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Start as you mean to go on.
Having a well-trained dog on the leash starts with training at a young age. When the pup learns the skill of focusing on you, rather than surging ahead on the leash, then things really start to swing. The best time to start teaching these skills is with a young pup, as his brain is geared to learning and he will pick things up quickly, establishing good habits from a tender age.
However, old-fashioned training methods relied on harsh correction and jerking the puppy roughly on the neck to get him to walk to heel. Happily, these harsh methods are discredited, as teaching through fear and discomfort. Altogether more appropriate methods using rewards are the way ahead.
Walking on a leash is an essential skill for any dog, and should be well within the capabilities of an intelligent dog such as the Labrador. The latter's eagerness to please and love of food means that when you get the motivation right you are both going to have fun during training.
A well-trained Labrador should walk by your side on a loose leash, without pulling or tugging. Of course, a puppy is easily distracted by a big and exciting world of sounds, scents, and sights, so harsh correction is not appropriate and you should work using reward-based methods to make training exciting.
Start your training in a distraction-free place so the pup can concentrate on you. Train several times a day but in short bursts so that the pup's attention span isn't overtaxed. Always make training fun, because the more like a game it is the quicker pup will learn. In addition you'll need:
- A comfortable collar and leash for the pup
- Bite-sized treats that he can gobble down super-quick
- A treat bag or pouch so those rewards are handy at all times
The Get Used to a Leash Method
A puppy's eye view
Imagine if, without any explanation, someone clamped a band around your throat, attached a line on it and started dragging you along. Your most likely reaction would be to claw at the collar and fight against being moved. Well, this is the experience many young pups get and it makes leash training harder in the long run. Instead, introduce the collar and leash gradually, so the puppy accepts them and works with them rather than against. Here's how.
Choose the right collar
First out, choose a collar that's comfortable and right for your puppy (for obvious reasons). Look for a collar that fits your puppy now (rather than an adult collar that you make as small as possible). Choose a flat collar with a rapid release fastener, to make putting the collar on and off as easy as possible. Select a material that's soft and forgiving on the puppy's delicate neck.
Little and often
Rather than leaving the collar on until the pup is too exhausted to pull at it any longer, instead put it on for a few minutes several times a day. If necessary, distract the pup with his favorite squeaky toy and have a game for a few minutes while wearing the collar. Then remove the collar once the puppy is relaxed. This helps him understand that fun things happen when wearing a collar and rewards his calm behavior.
Attach the leash
Once the puppy is happy with the collar, attach a lightweight leash in the house. Of course, never leave the pup unattended when wearing either the collar or leash, as he will get himself tangled up. Instead, supervise him at all times. Let the leash trail along the ground and praise the pup when he ignores it. If the pup is anxious about the leash, then leave it lying around near his toys or bed, so that he becomes accustomed to it.
Hold the leash
Now hold the leash so that there is no tension on it. If the pup goes to run away, make a noise to get his attention or call him to you. Reward him with a treat, and this helps him understand that he pays attention to you when on the leash. Practice walking short distances in the house, calling the pup and keeping his focus on you.
The Basic Leash Walking Method
Understand that pulling is self-rewarding
In the pup's mind pulling while out on a walk is fruitful because it gets him where he wants to go. This is known as self-rewarding behavior and is potentially difficult habit to break. The most basic form of leash walking uses stop-start tactics, where the dog's forward direction is halted when he pulls, and you only set off again when he's at heel.
Praise a lack of pulling
Work in a distraction-free place such as a room or the backyard. With the puppy on the leash, start walking slowly. When the puppy walks without tugging, be sure to praise him in an excited voice and tell him how clever he is.
Stop if he pulls
When the puppy surges ahead, stop in your tracks. Don't actively pull the puppy back because the lack of forward movement is already a powerful message.
Call him back
Watch the puppy closely. The moment he glances back at you to see what's happened, slap your thigh and generally act excited so as to arouse his curiosity. Call him to you and if he responds, give him lavish praise and a treat. Now set off walking again - hence rewarding the lack of tension on the leash.
Practice, practice, practice!
Keep repeating this pattern, where the pup's pulling means he goes nowhere, but returning to your side is rewarded and he gets to walk on. Be prepared to practice several times a day. This is best done at a time when you don't need to get anywhere quickly or on time!
The Stop and Sit Method
Understand the idea
This is a great way of teaching slightly older pups (from 12 weeks) to walk on a slack leash. First, you work with the puppy off leash in a safe room. You get his attention with a treat and walk slowly then stop. The pup has to work out that when you stop and he stops also, he gets the treat. Ultimately, when on the leash and the pup surges ahead, you stop and he will sit, hence preventing him from pulling. Then you also praise him when he walks to heel, which makes pulling on the leash a pointless activity.
In a distraction-free space, work with the dog off-leash. Get your pup's attention with a treat and walk for a few steps. Then stop. Completely ignore the pup EXCEPT if he sits. Most pups fiddle around and dance about your heels as they try to figure out how to get the treat. Ignore him.
What for the 'sit'
Eventually, out of sheer bewilderment, the pup will sit down to think about how to get that treat. At this point, say "Yes" in an excited voice and give the pup the treat. Then start walking again.
Repeat the stop and start
By repeating this pattern of walking and stopping, with the pup getting a reward when he sits, he will become focused on you and attentive. You will be able to walk a few steps with the pup watching you. If he starts to surge ahead simply stop, wait for him to sit, then praise and reward. Then set off again and repeat the same pattern. As pup gets the hang of things he starts to stick closer and closer to heel.
Add the leash and praise for 'heel'
Ultimately, pop the pup on the leash and work on this some more. Add in the extra benefit to the pup of being praised and given the occasional treat when he walks near your side. This makes loose-leash walking far more attractive than pulling, and sows the seeds of a well leash-trained dog.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 02/28/2018, edited: 01/08/2021