dog on leash

 Leash training primer

This is Part 4 of our 10-part series of conversations with professional dog trainer and behaviorist, Russell Hartstein. 

Drag – I mean walk – with me

One of the most common dog walking scenes is a pet parent being pulled down the street at the end of a taut leash by an eager canine companion. Occasionally the person will have attempted to do something right by using a front-attaching harness (more on that later) but without linking that tool with training for the dog – or the pet parent.  Your pup will not naturally walk calmly by your side unless you do something to positively engage his attention and give him an incentive to synch up with you.  Unless you let him know, your dog will have no idea what you want or that pulling isn’t a game.  He will just know it works to get where he wants to go.

Tools vs Teaching

Tools should facilitate teaching, not substitute for it. As a society, we tend to rely on tools to get things done but they should be used correctly.  Imagine if you bought a hammer and just threw it across the room at a box of nails. You wouldn’t exactly be a skilled carpenter. However, if someone taught you the correct angle, force, proximity, stroke, speed, and grip to use with the hammer, your productivity and skill would skyrocket because you would have learned how to use that tool correctly.  By the same token, you must learn to use a leash and harness correctly and, by doing so, you will teach your canine companion what you want to have happen and how to properly interact with you.

Leash and Harness Types

dog harness

Leashes come in two basic types: standard and retractable.  We recommend that you always use a standard style leash, especially when training.  While retractable leashes may seem to be more convenient because they allow your pooch a wider area to roam while on leash, they are more difficult to control, become easily tangled around your pooch and anything between you and your pooch and make it impossible to effectively establish the communication and contact with your pooch which is necessary for effective training.

Before you choose a harness, determine what the issue is that you need and want to address.  Each harness type is designed to address a different issue.  Specifically:

  • Front-attaching harness – used to reduce pulling, gives you control over the direction your pup is going and allows you to redirect your pup to face you for training purposes.
  • Snoot loop – used to control your pup’s head. This is NOT a muzzle – it just gives you more control over where your pup’s head is and remember, where the head goes the body follows.
  • Back-clip harness – comfortable for your pooch and easy on the neck, especially if the harness is made from a nice padded or soft webbed material, but this type of harness won’t do anything to control pulling.

Note that the collar should be used only to attach tags to unless your pup is already very well trained and stays by your side in which case you may also attach the leash to the collar.  Never use a choke chain, shock collar or pronged collar.  These are not only inhumane and designed specifically to cause pain and discomfort but using them can actually exacerbate any training issues you may be having and will cause your dog to view training as a very unpleasant experience.  You want to provide positive incentives and reinforcement as part of the training process, not pain and discomfort.

The Process

  • Start the leash training process inside your home with minimal distractions. If you have multiple animals, find a quiet room where just you and your pooch can work.
  • Attach the harness and leash and position your pup in a sitting position next to you (most trainers favor the left side since most people are right-handed). Do NOT push down on your pup’s hips to make him sit.  Use a treat and move it slowly back just over his head so that as he looks up to follow the treat, he naturally sits down.
  • Praise the ‘sit’ and reward with a treat and you are ready to start the leash training.
  • Loop the leash loosely in your left hand, put a treat in your right hand, say your pup’s name and give him a treat when he looks at you. Now you have his attention.
  • Put another treat in your right hand, slowly take a step or two forward, and, as your pup follows you, stop, have your pup sit and give your pup a treat with praise. Make sure you stand up straight and initially walk straight ahead.  You can get fancy with turns later in the process.
  • Repeat this process, slowly increasing the number of steps you take between treats. What you are trying to do is have your pup walk next to you and pay attention to what you want.
  • Use food and praise as positive reinforcement and keep a treat bag on your body so that your dog stays focused on you.
  • Be patient and remember not to start walking long distances all at once.
  • After you’ve done the initial training inside and your pup is walking, stopping and sitting, move out to your driveway and then, eventually, to the sidewalk.

dog treats

Remember that the treats are also tools and should be used wisely.  How your pooch ‘performs’ should be reflected in the treats you provide.  In other words, if he does exactly what you want him to, give him a higher value treat – something he particularly likes.  If he slacks off, does a sloppy sit or fails to stop when you do, give him a pat on the head and go back to where he veered off the ‘path’. Start again, with the treat in hand and, when he executes that perfect sit, immediately reward him with the treat.  As you increase the difficulty and complexity of the tasks you are asking him to do, increase the value of the treats.   Link what you are asking for with the reward for performing and increase the criteria each time you make a request after a successful performance.

Time spent walking with your pup should be bonding time.  There is nothing more rewarding than having your beloved companion checking in with you and communicating rather than yanking you down the street and going ballistic.  Remember to provide positive rewards and make the experience something you both want to repeat every day.

Bottom Line

Training is a life-long activity and should be fun and rewarding.  Work on the fundamentals and your relationship with your canine companion will be golden.  Training should be a way to bond with your pup by building a stronger relationship through communication and is just as much about teaching you, as a pet parent, how to understand what your dog is saying as it is about teaching him how to ‘behave’.


About Russell: Russell is an entrepreneur and a financier who traded in his Wall Street life for furry paws, wagging tails and licks. He engages in his passion for dog training, ethology, cognitive ethology and pet care and finds an abundance of satisfaction and fulfillment helping families and their animal companions. Russell is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC, Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) is certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), is a member of the Pet Professionals Guild (PPG), the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals (AABP),  and was awarded a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and STAR Puppy Evaluator by the American Kennel Club (AKC).


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