The problem: When you take your puppy for a walk, he constantly chomps on the leash, treating it like a tug toy. You’d prefer it if he’d just walk along nicely, sniffing bushes and peeing on fire hydrants like a civilized dog.
Walking “nicely” on leash can be a huge challenge for a puppy. You see, puppies bite stuff. It’s just kind of what they do. They love to chomp anything they can get their razor-sharp little teefies on, especially things that moves. Hands, pant legs, your poor old cat, etc. So of course leashes make enticing moving targets as well.
They may also bite the leash out of frustration. They’re still getting used to the unnatural, uncomfortable sensation of having their movement restricted. They want to run and explore and wreak havoc like any good puppy, but they’re held back by this annoying thing around their neck. In this case, just taking some time to patiently leash-train him may solve the problem entirely. (We cover leash training in Puppy Survival School, with a series of video tutorials)
A while back, I wrote a framework for solving pretty much any annoying behavior problem. You should check that out, as it goes into more detail on the basic problem-solving strategy.
Here’s how you adapt that framework to the issue of leash-biting.
There are three parts to this plan:
1. Decide what you want the pup to actually do
Whenever you’re trying to stop an unwanted behavior, you have to come up with a new behavior you want to replace it. You concentrate on training the new behavior, and the old “bad” behavior goes away. In this case, the behavior you want is that when the leash is clipped to the collar, he ignores the leash and walks with you, trotting merrily along, peeing on fire hydrants or whatever.
2. Prevent the biting from getting rewarded
It’s possible you’ve accidentally been rewarding the biting all this time – it takes two to tug, after all. When the pup grabs the leash, our impulse is to try to pull it away, or push the puppy off it. This is great fun for a puppy, because now you’re playing an exciting game of tug-of-war! In her little puppy imagination, you’re teammates tearing apart that leash like wolves tearing apart a hunk of moose carcass.
3. Reward the crap out of the behavior you want
Make sure all walking-without-biting gets rewarded. You can use treats, but you might have better results using a tug toy. Because a reward can be whatever the dog wants in that moment. When your pup grabs the leash, he’s telling you what he wants: to play tug! You can teach him that by walking nicely on leash, he’ll get to play.
Step 1: Introduce an acceptable tug toy
You don’t need or want to get rid of the tugging behavior completely. Tug-of-war is a fantastic game to play with energetic puppies. It burns off energy and gives you something fun to do together, which builds a strong bond. You just need to provide rules about what objects are and are not acceptable to play with.
Get a long dog toy, like a knotted rope, a fleece tug (which is what all the cool agility trainers use), or a skinny stuffed animal, like a Loofa dog. I found this ridiculous four-foot tall squeaky baboon that would be perfect.
The longer the toy, the better, because:
A) You’ll be playing tug while you walk the pup. With a long toy you don’t have to bend over.
B) The more toy between you and those scary little jaws means less chance of a revved-up pup redirecting her grip onto your hand.
Teach the pup that this is the object she has permission to go nuts over.
Channel your inner wolf and play some exciting games of tug. Drag the toy on the ground, encouraging her to chase it. Get down on the floor with her. You get the idea. She needs to learn that playing with this toy is a blast.
Introduce a new cue, one that means she’s allowed to grab the toy.
While you play, every time she starts to go for the toy, say “get it!” and praise when she does.
Step 2: Start training good leash behavior in your living room
In the living room? Whaa? Why would you do that when the problem is that the puppy goes nuts on walks?
This is a crucial piece of the problem-solving puzzle that often gets missed: you have to train the dog before you start working in the problem situation.
You’re essentially teaching your pup a new trick. To learn a new trick, a dog needs a calm environment where he can focus. Once he understands the “trick,” you can start using it in higher-stress situations.
You probably wouldn’t wait until your child was having a meltdown at a birthday party, surrounded by toys and candy and bouncy castles and screaming preschoolers, to introduce the concept of “please” and “thank you.” You’d have at least a lesson or two in basic manners beforehand.
Same idea with a puppy. You can’t wait until your pup is on a walk, jumping and biting and generally being a little hellion, to introduce the concept of polite leash manners.
- The pup when she’s in a (relatively) calm mood
- A leash
- A container of really good, soft treats chopped into tiny pieces
Hold the leash in your hand, don’t attach it to the dog yet.
In a calm, boring fashion so as not to entice her to attack, dangle the leash a foot in front of her (if she automatically attacks it, you probably need to start with it further away).
For as long as she is not going after it, praise and offer treats. You’re rewarding the absence of biting, so you can offer a treat for: sniffing the leash, looking at it, looking away, looking at you, staring into space, etc. There’s a good video demonstration of this exercise here.
At this first training session, make sure your puppy is successful. Set the situation up so that the puppy’s “kill the moving object” instincts are not triggered. You do this by behaving pretty much the opposite of how you did when you were trying to get her to play with the tug toy – remain calm, move slowly, move the leash slowly.
After three minutes, end the session. Get the tug toy and play a game.
Over the next couple sessions, gradually make it harder. Move the leash more, drag it on the ground, wave it around.
If (when) the puppy bites the leash:
Immediately drop the leash, and gently hold her by the collar or harness. Stay still. Be boring. Wait for her to drop the leash. When she does, let go, praise and treat.
When you can get through a three-minute session without her going after the leash, you’re ready to move on the the next step.
Step 3: Puppy on leash in the living room
Attach the leash to the puppy. Walk him across the room while talking excitedly or making funny noises to keep his attention. As long as he isn’t biting the leash, offer a treat every step.
And if he bites the leash, drop it and take his collar.
Over a couple of sessions, gradually increase the number of steps between treats. When you can walk briskly in a circle around the room without him biting, it’s time for the next step – adding the tug toy.
Step 4: Reward with tug
You might wonder why we introduced the tug toy at the beginning, but didn’t train with it until now. That’s because the tug toy creates excitement and riles the pup up, which makes it harder for her to concentrate on what you’re teaching.
With the nice calm treat training, we’ve created a bit of understanding: walking and ignoring the leash makes good things happen, biting the leash makes good things stop. Now it’s time to put that understanding to the test, by increasing the difficulty level of this little game.
Start with the pup off-leash.
The tug toy in one hand and the leash in the other. Wave the leash in front of the pup’s face. When she ignores it, praise and tell her to get the tug. Play an enthusiastic but short game, about thirty seconds. Take the toy away and reset. Do three to ten reps of this, depending on your puppy’s attention span. Always stop before she gets bored and wanders off.
Next, puppy is on leash.
Walk her in a circle around the room, then reward with the tug toy.
Step 5: Take it to the streets
Well, before you take it to the streets, take it to the kitchen, the upstairs hallway, the backyard, the front yard, etc. It’s all about that sweet generalization.
But THEN take it to the streets, wandering your neighborhood like an actual walk. You’re finally ready to do the exercises in the big exciting real world. Now, depending on how intense and bitey your puppy is, you might need to repeat steps 1-4 out here, or just step four.
Out in the world, your pup might lose interest in treats or the tug toy, wanting instead to run around or sniff things. That’s fine. Use the running around and sniffing as rewards for walking without biting. As long as he doesn’t bite, he gets to do those things. If he bites the leash, uh oh! Fun times are over. You drop the leash, hold the collar and be boring for a while.
Need more help than this?
Check out Puppy Survival School, our comprehensive program that comes with eight self-paced online courses and a forum where you can ask questions.
You’ll learn how to:
- Teach your puppy to wear a leash with no drama
- Get your puppy to pay attention to you
- House train your puppy even if she’s had a lot of accidents
- Get your puppy to sleep through the night
- Stop being stressed out and overwhelmed all the time
- And a whooole lot more more