Dog leashes are an essential tool for all dog owners

Dog leashes are the most common tools used by dog owners. Learning how to introduce them and how to use them correctly will make life easier and happier for you and your dog!

Dog obedience training or any normal everyday activity with your dog would be impossible without this tool, especially because they are required by law in most places. A leash is one of the most used (and abused) tools in the history of the dog/human relationship.

The purpose of the dog leash has evolved through history however, even today just like a thousand years ago its primary job is to keep our dog within a given proximity to us, dis-enabling the animal from running away or performing some damaging/dangerous action to himself or to the environment.

A dog leash is one of the first tools that most dog owners encounter during their interactions with their dog. For many, from that point on, this tool becomes a life-time nightmare and a constant reminder of unpleasant walks while being pulled all over the place. But there is another side to that coin. The dog on the other end of the leash has his side of the story as well.

Before we get into the most common mistakes made with dog leashes and the actual training steps for introducing and using them properly, we will teach our dog the most important step. I call this the finishing step. Many dog owners skip this part and if they combine that with the wrong dog leash introduction in the first place; it is a recipe for failure.

Training the finishing step

Think of it this way, if you were young and at a really good party having fun and suddenly out of nowhere your parents appear, put you on a leash and drag you away; how would you feel? Even we humans wouldn’t tolerate that, so why would we expect our dogs to be okay with that action? The truth is that our dog will end up being as far away from okay as possible. They see the world differently and there is no reason for them to understand our actions and reasons.

If you perform this a few times in a row (dogs figure things out rather fast) your dog will connect you trying to reach them and put them on a dog leash as something unpleasant, and then you are in trouble. You will end up with a dog that is hard to catch, and the more you practice this unwanted behavior, the harder it will become to “catch” your dog. One of the worse scenarios is a dog that is aware of his ability to escape.

To avoid all of this you have to train your dog systematically, and this starts before ever even taking out the dog leash. As soon as your dog is introduced and wearing a dog collar (you can find information in the dog collar section about how to properly introduce this tool and about the different types available) you can teach him the “finish”. This is done like any other training step. The best way to start with a young dog is in a low stress and familiar environment (also where the dog can’t run away, like the garage or hallway, etc...) and then simply call your dog to you (if your dog doesn’t know the “come” command use any noise, sound or whatever you can to get your dog’s attention) as soon as your dog comes give him a treat (but hold onto it for a few seconds) while you are touching and holding his collar with your other hand. If your dog is nervous make it more of just a touch in the beginning instead of actually holding the collar. Then release the treat and let him go back or continue playing with him.

This step may be easier if you use clicker training or marker training, as this will speed up the process because you can reward different stages along the way. For example, when your dog responds to his name, when he turns towards you, running back to you, etc.

Once you have progressed in the training and your dog shows fluency it is time to take the next step and start practicing this in the different environments. You can learn more about how to progress through the different DOG TRAINING PHASES on this page. Since it is normal, that when you raise the criteria in your training (in this case changing environments) you may expect that your dog won’t perform as good as he does at home, for example, so I would suggest that you (if necessary) use a long lead in case there is a possibility for your dog to bolt away.

This is simply to give you control of the situation; it is not to apply any corrections or such.

You can also train your dog the “front” command for example, and practice this action while you hold his collar and reward him. In the future you can simply link the commands “come” and “front” into one action.

It is important that you release your dog back to whatever he was doing before you called him, in the first levels of training. You don’t want him to start associating the action of coming when called to the end of the positive fun.

Your final challenge should be a dog playing with another dog. If the previous steps were done properly, you will reach this stage, in the beginning let your dog play, let them burn off some energy and wait until they are calmer and a little more settled down. If you attempt to practice this step within the first few minutes of meeting each other, your dog will probably ignore you, so instead of setting him up for failure, first wait, and once you see that they are settling down call your dog. Remember that this is a training stage; you want to set your dog up for success in every controlled scenario.

Your goal is to get your dog, reward him while holding his collar and then release him back to play. Repeat this step for several days and repetitions.

It may sound like a long and complicated procedure, but if you go too fast through the steps, you may end up with a dog that will completely disobey when you call him back or that may stay at a “just out of reach” distance in order to not be captured. Once you have this step established you can go forward with the actual dog leash work.

TIP: Although it sounds like a simple action (get your dog, put him on the dog leash) remember that you are actually dealing with an animal that you are trying to restrain. No animal will naturally give in easily so you need to “convince” them.

The most common mistake

One of the first mistakes that people make starts before we even put a leash on our dog. Most dog owners tend to forget, or they are not aware of the fact that our dog doesn’t know why he needs to be next to us. For some reason most of us expect that as soon as we put a leash on our dog, he will “clue in” to what the purpose is of it, and that they can move right along to dog obedience training.

First of all, most dogs naturally feel uncomfortable in our close proximity. They are aware of personal space, there own, that is, as this is a very important part in a dog’s world, just as it is in ours. So being on a leash interferes with their perception of what is and isn’t acceptable as far as personal space is concerned.

The second thing is that it is completely unnatural for a dog to walk at our pace, following us at a certain distance.

Third, there is no reason for a dog to walk on one specific side of us. As mentioned above, for some reason most of us simply expect our dog to figure out this huge dilemma of where to place himself, mostly on his own. And normally, of course, if he is not fast enough in figuring this out most dog owners tend to “help” their dog by using that same leash in such a manner that the dog ends up associating the tool as something potentially unpleasant.

Leash Signals

One of the ways to use a dog leash is to give “signals” to our dog. There are 2 ways to do this; although they look similar there is actually a big difference between them. Many dog trainers base their training program on a heavy use of leash signals, which is often later replaced by the E-collar.

The principle of this type of training is that almost every command is followed by a leash signal. Normally, a small ‘pop’ on the dog leash like: you give the “sit” command followed by popping the leash, or the “heel” command, followed by a leash pop, or “look (watch)”, followed by a leash pop, etc...

The more that you use the signals from the dog leash, the more your dog becomes reliant on them. This is a nightmare in most cases when you try to work off leash (and without an E-collar). The reason for that is that your dog simply waits for that leash pop in order to perform the action. If that part of the “command” is missing (leash popping) it is more likely that he will disobey (not to be bad, but because he has associated the command with the pop itself). The other reason that your dog will ‘disobey’ your command is that he is now disengaged or “minding his own business” walking along, as he simply waits for the dog leash pop before he bothers to pay attention to you.

Not to mention that this is unpleasant for your dog and teaches him that performing commands is an unpleasant action. The more you practice this type of training, the more your dog will tend to be disobedient and you will end up increasing the strength of the pops in order for your dog to perform the wanted action. He can also quickly become desensitized to the popping itself.

There is a big difference if you are, for example, performing the “sit” command followed by a leash pop or if you are performing it without.

The other way of training leash signals is without the immediate ‘pop’. For example, if you give your dog the command and he ‘disobeys’, you can then use the “no” command followed by a leash pop and repeat the performance. This way your dog has a chance to learn that by performing the action he will avoid the unpleasant consequence. This is an example of escape-avoidance training. There are better ways to train your dog, but if you prefer this way, then at least try to do it right.

TIP: Always remember that any of the tools that you use in dog obedience training or in your everyday life with your dog are to help you at certain stages to reach certain goals. If you end up relying only on dog leashes or dog collars, etc. in order for your dog to perform some actions, etc, then you have communication issues with your dog and you had better work on that instead of relying on the different tools.

Tense leash effects

There are so many disadvantages (and dangerous possibilities) when walking a dog on a tense leash. A dog leash can serve one of two masters as we say. You may use it to control your dog, or you can use it to aggravate your dog. This is known in protection sports or military/police work; unfortunately it is common in the normal companion pet’s life as well. If you are creating these tense leash situations, you are actually aggravating your dog. One of the results can be so called leash aggression. You can find out more about this and other dog behavior problems in the dog behavior problems part of the website.

When and how to introduce the dog leash

Before we introduce a dog leash, we need to show our dog that being next to us is a pleasant experience. The best place to start is in our back yard or any other place without distractions; we can start without a leash, just for him to become comfortable next to us. Once you are in the controlled environment, you can then lure your dog to the side of your body where you plan for him to be while walking. Then you can make a few steps with your dog just so that he gets as comfortable as possible, at walking beside you (this is best described in detail in the pre-heeling part of the website).

A dog leash can be introduced to your dog at a young age; I would advise that in the beginning you use something like a 15,20 or 30ft light cotton dog training leash (especially if you are dealing with a puppy or small young dog). Make your dog wear it, but DO NOT USE IT for any type of correction or to apply prolonged pressure. The purpose of this long leash is just to keep the dog from successfully bolting away; your goal is to keep your puppy engaged, so that he doesn’t want to bolt away. Do not allow him to bite the leash and if he does you can, for example, spray the leash with bitter apple, etc.

If you are dealing with a young puppy you can also use a flexi-leash this way you have control over your dog without applying too much pressure. If at anytime, the leash gets tight, simply engage your puppy (call him back to you). If you have problems getting your dog to actively participate with you, or keeping his attention, check out the building relationship part of the website.

With an adult dog we can move faster from a long lead to a shorter dog leash. But at that point we need to introduce a very important step. Many dog trainers call this, training your dog for “leash pressure”. This is technically the first training step with the dog leash and I will explain below how the leash pressure is correctly introduced to your dog.

Opposition Reflex

When using a dog leash in dog obedience training or any other dog training (or everyday situations) we will notice that our dog always tends to pull to the opposite side of where we are pulling our leash from. This is call opposition reflex and it is common for all animals including humans. The beauty of this “reflex” is that the more pressure you apply, the stronger the reflex gets.

If you continue practicing walking your dog in this scenario (pulling on the leash is one of the biggest problems for any dog owner), your dog will start practicing something called “learned helplessness”, which means after “x” number of repetitions of the same action (going outside for a walk, with him pulling on the leash, and you pulling the opposite way) your dog will consider those unpleasant feelings that he gets by pulling as something normal and part of the walking activity. From this point he will pull no matter what and no matter how much pressure you add. The more pressure you add will eventually get your dog more and more immune to that action.

In order to avoid opposition reflex we train our dog to leash pressure.

Leash pressure

Before training this step I would recommend that your dog is at least a few months old, he is comfortable with you and you already have started building a successful relationship. It is also useful that he already knows the basic obedience skills of sit, down, etc. They don’t have to be perfect, but just enough so that your dog has reached the point where he knows what it means to be working and learning with you. Your dog should also have been properly introduced to the leash.

To teach your dog the leash pressure, you need to do it separately from any dog obedience training exercises, and preferably in another location. You will use a short thin cotton dog leash and basically guide your dog. There should be no commands, no body language that your dog will follow and you will not pull the leash in an upward motion. The leash should be aligned with your dog’s neck and spine and in the beginning you will pull him in straight lines.

Your goal is to create a gentle pulling sensation (a tension, not a jerking) until your dog starts resisting. At that moment, hold the pressure and slightly increase if necessary until your dog moves in the direction of the leash. This is a very slight pressure and often the best way to gauge this is to hold the leash with only 2 fingers, for example. As soon as he moves towards the leash, release the pressure (drop the leash if you prefer) and you can give him a treat (never a toy or another object) because food has a calming, relaxing effect, so we want to use that to our benefit here.

Depending on your dog’s reaction you can repeat this action a few times, and in a few separate sessions. Your goal is for your dog to start moving with the pressure instead of fighting against it. This is the way to train your dog to avoid the opposition reflex and follow the dog leash.

Once we have this established we can discuss on the Dog training corrections page about how to use the leash as a correction tool.

TIP: If your dog hasn’t passed any of the previous steps or he is uncomfortable or nervous by being on the leash itself, work first on that issue. Presenting this tool to your dog in an unpleasant way, before your dog is even comfortable with it, is a big mistake.

Also keep in mind that if you are dealing with an older dog, and that you are not sure of his temperament, you may expect a reaction and perhaps a fighting back. So if ever you are not sure the best thing to do is to search for professional help.

Leash pressure is the part of the Operant conditioning quadrant called negative reinforcement. Many people (including dog trainers) mistakenly mark this quadrant as a “correction” part of dog training. This is actually wrong. Correction is part of the positive punishment quadrant.

One of the questions that is often asked is; do we actually need leash pressure in our dog training?

The answer is simply, yes. Both negative reinforcement and positive punishment are part of an animal’s way of learning in the world around us. It is not a question of would you end up using leash pressure or not, it is rather a question of when and how (there are thousands of everyday situations where we end up applying some type of leash pressure). Teaching your dog what leash pressure is and how to turn off this unpleasant feeling is your goal, regardless of how you end up using the leash in your training later on.

This will train your dog to avoid opposition reflex, turn off the unpleasant sensation, as well as how to deal with the stress produced by this or similar actions.

At the end this is just “yet another way” of using leash that if introduced properly helps in our everyday communication with our dog.

Using corrections with a leash is a different subject and I won’t mention it here, but you can explore more about proper corrections and how and when to apply them on the dog training corrections page.

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