A Guide to Calm Walking on Leash

We all know we need to take our dogs out for walks outside of the home for so many reasons. They need exercise as much as we do. They also need mental stimulation to keep their mind healthy. And did you know that many “bad” behaviors our dogs do can be “trained” by simply getting them out on a walk three times a week?

It’s just so hard sometimes to want to take your pooch for a walk when he or she drags you by the end of the leash, jumps on people walking by, and barks at every other dog you meet along your path!

Training your dog to walk calmly on a leash takes LOTS of practice, but the concepts aren’t difficult to understand.

Now, you can start this introduction to leash training with puppies as young as 8 weeks all the way up to adult dogs.

So, no matter what age and training stage your pup is at, start now with these detailed tips, and practice just a little bit every day. Even a 5 minute walk to the end of the block and back is a great way to get started with your practice and habits.

In fact, the beginner training sessions should last only 5-10 minutes at a time. And every training session should end with some fun romping and playtime to keep it fun after doing the work.

Phase 1: Encourage your dog to want to be near you, even without a leash.

Start in a safe, fenced-in area that has no other distractions like other dogs, people and toys.

Use a handful of super tasty treats in a closed fist hanging by your side.

Now, just ignore your pup and wander around your space casually with that treat hand down at your side.

If your dog approaches your closed hand to sniff at the treats, open it for her to nibble one or two. Then close it again and keep walking. No need to say anything or do anything differently. Just keep walking along.

If your dog roams off again, don’t worry. If he or she likes those treats enough, she’ll come back to sniff again. When she does, casually release another treat or two.

The goal of Phase 1 is to simply let your dog find out that when she stays close to you, treats pop out of your hand.  It’s also a chance for you to see what areas of your yard are the most distracting to your pooch, and what types of treats are tempting enough for him to check in with you from time to time for more.

Phase 2: Introduce the leash.

Going back to your safe, fenced-in area with no distractions, attach the leash to your dog’s collar. 

For this time, just let it drag on the ground behind your dog.  She’ll investigate it and possibly even try to chew on it or pick it up and run around with it in her mouth.   Just ignore her, and walk around with that handful of tasty treats again.   

This time, you can call your pup’s name over to you every so often. If she is so distracted by the leash that she won’t walk with you more than a step or two, try giving her a treat or two while you’re walking to take her mind off the leash and back onto following her human. 

After a few sessions of Phase 2, your dog should be able to walk around the yard with you with the leash dragging behind her. She should ignore the leash completely, come to your side when you call her, and walk with you at least 5 steps before wandering off again.

Phase 3: Start holding the leash to restrict your dog’s range of motion.

Back in your safe, low-distraction training space, it’s time to restrict your pup’s movement. Loop the leash around your wrist.

With your handful of treats (or use a treat pouch that clips to your waist), walk around your yard, giving a treat to your dog while you’re walking every few steps. No need to be chatty or praise too much.  And give the treat from down at your side while you’re walking. Try not to stop and face the dog and make her sit for a treat as you would in other scenarios. Just keep moving and be nonchalant.

The idea is to convey ‘being right here next to mama when she’s walking means I get treats!’

Now, if he tries to wander away, just stop walking until you get enough slack in the line to keep moving.

Over time, slow down the rewards to every 10 steps, then every 20, and so on. Some people like to add the verbal cue “heel” to teach the dog to slow down or walk calmly on cue (if for example, they get distracted or excited).

By the end of Phase 3, your dog should be ignoring the leash and walking near you, with less and less running to the end of the leash or wandering away.

Phase 4: Practice calling your dog back to you – “Recall”

To prepare your dog for those pending distractions outside your training space, it’s important that your dog knows “come” or “here” very well.

“Recall” is the official training term for “come back to me when I call.”

I find it MUCH easier to walk a dog who will immediately look up at me when I say his name.

This way, if I see a major distraction coming up, like another dog or a squirrel, I can use the cue to get him to look up at me first and redirect our attention somewhere else, such as crossing the street or turning the other way.  Sometimes, by saying his name and him looking up at me, it immediately relaxes and reassures the dog that “even though there’s something else going on up there, we’re still walking together, nice and calm, buddy!”

Phase 5: “About face!”

The ‘about face’ is when you abruptly change directions. Trainers use this as a strategy for teaching a dog to pay attention to where his handler is going at all times.

Use a few treats to get your dog walking quickly with you in one direction. Then, suddenly and without any warning, change directions and start walking the other way. Do not call him; do not try to attract his attention. You are not training him to come to you at this point; you are training him to realize that you are unpredictable and that he needs to keep an eye on you.

After a few tries, I like to add a subtle cue of saying “heel” or “hup” just before I make my turn.  This way, the dog starts to associate that little vocal cue with looking up for direction from mama.

This is just a training technique to use during training sessions, not something to try out for the first time on a family walk – it will drive everyone crazy that you’re not making any progress on your walk, even though it makes progress in your training.

Phase 6: Steadily practice in more and more advanced scenarios.

This final phase of calm walks is an ongoing process for the rest of your days! It’s never perfect, but it will get better each time.

So, here we go. Adding distractions is the final phase of any training. You’ll need to practice your walking techniques in various locations, gradually building to more and more tempting and distracted situations. Start from walks around your own neighborhood and then into parks where there are other people and dogs.

Every time you take your dog out, there will be hundreds of smells, sights, and sounds that we can’t even see that your dog will revel in after being cooped up all day indoors.

Bring a handful of treats (or a squeaky toy or tug toy) to reward and motivate your dog to keep one eye on you at all times.  You can phase out the need for rewards gradually over the months/years.

You might notice that your dog cares less and less about your treats when you’re in new environments. Squeaky toys or waving a tug-of-rope toy might do the trick to get his attention. My German Shepherd is not food-motivated, ever.  So for our walking training, I would have to get animated. If I wanted to get his attention, sometimes I would use a high pitched voice and clap and start jogging backwards, calling him to chase me. Chase is a big play game for him, so it gives him the same boost of adrenaline and fun that other dogs get from a snack.

Get creative and start small.  You might also discover that it takes 10-20 minutes of getting used to all the smells outside for your dog to finally start paying attention to you.  So perhaps a loose, long leash playtime in the front yard for a few minutes before you set out on your short-leash walk might be enough to get that sniffing out of his system.

Troubleshooting Your Training

What if my dog keeps jumping on me instead of walking?

In general, apply the same concepts of positive reinforcement by A) ignoring your dog when he jumps on you, and stop the walk.  B) When he drops down on all fours, resume your walk.  

How do I stop my dog from marking his territory every few steps?

Adolescent male dogs naturally want to mark their territory frequently.  Once your dog has done his business the first or second time to relief himself, interrupt the future markings by using the ‘About Face Walk” the minute you see your dog start to life his leg is one way to curb the habit. 

How can I prevent my dog from spending so long sniffing things on the street or other dogs when we’re supposed to be walking?

Training your dog to “Leave it” to interrupt a distraction like a food item on the ground or another dog walking by is a great tool for advanced leash-walking.  Again, the “about face” technique can help, or adding a cue to “leave it” as you approach a distraction while calling your dog’s attention to you and rewarding a look with a treat. 

Speed up your pace and say, “Leave it.” 

Once you get beyond the temptation, you can praise and reward your pooch even further with something that will be more exciting than garbage.

What’s the best leash/harness that you recommend for having good control of my dog without hurting him/her?

I genuinely adore the EasyWalk harness system. The leash attaches between the dog’s front shoulders, under their neck. There is a little bit of a cinching effect with the harness so that as you pull the leash even a tiny amount, it turns the dogs shoulders in that direction.  It does not hurt the dog, and it works with giant dogs down to chihuahas.  They do take some getting used to putting on and taking off, but once you’ve got the knack for it, it’s the only way I feel in control of my big German Shepherd, who can drag me face-first down a sidewalk if there was an aggressive confrontation with another dog.

Healthy Habits Start at Breakfasttime!

Great pet owners want the best for their dog’s body, mind, and behavior.  3 walks a week and 30 minutes of playtime per day are great for healthy bodies and minds.  Positive training methods are great for their behavior and bond with you.  And all-natural meals with whole meats and well-rounded ingredient combinations are great for their bodies. That’s why we crafted CRIUS with nature’s best ingredients and a certified nutritionist to ensure the highest quality pet nutrition. Your pet gets everything they need in every single bite of CRIUS. Like having the highest quality meat in our pet food or boosting our dry kibble with slow-cooked, air-dried, real meat, poultry, or fish.  Check out our line of natural foods at www.criuspets.com.

Liz London is a certified dog trainer through the Certifying Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) & the Karen Pryor Academy (Dog Trainer Foundations Certification) with regular continuing education courses from the top animal trainers from all over the world. She has trained zoo animals, search & rescue canines, gundogs, and helped people raise happy, healthy, and well-behaved canine companions for over twelve years.