Leash Training - More Than Just a Walk

At least twice a day, you need to take your puppy for a short walk (about 15 minutes or a walk around a block for an 8 week old puppy) to get some mental and physical exercise.  You can’t expect a puppy to be calm in the house if they’ve not had enough exercise. As your puppy gets older, his exercise time needs to become longer.  At 3 months of age, walk for 20 minutes.  At 6 months of age, walk for 30 minutes.  If you add mental exercise to the physical exercise, your puppy will not only be ready for his/her nap, but will be learning to be more obedient, to bond closer to you, and to be more confident in new situations.  Physical exercise without mental exercise can become self-defeating.  It takes more physical exercise to wear a dog out if you don’t add mental exercise with it.   The more physical exercise a dog receives, the better shape he will be in which causes him to need even more physical exercise to be worn out.  It becomes a useless cycle.  Mental exercise is very important. 

For me, a walk with a puppy does not include walking only.  I add mental stimulation and very short training sessions to our walks as well.  Some of the training methods discussed in our section on leash walking involve knowledge of marker training.  I suggest starting to train your puppy to recognize a marker shortly after he comes home with you so that you can do all of the discussed training exercises on your walks very early in your puppy’s life.  Still you can start with many of these exercises without your puppy having had any marker training.

For walks, I put young puppies on a long leash or a flexi-leash and as we walk, I add short (10-15 second) training sessions along the way.  There are several things I like to teach while walking. 

Learning to look at me and give me his attention is the most important thing I can teach an 8 week old puppy.  Trainers call this engagement.  You want your puppy to think that paying attention to you is the most important, interesting, and fun thing he can do.  When he looks at you, mark the behavior as soon as he looks (use your clicker or say yes), praise him, and reward him with a treat.   I will mark and reward an 8 week old puppy every time he looks up at me on a walk.  The only exception to this would be a puppy that is on the clingy dependent side.  If a puppy is hanging too close to you, he needs to be encouraged to be more independent and confident and to move away from you.  Don’t reward looking at you if your goal is to get your puppy to be more confident away from you.  You can train engagement later after he’s developed more confidence.

Though engagement is the most important thing to teach any dog, the first thing that needs to be taught to a puppy that has never been on a leash is to keep the leash out of his mouth and to stay somewhat close to you.  Use the word no or say uh uh when your puppy grabs the leash in his mouth.  Say it in a matter of fact tone, but not in an angry or loud way.  Then distract your puppy with something else, a favorite toy or a treat.  Reward your puppy when he drops the leash.  On the first walk, you may have to repeat this many times.  If your puppy runs here and there pulling the leash, just let him experience the jerk when he runs out of leash.  Don’t punish him at this age.  The jerk that will naturally come to him when he gets to the end of the leash is enough and if he’s on a flexi, he’ll have a long line to play on.  Your goal at this point is certainly not perfect healing or even the same good mannered leash walking that you’ll want to teach at a little older age.  The purpose of the leash for now is to keep your puppy from running off from you, for safety, and as a tool to teach attention and recalls (coming when called).  If your puppy is shy and intimidated by the leash, just stand still and let him run here and there or just sit beside you.  Do this for several sessions.  Try and get him to follow you by luring him with a treat.  Don’t drag him along on the leash.  Make it fun.  If your puppy wants to just sit, let him do that.  He’ll eventually decide to move around.

While on your walk another thing to practice is luring your puppy around with food in order to get him used to following a piece of food and also use food luring to get your puppy used to unusual and maybe mildly stressful new things.  Hold a piece of food out in front of him and have him follow it.  Then reward him with the food.  Lure him in circles going both directions.  Lure him into a sitting position and into a down position.  Lure him around various obstacles and unusual items, through tight places, over various types of terrains.  Walk him close to large garbage cans, beside unusual vehicles, and around various types of people.  Exposing your puppy to a variety of things while he is young will teach him confidence in varying environments.  Use the food and luring to encourage your puppy if he seems a little timid of certain things.  Push him to tolerate as many different things as you can think of.  A little bit of stress is good for a puppy.  As long as your puppy is still eating your treats, you’ve not pushed too far.  However, if your puppy is so scared of something that he won’t eat, you need to back up from it.  Expose your puppy to these scary things from a distance and decrease your distance very slowly and over much time.  Never push too hard.  Training too slow is always better than over-stressing.  A puppy should never be pushed so hard that he won’t take a treat (unless of course, you know he’s not eating because he’s full and not because of fear). 

The third thing I teach a puppy on a leash walk is to come when called.  While walking, periodically call your puppy’s name, and give him a little tug with the leash.  As soon as he turns to come to you, mark the behavior.  As he runs towards you, back up from him.  Backing up from a dog causes their prey drive to kick in so that they are naturally encouraged to come faster to you.  Moving toward your dog will cause his instincts to tell him to turn away.  Reward with your treats and praise as soon as he gets to you.  Then resume your walk. 

A fourth skill that can be taught on walks is a command to drop an object that may be dangerous such as rocks.  I use the command drop but any word you choose can be used.  When your puppy picks up something he shouldn’t have, distract him with either a treat or another object.  As soon as he drops the object that you don’t want him to have, mark, praise, and reward.  Set up opportunities for him to practice this by walking by piles of rocks or putting out objects for him to pick up and then drop.  If you’re walking by places where there are too many bad objects which could overwhelm him, give your puppy a fun object to carry so that he is less likely to pick up the undesirable objects.  Puppies love to carry sticks around in their mouths.

A fifth skill to teach on leash is a retrieve.  Throw a ball or stick or favorite toy just a few feet.  When your puppy picks it up, encourage him to bring it back to you.  In the beginning, it’s not important that you take it from them.  In fact, I wouldn’t take it at all, but would just reward your puppy for coming to you with it.  Let him play with it for a few minutes with you.  Then distract him with a treat or another toy or stick.  Take it away.  Then either resume your walk or throw it once again.  Eventually as you do these short little games of fetch for several days or weeks, the reward will become another throw of the ball or toy.  Your puppy will quickly learn that it is more fun to give you the toy so that you can throw it again than to hang onto the toy for themselves.  After 3 or 4 throws and you’re ready to quit, swap the toy for praise and a piece of food and go on with your walk.  Once your dog is proficient at fetch and is consistently giving you the ball back, you can teach the wait command along with the game of fetch.  I’ll discuss this in more detail in a section on training the older puppy.  Remember that fetch at young ages should never be a puppy’s means of getting exercise.  These short lessons in fetch are only meant to teach your dog to bring an object to you, not to get exercise unless you are playing fetch in the water.  Long throws shouldn’t be a part of a puppy’s life.  Long throws will encourage your puppy to slide, jump, and twist in ways that do not support the proper development of their young joints.

A final skill that I will discuss here is obedience in the face of distractions.  Once your puppy has mastered some of the above skills in familiar locations, take him to places with greater distractions.  Give lots of reward, play time, and rewards mixed in with walking and intermittent training.  He’ll learn that new places don’t mean fearful circumstances.  He’ll begin to realize that new places mean fun things with you!

Don’t teach all of these skills on the first day.  Gradually add one or two new skills per day or per week depending on how your puppy is progressing.