Pug pulling on a leash

Many dog owners are either embarrassed or apprehensive about walking their dogs around the neighborhood — especially if their pets are prone to bark, growl or snap at a stranger or another dog.

The result: These dogs rarely get enough exercise, suffering such consequences as poor health and even behavioral issues.

Truth is, every dog has the potential to succeed at controlled leash walking. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching a pup to walk properly on a leash, there are some tips that can make your walking routine more enjoyable.

Calm Owner = Calm Dog

If you’re nervous or upset, your dog will sense this and become anxious himself, losing the ability to focus and maintain attention. In general, canines will not follow a person who they feel isn't in control of individual emotions.

Plus, if you’re not in control, you are more likely to snap or punish your dog if he doesn’t respond properly. He will then become fearful and even more resistant to future training.

Consider Clicker Training

Clicker training goes something like this: You give your dog a command, and when he follows it, you click the device and offer praise or a treat. The idea is that your dog associates the distinct sound with positive reinforcement and a reward. Ultimately, the goal is to gradually reduce food rewards and rely primarily on the clicker and praise.

I recommend that you start your training by using a short leash, a head halter and a clicker device. Take your dog to a quiet part of the yard or an area of your house with minimal distractions and have him sit on your left side. Put the halter and the leash on while giving your dog a treat.

With the leash in your right hand, place a treat in your left hand and extend it out in front of you in order to gently coax your dog to take a few steps. If you want to use a command, such as “heel,” say it calmly as you offer the treat. Do not repeat the command or say it louder — these tactics will not inspire your pet to respond any faster. 

As you begin to walk, use a slack leash as you guide your dog forward, keeping his head just behind your knee. Take one to two steps and see if your pup follows. If he doesn’t, try to lure him with a treat. Once you've taken a few steps with your dog close by your side, stop, click, praise and give him a treat. If you repeat this process often, you’ll be on the road to controlled leash walking.

Handling Pups Who Like to Pull

If your dog lunges or doesn’t stop when you do, don’t yank him back. Most dogs will respond to this by pulling even harder. It’s better to walk a few steps in the correct position than force a long walk before your pet is ready. In fact, most dogs require two to five very short walking training sessions before you can take them on a longer jaunt around the block.

As your dog gets better at walking by your side, take a few more steps. You might find that holding a treat at thigh level will help him maintain the correct position. If he pulls on the leash, pause and wait until he stops. And avoid sharp commands like “No!” “Stop!” and “Bad!” These will only confuse your dog and may make him fearful of training. Let your body do the talking instead. Because dogs communicate primarily through body language, they'll respond to your every movement, however subtle it may seem to you.

A head halter can also help to control a dog who surges or tugs. If your dog pulls ahead of you, it will redirect his head so that it's turned toward you.

Once you get to a point where your dog stops pulling, click, praise and reward him. You should always reward a stop or a sit, even if this isn't exactly the objective of a walk. Until your dog learns that he will not be rewarded for pulling, you won’t be able to proceed with controlled leash walking. 

Dealing With Dogs Who Refuse to Budge

When a dog “puts on the brakes,” most people make the mistake of dragging the dog along. Even though it may seem like the right thing to do, it never works.

A canine’s body is designed to resist being pulled forward. Just think of a wolf who grips prey with his teeth. The front and rear legs extend forward, digging into the ground, while the back and neck muscles tense.

Instead, use your intellect — and a treat — to try and coax him forward. Another option is to gently nudge your dog from the rear. In other words, push him forward. Once your dog resumes walking, reward and praise him.

It's imperative that your dog enjoy walking on a leash‚ or you will always have challenges. Of course, every dog is unique, so if you take these basic concepts, as well as talk to your veterinarian about the best approach for your dog, you'll both get your walk on in no time.

In his next post, Dr. Ernie Ward will discuss how far — and how fast — you should walk with your dog.