Leash Training 101

Leash training a dog can really be difficult. Dogs don’t like to be held back with something foreign, like a leash, so it can cause frustration and more pulling.

Honestly, a leash doesn’t come naturally to a dog. How to handle being on a leash has to be taught and that consistent communication has to be maintained for the life of the dog.

Most of the time, when a leash is put on a dog, it creates a need to want to pull more. Opposition reflex is a natural thing that happens and works against you needing your dog to hang next to you. When they feel pressure, they push against it. We do the same thing in many ways as humans. Someone tells you, don’t hit the red button, what do you want to do? If you are in an altercation with someone that is about to get physical, not that you ever would do that, but maybe in your youth, haha, if you were held back physically by a friend, the adrenalized instinct is to push through being held back. Dogs feel the same. It can even escalate their intensity when pulling towards certain things.

So how do we fix it? Well, there are endless training techniques and tools to use, but I’m going to cover some leash basics.

If your dog pulls and gets to where they want to go, even their favorite potty spot, you are actually teaching them to pull. Truly by just letting your dog have a tight leash by moving in the direction they want, they feel that tight leash and they are able to take a step, you are rewarding their pulling and teaching them to pull to get where they want to go. It’s a hard habit to break, but that is the first concept important to understand. By allowing it, you are teaching them to do it.

Next is to learn how to use leash pressure for guidance. It’s about having a leash that has tension, is taught, in the opposite direction your dog wants to go. I like to call it a leash communication dance. Once your dog takes a step in towards the tension rather than pulling away from it, you release the leash tension and reward with a verbal marker word like “good” and continue moving until the dog pulls again. The dog pulls, you go in the opposite direction with tension, dog gives into it towards you, “good”. Rinse and repeat!

Here are some notes on the tension. You aren’t supposed to really pull the dog. It’s an art to hold onto leash tension when your dog pulls without pulling your dog. If you pull the dog, it doesn’t teach the dog anything. You have to just hold tension and the dog makes the decision to walk to you and you loosen the leash as a reward. Also, you don’t want to hold the leash up in the air. There is no guidance in that. You want to guide the dog with the leash more horizontally, to the side. Think about guiding the head where you want him to go. I mention that because you don’t want to do pressure back down your dog’s spine either. There is no direction in that. It needs to be more horizontal and to the side of the dogs head or body. That’s direction they can follow, like a horse. They can’t follow direction up in the air or down the back of the spine. These turns, you are doing them as much as you need to to where your dog doesn’t get to take one step where they want to go by pulling.

Now let’s talk about leash tugs. This is a pop and release of the leash. It starts with slack and ends with slack. It’s a way to interrupt your dog focusing in the wrong direction or just to get their attention. It should be done AFTER your dog understand leash pressure. When your dog is easily moving in towards the leash pressure rather than away from it, then you can try a few tugs to help your dog be more aware of your body language. A tip when it comes to a leash tug is you can’t tug a leash that’s already tight. So if your dog is already pulling and you tug the leash when it’s tight, then you are just pulling your dog, not training. You have to bend a bit to create slack to give a tug and a verbal command like “let’s go” and end with slack and it can get your dogs attention where you can move in a different direction or get your dog to slow down with you.

Hopefully these tips give you the start on learning more about leash pressure, guidance and tug communication to start helping your dog bond with you on a walk by caring where you are at and where you want to go.

Bethany Wilson
Author: Bethany Wilson

Bethany Wilson, founder of Ruff Beginnings Rehab, has been helping dogs and owners achieve a better quality of life for well over a decade, by teaching dog training as a lifestyle. With years of experience teaching at rescues, on television, coaching online and at facilities; Bethany’s goal is to give owners the knowledge they need to better connect with their dogs and give them the confidence they need to achieve real world obedience. Bethany's YouTube videos have over 5 million views and have helped dog owners all over the world. She currently is the owner of Ruff Beginnings Rehab that works with dogs from all over, but mainly the west coast and master trainer at The Puppy Academy in Hermosa Beach.