out in public with our dogs and maintain social civility and safety for all. It has come with a price tag for dogs, but you can make that leash predict wonderful things and not allow it to become part of the reason your dog becomes leash reactive.

Top photo: Dog with leash in mouth by Shutterstock.

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Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA

Annie Phenix is a Colorado-based professional writer and dog trainer. She is the Trainer in Residence for Dogster.com and she writes a column for Dogster Magazine and other publications. She is the author of a Spring 2016 book, titled The Midnight Dog Walkers (I-5 Publishing).

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