How to Train a Rescue Dog to Walk on a Leash

How to teach a dog to walk on a leash

 

Let me start by congratulating you on adopting a rescue dog. They are, without a doubt, the best breed. Now that’s out of the way I imagine you’re here because you’re having some issues on your walks. Understandable. Your dog is in a new environment and it will take time for him or her to adapt.

Since we don’t often know much about a rescue’s background, we likely don’t know if you’re having leash walking issues because:

◊ Your dog was never taught to walk nicely on a leash

◊ Has never been taken for a walk

◊ Developed a fear of a leash and/or collar for unknown reasons

◊ Is afraid of being outside

Before we get started with the tips for leash walking, let’s take a quick look at each of the points mentioned above and see what we can do to help.

Never taught to walk nicely

This is so common, and something I don’t have to look far to see. There is hardly a time I’m out walking my dog Jack that I don’t see at least one person who has absolutely no control of their dog. They’re using a flexible leash, the dog is walking from side to side, and I’m expecting the owner to trip and fall flat on their face. Another common scene is a walker’s arm extended so far because of the pulling, I’m surprised they don’t have an arm yanked out of a socket. 

Never been out for a walk

Sadly there’s no shortage of dog parents who think putting their dog in the backyard is all the exercise they need, so it’s all they get. They may wear a collar so are already used to that, but put a leash on and take him outside and he’ll likely be all over the place because no one taught him what to do.

Afraid of the leash and/or collar

He may have come to you with that fear already in place, or he had a bad experience on one of his walks with you and is no scared to go near it/them. 

Afraid of being outside

Sadly this is a fairly common reaction when a dog has been keep inside, particularly puppy mill dogs confined to cages their entire lives. 

How to Teach a Dog to Walk on a Leash

Training in the house, garden or on the sidewalk

No matter what the reason for the walking issues you’re having, the good new is leash training can just as easily be done in your home or backyard as outside on the sidewalk. In fact, if your dog is anxious or traumatised from a history of abuse for example, starting off slowly in the house is the safest and kindest thing to do.

Dog walking gear

Collar 

Collars tend to be the standard flat collar with a buckle or a Martingale which is a slip type collar. When using a standard collar, you need to be able to insert 2 fingers comfortably between it and your dog’s neck. The Martingale just slips over your dogs head and tightens when the leash is pulled. It will be harder for your dog to slip out of this collar should he get startled while out on a walk.

Collars are available in nylon or leather. Some can be embroidered with your dog’s name and number, otherwise a tag with contact details is attached.

Collars also come in varying degrees of width depending on the size of your dog.

Tip: For safety, some people choose not to include their dog’s name on an embroidered collar or tag. They feel if they use their name the dog will respond and be easier to steal.  

Leash

Just like collars, harnesses are available in both nylon or leather,. They come in varying widths to suit all sized dogs, lengths to suit your comfort and patterns for the stylish! You can even get reflective for night time use. They are available in 4′ 5′ and 6′ lengths, and I prefer 4′. Flexi leashes can extend 26′ but they are not the right type of leash for training, and certainly not for a fearful rescue dog. 

You can read about why I think a flexi (retractable) leash is a bad idea here

Harness

Using a harness on a recently adopted rescue dog is a great idea, and could even be a lifesaver. It takes time to get to know your dog, especially when it comes to how he’ll react when confronted with cars, people, other dogs, noise etc… A nervous or scared dog can easily get out of their collar and take off, so using a harness gives you that extra layer of protection.

As with all dog supplies, harnesses come in different styles, widths and yes patterns. My preference is the step through style as I find them much easier to put on. You may have to try a few different styles and sizes to find the one most comfortable for your dog. Bring him with you to try them on in your local pet supply store. If he’s too nervous, buy a couple of styles and try them on in the comfort of your home. Make sure they’re returnable before you buy.

How to measure your dog for a harness

It’s as simple as wrapping a tape measure around the broadest part of your dog which is usually right behind the armpits. You want the tape measure to be snug but not tight. Remember that measurement and your dog’s weight and that will help you figure out which size harness to buy. If the number is in between 2 sizes, you should go for the bigger size as they are adjustable. They adjust in 2 or 3 places so you’ll have to fiddle with them a bit to get a good, comfortable fit. 

The “traffic light” system

Collars, harnesses and leashes are available with what is called the “traffic light system.” They are printed with messages such as “nervous” – “caution” – “do not pet” – “give me space.” Theoretically it’s a good way to give other walkers a heads up to give your dog distance if necessary. In my experience they don’t work because everyone ignores the bright yellow leash with the word “nervous” printed up and down both sides. At least that’s true in my case, but perhaps others have found it helpful I just wanted to let you know in case you want to give it a try.

A food motivated dog is a much easier one to train, so be sure to have lots of treats while you’re leash training. You don’t want your dog gaining weight so be mindful of the type of treat you’re feeding him. Many are nothing more than junk food so –  

Buy single ingredient treats

Make your own – there are tons of easy to make recipes on Pinterest, and at least you’ll know exactly what’s going in them

Use small pieces of boiled chicken, apple, carrot or green beans for example. 

Treat bag

The key to using treats as a training tool is about getting the timing right. When you’re rewarding your dog he needs to receive that reward immediately, not after 20 seconds of fumbling around for it. That’s why the treat bag is a great invention, and I feel like mine was permanently attached to me for years! Clip it onto your pocket or belt buckle and keep it open for easy access. 

Don’t forget the praise as well! Tell him “good boy” or “good girl” while giving him a treat. 

How long does it take a dog to get used to a collar?

If your dog is afraid of his collar or doesn’t like it for whatever reason, we’re going to have to tackle that before we can even talk about teaching him how to walk. There is no set time for how long it will take your dog to be comfortable, we need to let it take as long as it needs to take. It is important to follow the steps in order, and don’t move on until your dog is fine with the previous step. Rushing will set back the training. 

Before you start be sure to grab that treat bag.

Note: If your dog is wary of the harness, the following steps can be used, but please finish the collar training first.   

√ No need to call him over, just sit on the couch or floor and hold the collar loosely in your hand. He’ll come over out of sheer curiosity. Alternatively put it on the floor and watch him check it out. If he was calm give him a treat. Do this for a few seconds several times a day, or if he seems to be unfazed move on to the next step.

√ Drape it over his neck or place it on his back, take it right off and give him a treat. Again practice it several times until he’s comfortable.

√ If all has gone well you’re now ready to put the collar on and close it. Leave it for just a few seconds while giving him treats then take it off. As with every step, do this several times until he’s comfortable.

√ Now you’ll be leaving the collar on for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour and longer. Again doing it slowly and giving him treats.

√ By this point you should be able to leave the collar on with no issues. If he’s scratching at it or complaining distract him with a toy or a run around the garden. Once he’s forgotten about it, then you can take it off. 

√ You’ll want him wearing the collar for at least a few days with no issues before you start the actual leash training. If your dog has problems with the leash as well, the next section will guide you in dealing with that. 

Why do you do when your dog is scared of the leash?

I can’t tell you what you don’t do, and that’s clip it on his collar and try and drag him outside. That will scare him, which is cruel, and will not get you any closer to taking him for a walk.

√ As with the first step, either hold the leash in your hand or put it on the floor for him to sniff, then give him a treat. As in the collar training above, do this several times over the course of a day or more until he’s perfectly comfortable being around it. Only then should you move on to the next step.

√ Clip the leash onto his collar or harness, give him a treat then take it off. Practice that several times until he’s okay with it. 

√ Leave the leash on as he walks around the house with it for a few minutes, giving him treats periodically then take it off. Move to the next step when he’s comfortable. 

√ Holding onto the end of the leash, walk him around the house, giving him treats periodically. Do this over the course of a day, two or more until he’s ready to move outside.

√ Now that’s he’s comfortable with you “walking” him on a leash around the house, try a fenced in yard. If this is a little stressful for him, you may have gone out too soon, or it’s just a question of him getting used to being outdoors. Some treats will help, or how about playing some games outside? Does he like to chase a ball? Do that while holding onto the leash, as it’s a great distraction.

how to teach a dog to walk on a leash

Two methods of leash training

Now that your dog is comfortable wearing a collar, harness and leash it’s time to teach him to walk nicely. You can practice in the house, then the yard than outside in the world.

Before you get started…

√ Choose the side your dog will walk on, and make sure you stick to that side – no walking from side to side, constantly switching hands with the leash. Personally I always walk my dogs on the left, but decide what’s right for you.

√ The leash needs to be long enough so it’s a bit loose when she’s standing by you, but not loose enough for her to be able to get ahead of you. You’ll figure out what length works best in time.

√ Only use a regular leash, not a flexi leash.

Method one

With your dog standing by your side start walking. As soon as she pulls stop until the leash has some slack, then carry on. You must stop every single time for her to learn she won’t get anywhere unless she walks nicely. No need to say anything, no matter how tempting that will be. 

You do need a lot of patience for this method, because you could be stopping after each step. It’s possible it will take 5 minutes just to get to the bottom of the driveaway, but persistence and consistency will pay off. 

Method two

Again, with your dog standing by your side start walking. Every time she pulls, change direction.

  • Start walking
  • She pulls
  • Turn around and walk in the opposite direction
  • She pulls
  • Change direction again

No need to say anything, as your actions will do all the talking.

Start with one method and try it for a few days and see what happens. If it’s not going as well as you’d like try the other one. It will work if you, and everyone else who walks the dog are consistent every time.

I prefer method two because I’m less patient and this way we’re at least always on the move. One day I was hired by a woman to teach her 2 dogs to walk nicely on a leash and believe me, they were a nightmare. I walked them separately since training both at the same time wouldn’t have worked. Their first walk was on a Friday and by Sunday the progress was remarkable, the dogs’ owner couldn’t believe it. Of course she had to stick to the training, but walking them had become a pleasure. 

 

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Hindy Pearson
I am a dog trainer and behaviour consultant, specialising in working with first time dog owners. Whether you're thinking of getting a dog and aren't sure if it's the right time, or you've been sharing your life with one for awhile but there are issues you can't resolve, I am here for you. No matter where in the world you live I can help.

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