One of the first things we did when we brought our newly adopted dog home was go buy a new collar, harness and a leash. The whole family was so excited to bring him home and we could not wait to try out his new gear. I think he was equally looking forward to a home, but maybe not as thrilled about his new blue harness and leash. I had not previously adopted a large adult dog with no leash experience before, so we had a lot to learn together. Knowing what I know now, I would have gone about things a little differently.
One of the things I would have done differently is practice getting my dog’s attention while he was wearing the leash. He is quite large, so if he decided to go investigate a mailbox, along I went. He did not have the concept that we were connected by this piece of material and that we needed to work together to go in the same direction. Practicing a “look” or “watch me” while wearing the leash in the house can teach your dog to pay attention to you. We still practice this daily for a minute or two. I always enjoy the eye contact and his sweet face looking back up at me. All your cues, such as sit, down and stay can be practiced with the leash on. I used to feel badly if I grabbed the leash and we weren’t going for a walk, but the only way for him to be calm around the leash is to practice wearing it in different training circumstances.
We want our dogs to associate calm with the leash rather than bouncing off the walls before we get to the front door. And occasionally shy dogs may associate the leash with going out into the scary world and feel anxious when they see their leash coming out. It is important to start with putting it on inside and then have good things happen. Treats or calm attention, if your dog enjoys it, can help them relax with their leash on. Several times a day for short periods, your dog can wear their leash while you are watching them. It’s important to not leave a leash on while your dog is unattended as they can get chew it or get caught on things and get hurt.
Walking on the leash, also needs to begin in the house in a low distraction area. You can make up little routes in your living room to have your dog walk next to you. Setting up a couple landmarks, like cones or buckets, to stop and treat for eye contact slows your dog down and gets them paying attention to you. As your dog progresses you can go through the whole house, and then your yard or front driveway. Making your walks longer as your dog is still able to pay attention to you and stay calm. If they get overly distracted and excited, you can shorten the distance until they are comfortable in the environment. I used to wonder if the neighbors thought it was strange that I would walk my dog part way up the street and back many times, but it works! Stopping when your dog pulls and getting them back to you with a treat can teach them that walking with you is the best place to be. Walking forward again is also positive reinforcement if your dog wants to keep going. Playing a game such as fetch before working with the leash can burn off that excited energy first, if you have a highly active dog.
There are a lot of options for equipment. I love the Freedom harness which is available from Chewy. It has the front and back clip and can include an attachment so that you can use both clips at the same time. There will be those moments in training when your dog could lunge at a squirrel or other distraction and you want to have good equipment to handle the situation. I prefer a six foot leash with two handles such as this one. There is a handle up closer to the dog if you are in a tight spot and then the end handle at the end of the six feet. Retractable leashes are difficult to teach a dog how to not pull as they cause tension throughout the whole walk. People and dogs have been injured with this type of leash as well. If you are in a safe spot to practice distance, there are all different lengths of regular leashes, 15 to 30 feet or more. These are great to work on recall.
I really enjoy walking my big boy now that we have done a lot of leash training. The classes I have taken with him taught me fun ways to work on it and are excellent places to work on distractions. I also like to play games on our walks. Sometimes we change directions quickly to a cue such as “turn”, and he loves to anticipate our turns and get a little treat. We’ve both come a long way from when we first walked out of the shelter.