How to Train Your Dog to Play Follow the Leader

Medium
2-12 Weeks
Fun

Introduction

'Follow the leader' is not only a fun game to play with your dog, it can also be a useful training tool for teaching good off-leash manners, and as a base for training other behaviors. Teaching your dog to follow you teaches her to watch and imitate you. Being led safely and in a fun way through new environments teaches your dog to trust you as her leader. When your dog plays leader, she will learn to look back for you and even help you to follow her, which will instill empathy. If you are interested in hunting or tracking with your dog, playing follow the leader gives your dog an example of a good leader for her to emulate later, when she is leading you on the trail. A background in games like 'follow the leader' will help your dog to develop the empathy, trust, and attention skills that will make her a dependable companion.

Defining Tasks

It is best to start playing this game when your dog is a puppy and her instincts to follow you are naturally strong. If you’ve ever watched a kid play with a puppy, you’ve probably seen this training done perfectly. Kids tend to run from interest to interest, and the puppy naturally pursues them and expresses interest in the same thing that interests the kid. That’s because kids and puppies exemplify the natural relationship between people and dogs, wherein people and dogs pursue their interests together. Dogs lead when the task demands a superior nose or ears, and people lead when eyesight and planning are important.

Even if your dog is older, you can recall her instincts to follow and lead with you as a team. The training may require more suggestion and control from you at the beginning, but eventually, your dog will get the idea that working with you brings better things than working on her own can.

Getting Started

Your goal in this training is to show your dog precise leadership. You will show your dog that if she follows exactly in your footsteps, she can find all kinds of interesting things that she could never have discovered by doing it her own way. The best way to guarantee this is to bait the trail you leave. Bring not only yummy treats and enticing (and ideally brand new) toys, but all sorts of things that have new and interesting smells, tastes never experienced before, noise makers, etc. The goal is to show your dog that playing 'follow the leader' with you is about discovery.

When your dog plays leader, you will need ways to remind her to wait for you and lead you realistically. Be prepared to pretend to dramatically try to climb through shrubbery or under things you could never fit under, to teach your dog to lead in a way that you can follow. Wear practical shoes and clothing. It is important if you are doing training off-leash that your dog has reliable call back training, or that you are in a contained area.

The Follow Me Gradually Method

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Step
1
Baby steps
This technique works best with puppies or dogs that naturally follow and have an anxiety of separation. Start by rewarding this natural following with treats and toys.
Step
2
Follow exactly
Go over some small obstacle or choose a path around something. Look behind you as you do and encourage your dog to follow your exact path, enticing with a treat or toy and naming the behavior with a command like, “Follow me”.
Step
3
Internalize the concept
Once your dog understands to follow exactly in arbitrary situations, begin challenging your dog to follow you in more difficult or frightening situations, like up an incline or into shallow water. Keep your dog’s safety at the forefront of your mind. An accident at this stage would set your dog’s trust back. Reward not only with treats and toys, but with novel stimuli like new smells, a novel toy or food, etc.
Step
4
Let your dog lead
Encourage your dog to lead, using a command like “Lead me”. This is especially effective if your dog is slightly interested in something already. If your dog gets too far ahead or does something you can’t, make a show of being lost by your dog, calling for her to come back and help, and encouraging her to lead more slowly or on a better path.
Step
5
Switch and practice
Switch back and forth, making sure to use the command words and/or hand signals. Soon your dog will understand this as your method of exploring the world together.
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The Direct and Encourage Method

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Step
1
Leash your dog
Use a leash that has some elasticity, and attach it securely to a well-fitted harness. Ideally you should be able to move and slightly lift your dog with the leash and harness comfortably.
Step
2
Encourage to follow
Encourage your dog to follow you by dropping treats or enticing with a toy while using a command word. Use the leash to direct your dog on the correct path when she wanders off your path.
Step
3
Make it interesting
If your dog seems bored and wants to wander off, make it interesting by leading your dog on increasingly more challenging terrain and rewarding with novel experiences, smells, toys, etc. Use the leash to help your dog balance and move over terrain in your footsteps.
Step
4
Let your dog lead
Allow your dog to lead, making a show of not being able to follow when she goes too far ahead or leads through impossible terrain for you. Use the leash to reinforce her return if she doesn’t return immediately.
Step
5
Switch, practice and potentially unleash
Keep practicing until your dog understands following and leading. Once you feel confident, transition to an electronic collar or entirely off-leash, practicing in a contained area first.
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The Canine Leader Method

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Step
1
Find a dog who knows how to play
If you know a dog who is already adept at playing 'follow the leader', your dog can learn from that dog. Use an elastic leash and a secure harness on both dogs. For the lead dog, attach to the back of the harness; for the following dog, attach to the chest.
Step
2
Lead the leader
Begin playing, rewarding the leading and following dogs as you go for following exactly in your footsteps. Start on easy terrain, and reward enthusiastically. The dogs will soon get the idea.
Step
3
Make it challenging
Practice on varying terrains until your dog understands the concept that she should follow you to get interesting rewards.
Step
4
Let the dog lead
Let the dog who knows how to play lead your dog, and then follow after your dog. Your dog will learn how check on you and lead effectively from the dog who knows how.
Step
5
Practice and try off-leash
Once you feel confident that your dog understands the concepts, try the dogs off leash together, or try only your dog with the leash for a while before trying off leash alone.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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