A Step by Step Guide to Leash Training your Dog
Mirko Sajkov on Unsplash

henever a dog trainer gets asked the classic question "How do I stop my dog from pulling", it seems that people expect a simple straightforward answer, as if there was a secret trick only known to professionals. If I get asked that question at a barbecue or a party when I don't feel in a didactic mood, my usual laconic answer is "Stop pulling back". Don't worry if you don't get the joke, you hopefully will after reading this guide.

The truth is, it's almost that simple. As with many other things, there's a proven method that works, and some simple rules that can make your life easier and the walk more fun.

What makes a dog pull?

Let’s start with the not-so-obvious question about what motivates a dog to pull, or what causes him to pull. After all, walking on a leash is not natural for a dog. He has no idea what you expect of him, or why he can’t wander around freely and explore his surroundings. Once you understand why he pulls, then we can look at what you can do about it.

What motivates pulling?


Before you leave the house, if your dog jumps up and down, barks as soon as he sees you grab the leash, and bolts out ahead of you when you open the door, you’ve lost the battle before it started. Your dog is over-excited, and you just rewarded his excitement by opening the door. Most likely the excitement will remain throughout the walk and translate into pulling. A dog should be taught that only calm behaviors are rewarded by going out.


Walking outside is fun because it offers plenty of distractions and stimulations. Other dogs, friendly strangers, exciting smells, cars, bikes, kids running, squirrels to chase. Your dog wants to focus on all of these things at once and pull in all directions. It goes with the previous point about excitement. If you want to teach a dog to walk calmly and with focus, you must start by finding a training environment that’s low in distractions and stimuli.

What makes pulling worse?

Using a harness

I can’t stress this often enough. Back-clip harnesses are designed for pulling. Think sled dogs! If you put a harness on a dog who is not leash-trained, the harness will just make things worse, and no amount of training will solve it. These harnesses should only be used with toy breeds, or with flat-faced breeds like Bulldogs who have breathing difficulties. 

Back clip harnesses are designed to make dogs pull - Dog Learner
Back clip harnesses are designed to make dogs pull

I also discourage people from using front-clip harnesses because they interfere with a dog’s natural gait and can cause joint problems and chronic inflammation.

Using a retractable leash

This is an accessory that should be banned. It’s potentially dangerous—it can easily snap and cause injuries to dogs and humans alike—and it encourages the dog to pull. A dog on the other end of a retractable leash quickly learns that pulling on the leash gets him where he wants to go, and pulling becomes rewarding. A lost battle.

Retractable leashes encourage a dog to pull and can cause injuries - Dog Learner
Retractable leashes encourage a dog to pull and can cause injuries


Yes, you, the handler on the other end of the leash. Coming back to the previous joke, the more you put tension on the leash and try to resist your dog by pulling, the stronger the dog will pull in the opposite direction. It’s called the dog opposition reflex. Think tug of war. Who do you think wins? You don't win the leash-pulling contest by force; you win by keeping the leash loose.

When to leash-train a dog?

You can start leash-training a puppy in public places once he has had all his vaccinations at around 16 weeks. Until then, you can start to get your pup used to wearing a collar at home, and use the leash indoors or in the garden, teaching leash pressure gently and playfully.

With an adult dog adopted from a shelter, you either have the pulling problem or you don’t. If a dog is used to pulling on the leash, you need to get him to unlearn the behavior and start leash training as soon as he settles in your home and is comfortable with you.

Dog accessories to use

  • The best collar to use for walking your dog is the simple martingale collar with a 6 foot leash. With a martingale, your dog will learn leash pressure more easily, won’t choke himself if he pulls, and won’t back out of his collar and escape. A martingale must be properly sized and fitted at the top of the dog’s neck.
  • The other type of leash I recommend is the slip leash. It forms a loop and fits around the top of the dog’s neck without the need for a collar. You can see them in use at dog shows because they allow handlers to control the dog with precision and little effort.
  • Take a 30 foot long line with you to let the dog free to roam safely and explore as a reward during the short breaks in between walking sessions.
  • Take your dog’s favorite treats with you in a bait bag to use for training rewards.‍‍

What you should never use for leash training

Don’t use choke chains, e-collars, retractable leashes, head-halters, or harnesses.

A prong collar may be necessary in specific problematic cases, but only if prescribed by a qualified trainer and after receiving instructions on how to use it safely and effectively.

The right way to hold a leash

Decide on which side you want your dog to walk next to you, and stick to it. If you're right-handed, the left side is best.

Hold the leash handle in the hand that's further away from the dog, and use the other hand to control the tension and placement of the leash with your fingers. Don’t put your wrist inside the leash handle, and don’t put tension on the leash or keep it hanging too slack. Holding it in this way will prevent the dog from grabbing the leash in his mouth to play.

The right way to hold a leash - Dog Learner
The right way to hold a leash

The 3 things to teach your dog first

Before starting proper leash training on a walk, you need to teach your dog 3 basic techniques that will make the difference between success and failure.

I highly recommend watching the excellent professional training videos made by Nate Schoemer. I’m including below some links to several videos on Nate’s YouTube Channel to illustrate a few points about leash training.

1. The verbal marker

A verbal marker consists of a word that you use consistently and in a timely manner to tell your dog that he just performed the behavior you wanted (“good boy”, “yes”). Some people use a clicker instead of a verbal marker. A verbal marker is initially followed by a reward—which can be a treat, verbal praise, or touch. For a marker to work effectively it needs to be timed within a couple of seconds from the moment you get the behavior you wanted, otherwise the dog won't understand its relevance or significance.

VIDEO: Marker Training - Nate Schoemer

2. Leash pressure

This technique is fundamental. It consists in adding something unpleasant (a slight constant resistance on the leash) that the dog learns to yield to if he wants to make it go away. Leash pressure  teaches a dog to follow the direction of your movements rather than resist them. Note that leash pressure does NOT mean yanking on the leash, and no force is exerted.

VIDEO: Speed Up Your Dog's Training With Leash Pressure

3. Rewarding focus and eye contact

This is especially important when training puppies. You get your dog to follow you around on a leash, and every time he makes eye contact and focuses on you, you mark the behavior ("good dog") and reward it with a treat. A focused dog stays in tune with you on a walk and gets less distracted.

Leash-training drill, step by step

Preparing to go out on a walk

  • Before you go for a walk, make sure your dog is calm. If he is excited, keep the leash in your hand, keep the door closed, and look at your dog silently until he settles and sits by himself. When he does, use your verbal maker (“yes”), give him a treat, and put the leash on. Wait again for him to be calm before you open the door.
  • Don’t let your dog bolt out of the door ahead of you once the leash is on. Your dog should sit and wait, then follow you on command when you are ready to leave. Going out IS the reward for a calm behavior.
  • Before starting the walk, let your dog relieve himself by taking him to his potty spot. In that way you won’t need to interrupt the training for potty breaks. Dogs that pee on bushes and lamp posts every 50 yards do so for urine marking, not because they need to relieve themselves, so don't let them, and keep on walking.

VIDEO: How to properly leave the house - Nate Schoemer

Set your dog up for success

  • This is very important. Progress gradually and set your dog up for success by starting leash training in an area free of distractions and smells. Use a large and indoor space, or an empty parking lot, or a quiet road.
  • Leash training is work, not playtime. Be patient, focused, gentle, and assertive.
  • Once you are out, set initial leash training sessions to 3 sets of 10 minutes each, with 2 short break intervals of a few minutes when you let the dog sniff around and explore on the long line. The point is to get your dog to understand that a walk is not playtime, and that playtime is the reward for a good behavior during the walk.‍

What NOT to do during leash training

  • Don't shout or lose your patience. Every time you do, you regress.
  • Don’t pull or yank on the leash (don't start a tug of war). 
  • Don’t keep tension on the leash. As soon as you feel the dog yield to constant leash pressure, release the tension. The more relaxed you are, the more your dog will ease the pressure. Tension is not rewarding for your dog, and he soon learns that not pulling makes the walk much more comfortable.
  • Don’t interrupt the walk to reward the dog with treats every few minutes. It just breaks the rhythm of the walk, and it's counterproductive. Keep a constant pace and just reward the dog verbally to keep him focused on you. Use treats sparingly. Overusing treats can make dogs become greedy and opportunistic. Verbal markers and praise are enough, coupled with rewarding breaks.
  • Don’t let the dog pee or sniff around, and don’t stop walking, except for mini breaks.
  • Don’t let the dog interact with other dogs or strangers when walking.
  • Don't lose focus. Walk at a good pace, with confidence and free of body tension.

What to do if your dog pulls?

  1. Stop immediately and stand still. Resist yanking on the leash. Just wait for your dog to yield to the tension that he just created. He learns that pulling means interrupting the walk, which is not rewarding. As soon as your dog yields and releases tension, use your verbal marker, reward him by moving ahead and keep the leash loose.
  2. Change direction suddenly if your dog pulls by turning a sharp 90 or 180 degrees. It teaches the dog to stay focused and synchronized with you.
  3. Reward focus and eye contact from your dog. A dog that’s focused on you doesn’t get distracted and won't pull ahead.

Common leash problems solved

  • If your dog freezes, of if he lays down and won’t move, stand at leash-length and use leash pressure. As soon as your dog yields and gets up, use your verbal marker (“yes”) and reward your dog by moving ahead. Don’t use treats, otherwise your dog might just learn to do that again.
  • If your dog fights the leash by jumping around, don't stop. Just keep walking faster and don’t interact with him or make eye contact. Ignoring him is the best strategy. Make sure the collar is well adjusted and fitted at the top of the neck.
  • If there are too many distractions around (distracting smells, other pets, people, bicycles), choose a quieter and more appropriate environment for training.
  • If you have a large dog who is stronger than you and doesn’t respond to leash pressure, and who is out of control, this might be one of the specific cases when you need help from a trainer. Depending on the type of dog and the nature of the behavior, a trainer might advise the use of a prong collar (also called pinch collar) for training. Prong collars—when used properly, well-sized and well-fitted—are painless for the dog, and their effectiveness can be compared to having power steering. With a prong collar, you can control a large dog with three fingers and no force.

Leash training takes patience and consistent effort. It can take a few days or a few weeks, depending on your dog and on your patience, but once training is completed walking becomes safer and more rewarding for you and for your dog alike.

also in