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Tips For Puppy Lead Training

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Lead walking is a vital skill for our dogs, without good lead manners walks can become stressful and even dangerous. It’s easy to forget the importance when your puppy is so tiny and has no strength to pull on the lead.

Think ahead to when your puppy starts to mature and develop more strength, a lack of lead skills can quickly become a huge problem. Even if your puppy will never grow into a big, strong adult, it’s never healthy to watch a dog choking themselves on the lead or a person struggling to control their dog on the end of a lead.

Where do you start with a young puppy, especially when there are so many skills to teach them?

1. Teach the position you want i.e. at your side, walking in line with your feet. Set your criteria and decide where you want your puppy to walk because the position is crucial and brings some clarity to your training goals. You can begin with lots of short sessions simply rewarding your puppy standing in the heel position - use some of their meal allowance to reward the position each day from 8 weeks old

2. Start with no lead. It’s too tempting to use a lead to pull your puppy around or to move him into the right position. It can also just turn into a toy for some puppies, which can encourage jumping and grabbing the lead, especially if they find the training frustrating. Having no lead means you can focus solely on rewarding the right position and teaching your puppy to find the position without the lead pulling them into it

3. Feed in the right position. If you reward in front of you, your dog will gravitate to that position. If you reward high up, your puppy will jump to grab the treat. Reward on your leg, exactly where you want your puppy to be walking and bring the reward down to head height so they aren’t tempted to jump for it. Remove your hand between rewards so the puppy is having to think about their position and not simply watching the treat (bringing your hand tucked up to your chest or into a pocket can prevent jumping). It can help to have the rewards ready in the hand closest to your puppy, so you're not reaching across your body to reward (rewarding across your body can encourage your puppy to start coming across in front of you)

4. Use marker words- Using a marker word such as YES or a Clicker can help to pinpoint the behaviour you want to reinforce. We can mark YES when our puppy is looking up at us and maintaining eye contact, then bring our treat to them to reward. It allows you to 'take a picture' of the behaviour, so even if they then break position or jump up after, you've still captured the behaviour. Using markers is a great way to open up a channel of communication between you and your dog, bringing more clarity to the training

5. Low distractions. Start with quiet places where your puppy can focus, you don’t want it to be a battle for attention and a frustrating session of trying to keep your puppy’s focus. This might mean using your hallway, garden or driveway to begin with. You may find that your young puppy is too worried by traffic to train alongside the road initially, or they may find other dogs/people too exciting. Once the early skills have been taught, then you can add more distractions

6. Reward lots and use treats that your puppy is motivated by. It’s not an easy skill to walk at our pace so make sure it’s fun and enjoyable. Don't be stingy with treats either! You'll use lots of treats in the early stages, rewarding your puppy for every few paces that they take. There is no rush to phase out treats, so use lots of them! Many puppies respond well to cooked chicken, JR Pate, dried sprats, liver treats or hotdogs.

7. Don’t blame your puppy if they’re struggling to understand, they have no idea what the end goal is so if they aren’t understanding then chances are you’re making it too difficult. Be patient, take it slowly and break it into small steps if needed, giving your puppy lots of breaks.

8. Keep sessions short and fun, if your puppy is tired, frustrated or excited, they won’t be able to process the information or learn effectively, so keep sessions short enough to maintain focus and end it before their concentration is gone. Find moments within your day to work on rewarding your puppy in the heel position for a couple of minutes at a time, it all adds up over the course of a week and before you know it, your puppy will love being in heel.

9. Don’t get too stuck in one place. As soon as your puppy is getting the idea, vary the duration between rewards, don’t get stuck on rewarding every step, aim to switch between longer durations and some quick rewards. When we get stuck on a 'reward every 3 steps' schedule, your puppy will soon give up and lose focus whenever you try to get to 4 steps. By varying the reward schedule, your puppy will try harder and for longer instead, allowing you to eventually build up longer durations of heeling between rewards. When moving onto a variable reward schedule, try mixing it up such as: 1 step, 5 steps, 3 steps, 6 steps, 1 step, 3 steps, 1 step, 8 steps - so your puppy never knows when the reward is coming.

10. Reward the position, not the reposition. If you’ve lured your puppy back into the correct position, don’t reward immediately, take a few steps and then reward them. If you always reward after being lured into the position, they aren’t learning to remain in the position and will quickly rush ahead after receiving a treat. Initially you may need to reward stationary, but once you’re moving, reward in motion. You can use your voice to encourage your puppy to keep walking between rewards.

11- Change direction - if you find your puppy is losing focus, do some sudden direction changes to keep them engaged.

12 - Mental resets - Learning new skills is tiring, especially for puppies, and it takes a lot more focus and energy than we often realise. Taking breaks is essential in any training with puppies, if your puppy disengages and goes off for a sniff, give them a moment and wait for them to choose to come back to you. This is another reason why starting without a lead is so important, it allows your puppy to take breaks without the lead forcing them to stay in the training session. If your puppy isn’t able to focus or isn’t interested in the training, consider whether they’re tired and need a rest or whether you’re not motivating them enough.

13 - Stamina - puppies don't have a great attention span or stamina for training. Start with short sessions that are less than 2 minutes and gradually build up the length of your sessions so that your puppy learns to focus on you for longer durations.

14. Use equipment cues - once you're working on this skill out and about, using equipment cues to bring clarity to the training and to teach your puppy when it's time to focus vs when it's time to explore. Attach the lead to the collar when you want your puppy to focus, starting with very short bursts of heeling, then swap the lead to the back clip of the harness to indicate to your puppy that it's time for exploration. When the lead is attached to the harness, they are allowed to sniff, explore, pull and toilet. By swapping the equipment every 2 lampposts or so, your puppy will quickly learn when they need to focus on you vs when they can do their own thing.

15 - Allow exploration - When working on lead skills, don’t forget the importance of giving puppies time to explore and observe their environment. Early lead training should be done in quiet, distraction free places so your puppy can focus, but once you’re ready to add the lead and start training in different places, make sure your puppy has time to adjust and observe their environment before you expect them to focus on lead training.

It's important to teach lead skills early on, but it’s vital that this training doesn’t block out opportunities for your puppy to gain confidence and experience in different environments. Forcing a puppy into walking on a lead or having to remain in a perfect heel position, can do more harm than good if they’re unable to process the environment they’re in. You can use equipment cues to give your puppy choice and allow for observation and sniffing time in between very short sessions of lead walking practice.

16: watch this video to see a short puppy training session utilising the tips above.

Follow video tutorials

If you'd like to learn how to begin heeling training with your puppy, how to introduce equipment cues and how to progress to training around distractions, join the Adolescent Dogs Online Academy. There you will find step by step video tutorials and support with troubleshooting your own individual training sessions.

Written by Naomi White

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