If you’ve recently adopted a rescue dog, you likely had a picture of yourself with your dog, walking through the neighbourhood or hitting the local trails. But many dogs struggle with leash manners. In this article, I’m going to break down how to leash-train a rescue dog in 5 easy steps.
I’m also going to address some of the more common concerns when it comes to leash training a rescue dog including my biggest struggle – fear of the leash.
Why is Leash Training Important?
Walking your dog is a great form of exercise for both you and your pup. It also provides much-needed mental stimulation for your dog in the form of discovering new scents, sounds, and experiences.
Teaching your dog to walk on a leash allows you to get out and enjoy your time together safely. It allows you to have control if a situation should arise, like being approached by an untrained dog. Walking properly on leash also helps to prevent injuries that occur from your dog pulling or lunching on the leash.
And, of course, it makes the whole situation more enjoyable! Poor leash manners can kill the mood on a walk VERY quickly…
But there is one important reason that many dog parents aren’t aware of. A dog that is untrained can quickly become frustrated when expected to walk on leash. Not only does this take away from the fun bonding time together, but it can also contribute to the development of leash reactivity.
How to Leash Train a Rescue Dog in 5 Easy Steps
Step 1: Introduce the Leash and Harness (or Collar)
Some rescue dogs will come to you already familiar with the leash. If this is the case, you can skip straight to Step 2. But, in the event they have never seen a leash before, we can’t discuss how to leash train a rescue dog without discussing first how to introduce these tools.
Start by placing the leash and harness (or collar) on the ground in a familiar room in your home. Allow your dog to sniff and explore them, giving them the chance to recognize that they are nothing to be afraid of.
When you first try putting the harness on your dog, do so slowly with plenty of praise and rewards. Don’t rush this stage. It’s the foundation for the rest of your leash training.
My mom used a treat to coax me to put my head through that portion of the harness. When it was over my head she rewarded and praised me again before trying to fasten any of the clips. The goal is to create a positive association with wearing the harness.
Follow this same approach when clipping the leash to the harness. Allow your dog to drag the leash around a bit to get used to the feeling of it being there.
Step 2: Start with a Short, Low-Distraction Walk
The first few times that you take your dog out walking on leash, you want to take advantage of a low-distraction environment. Depending on where you live, this could be your backyard, your driveway, or around your block.
The fewer distractions that your dog must contend with, the more they can focus on your training and direction.
You also want to choose a shorter walk. The training process is mentally taxing on your dog and jumping into a long walk right away can be frustrating. Too much frustration may result in your dog viewing walking on a leash as a negative and stressful experience.
Step 3: Reward Walking with a Loose Leash
In the beginning, don’t hold back on the rewards and praise. If your dog is walking with the leash loose near your side, reward them with a high-value treat.
Another behaviour that you should reward is any moment when your dog clearly turns their attention to you. An attentive dog will look up at you while walking, following your lead and waiting for you to give the next command.
Step 4: If Your Dog Pulls, Stop
In the beginning, you are going to run into situations where your dog pulls the leash tight. Don’t get upset with your dog. You are still introducing this concept at this stage and it’s unfair to expect your dog to know what to do until they have been taught.
Instead, when your dog pulls on the leash you can simply stop or turn and go in the opposite direction. My mom prefers the stop method when working with me.
When your dog recognizes that you are no longer heading in the direction that they are pulling, they will return to find out what’s happening. Be patient and give them time to work this out. When your dog returns to you creating a loose leash once again, reward them.
When you leash train a dog, make sure to go into every training session with plenty of patience. This isn’t a command that most dogs are going to learn in 5 minutes. Your rescue dog feeds off your energy, so getting stressed or frustrated will only stress your dog out hindering your progress.
Step 5: Slowly Introduce New Situations and Distractions
When your dog is confidently walking on a loose leash in the low-distraction environment that you chose to start your training, it’s time to slowly introduce new distractions to the mix.
You want to do this gradually. Don’t jump into walking through a packed downtown or busy dog-friendly park. If your dog becomes overwhelmed, all training efforts are going to go right out the window. Instead, work up to these experiences.
For example, if dogs are a distraction for your dog, you may want to start across the park from the dog park where your dog can see a dog in the far distance. Slowly move closer to the dog park area with each training session, but don’t rush it. Allow your dog’s comfort level to dictate how quickly you move through this process.
Other distractions to consider include people, vehicles, temptations like food, or wildlife. Every dog is going to have their own strengths and weaknesses, so pay attention to what grabs your dog’s attention most.
When Should a Rescue Dog Be First Walked?
There is no set rule for when you should start walking your new rescue dog on leash. While some dogs will adjust to their new home quickly, others need to be given more time to decompress and settle in.
The general rule of thumb in the world of rescue is called the 3-3-3 Rule. It recommends giving each new rescue dog at least 3 days to adjust to their new home environment before introducing anything new outside of that. Remember – everything in their lives has changed in an instant!
Pay attention to your rescue dog’s comfort level. If you can see that they have adjusted well to your home and your family, you can start introducing walks to your regular routine.
How Do I Stop My Dog from Barking at Other Dogs?
Dogs bark naturally, it’s our main form of communication. But a dog that’s barking constantly or barking that is aggressive in nature, can make a walk uncomfortable for everyone involved.
The trick to addressing your dog’s barking is to figure out why they are doing it. Is your dog overly excited? Are they afraid of other dogs and warning them to stay away? Do you have a dog that’s leash reactive and responding aggressively to the presence of other dogs?
Each of these situations will need to be approached differently. A dog that is overly excited can be trained to stay calm by having your dog sit and relax or by distracting your dog when other dogs are around with training. This is a great time to work on training the “look” command! Make sure to offer praise and rewards for staying calm.
If you are dealing with a dog that is leash reactive or aggressive, the best thing that you can do is contact an animal behaviourist. These are dog trainers that specialize in behaviour and behaviour-related problems.
The sooner that you address problem behaviour, the better.
In the meantime, don’t let this keep you from leash training. You can continue working on other elements of walking on leash and leash manners by sticking to training in low-traffic areas and places where you are less likely to see a dog.
My Rescue Dog is Afraid of the Leash – Now What?
This was my biggest struggle in the beginning. On the day I came home to live with my new family, I would SCREAM if a leash even came close to me.
The truth is that we are never fully aware of the history that each rescue dog has lived. The leash may be frightening because they’ve never seen one before, or there may be a moment in their past that has created a negative connotation with the use of a leash.
In situations of past trauma and anxiety, you may need the help of a behaviourist.
What worked for me was an extended version of Step One above. For the first couple of weeks at my new house, my leash was almost always around. I wasn’t leashed, it was just there.
I ate with it laying a distance away on the floor. I played with it in the room. I was allowed to explore it whenever I wanted to and eventually, I was even allowed to carry it around the room a bit. We then moved to teaching me how to be comfortable with my mom holding it, still not attached to me. Only when that was okay did we introduce the idea of being leashed.
Today, when I see the leash it’s met with instant excitement because I know that it means that I am going somewhere great like a hiking trail or park.
Final Thoughts on Leash Training a Rescue Dog
Now that we have gone through how to leash train a rescue dog step by step, it’s time to get out there and start exploring the world with your best friend.
Walks are a great opportunity to build your bond and strengthen your relationship. They also provide you with many situations where you can work on your new pup’s confidence and socialization skills. But you want to be sure that you’re doing this safely.
If you invest the time into training a rescue dog to walk on leash today, it will pay off for the rest of your lives together!
Have you been feeling stumped or overwhelmed with how to leash-train a rescue dog? Know that you’re not alone and you CAN do this! I’d love to hear about your leash-training experiences in the comments!