How to Train a Labrador Retriever to Walk on a Leash

Medium
2-12 Weeks
General

Introduction

We've all been there: The dog that pulls so hard on the leash you suspect they were a sled-dog in a previous life. However, when that dog is a large breed such as a Labrador, then pulling becomes a serious business. Not only does poor leash behavior look bad, but you could be pulled over or the dog become out of control. 

However, it's so easy to accept poor behavior on a leash, even when you don't mean to. 

Picture the scene: It's a bright sunny day, the birds are singing, and it's perfect for a game of ball in the park. You pop the dog on his leash and you both set off. Only he knows the ball is in your pocket and is super-excited. In the spirit of "Come on, Mum, let's get to the park," he pulls you along, eager to get the fun started. 

The trouble is that when you tag along behind, the dog has now learned that pulling gets him where he wants to go--in other words, the behavior just rewarded itself. Oops! See where this is heading? Your dog has taught himself to pull and it becomes an established habit. 

How to stop this and have a dog that walks nicely on the leash? Read on...

Defining Tasks

Good leash etiquette is basic training for any dog, but sadly it all too quickly degenerates into a tug of war. 

Good leash behavior involves the dog pacing attentively to your heel (which side is a matter of personal choice, but it's best to elect a favorite side and stick with it), without pulling, and sitting when you stop. 

There should also be some slack in the lead, rather than it being tight as a hawser attached to a tow truck. To achieve this level of attention requires that the dog first accepts the collar and leash, and is comfortable wearing them. And then that they understand what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Getting this information across in a fun and a non-threatening way is the essence of good training. 

Getting Started

To teach a Labrador to walk on a leash is a commitment in both time and patience. Labradors are intelligent dogs that love to please, so as long as you get the message across in a clear way that the dog understands, then you should have a willing pupil. 

To aid the lessons you'll need: 

  • An appropriate collar or harness that fits the dog comfortably
  • A leash
  • Bite-sized treats with which to reward the dog
  • A treat bag or pouch to keep those rewards handy
  • A quiet room in which to start training

The Basic Leash Training Method

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Step
1
Build positive links to the leash
If the Lab is resentful of the leash then he's more likely to misbehave, therefore it's important that he associates the collar and leash with good things. Start by having him wear the collar and leash (supervised, so he doesn't get tangled up) in the house. Play a game with him and praise him while wearing the collar so that he builds a link between leash time and fun.
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2
Have a "reward-is-coming" cue
Teach the dog to link a certain noise or word with getting a reward. To do this simply make the noise (such as clicking your tongue) then toss the dog a treat. Repeat this during the day and soon the dog will watch expectantly and come to you in anticipation of a treat.
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Practice in the home
Now try combining both activities. With the dog on the leash, back away from him while making excited noises to entice him to follow you. As he steps towards you make your "reward" cue noise and as he approaches your heel give the reward. Continue moving forward with a combination of excitement and reward cue noises. The dog will quickly learn to keep pace with your heel in order to keep the rewards coming.
Step
4
Add a cue word
Train with fun and enthusiasm in such a way that the dog looks on this walking to heel play as a game. This will make him eager to take part. Once he is regularly tagging alongside your heel, add a cue word such as "Heel" and then reward him. Pretty soon you'll be able to summon him to heel in anticipation of the treat and have him keep pace beside you.
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5
Expand your horizons
Now try practicing in other places, such as different rooms in the house, in the yard, and outside on walks. Adding in distractions such as the smells on a walk can add new challenges, but if the dog already has the idea this makes it easier to overcome them.
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The Stop and Sit Method

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Understand the idea
This method starts by teaching the dog that when you walk and then stop, he is expected to sit. That sit then earns him a reward. This achieves the aim of the dog walking nicely on the leash in two ways. Firstly, the dog is attentive to you, watching to see when you stop in order to get a reward. And secondly, when the dog learns to sit automatically when you stop, this prevents the dog from surging ahead as you simply halt, thus making him sit and stopping the forward pull.
Step
2
Start in a quiet place
Start in a quiet room, with just you, the dog, and some treats. Show the dog a treat and then walk a few paces. He should tag along beside you, eager for the titbit. Now stop and wait.
Step
3
Wait for the sit
The dog will most likely dance around you, trying to attract attention and get that tasty morsel. Ignore him. After a while, the dog will inevitably sit as he ponders what tactic to try next. Seize this moment to praise and reward him. Now set off again.
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4
Repeat and practice
Repeat this pattern of walking a few steps and then stopping. The dog will quickly realize all he has to do is sit and the reward is his. Easy!
Step
5
Practice on a walk
With the dog on a leash, try this stop and sit method on a short walk. Start walking and the moment the dog starts to surge ahead, then you must stop. The dog will quickly realize he needs to stop and sit, and a reward is his. Repeat this a few times and the dog soon trots beside you, looking up, watching for tell-tale signs you are about to stop. Without the dog realizing, he has learned to walk nicely on the lead.
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6
Add a cue word
As the dog becomes skilled at trotting alongside waiting for signs he's to sit, add in a cue word such as "Heel". Also, praise him as he trots nicely on the leash, so he realizes this is also desirable behavior. With practice, the dog will learn to walk nicely to heel in anticipation of a reward.
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The Do's and Don'ts Method

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Don't: Use harsh training aids
Never use harsh training aids such as prong collars or choke chains. These inflict pain as a means of teaching the dog not to surge ahead. Shock collars make up for the owner's inadequacy as a trainer, rather than bad behavior on the dog's part, whereas it's far more humane for the trainer to improve their methods.
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Do: Stop if the dog pulls
Pulling on the leash is self-rewarding to many dogs, as they mistakenly believe it gets them where they want to go faster. When you stop as soon as the dog pulls, this prevents him getting where he wants, and eventually he'll learn that slow and steady on a slack leash is best.
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3
Don't: Punish the dog for poor leash behavior
Smacking or shouting at the dog will only make him fearful of you, rather than teach him how to walk on a leash. Yes, he may appear to behave, but this is out of fear of your reaction rather than the conscious thought that walking nicely is desirable. This means the dog will fail to generalize his training (i.e., He should walk nicely for everyone) and damage his relationship of trust with you.
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4
Do: Keep training fun
Avoid training that is a chore and instead keep the mood light and happy. If the dog starts to tire either mentally or physically, then bring the session to an end and start again later. End each session on a positive note, with a command the dog knows well, such as 'sit', so that you can reward him and finish on an up-beat note.
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Do: Seek professional help
If your Labrador is over-exuberant (it happens!) and you are struggling, then do seek the help of a good dog trainer who uses reward-based methods. Sometimes it just takes an outside observer to spot where things can be improved and get them moving in the right direction.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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