Last updated September 25, 2019 (originally published April 2009)
Does your dog struggle when you put the leash on? Does he become afraid or “shut down?” Walking on leash is not a natural behavior. It has to be taught. Most dogs will adjust to leashes with ease, but some do have a hard time with it. In order to help your dog, you first have to determine why he hates his leash.
Why would a dog hate the leash?
- He’s just never been trained to use one
- He’s been improperly trained to use one
- He’s been hit with it
- Unpleasant things happen when his leash is attached- going somewhere scary, taking a bath, or
- Something unexpected and scary happened last time he wore the leash (attacked by a dog, accidentally stepped on, etc) and now he’s associating the leash with the scary event.
For the first one, the dog who has never used a leash, you just need to teach him how to walk with a leash on.
How To Train the Leash
Step 1: Attach the leash and let Sparky drag it around the house or backyard. Don’t pick up the other end. Make sure there is nothing he can snag it on and jerk himself back. Just let him get used to the feel of it on his collar.
Step 2: When he is used to wearing the leash, start picking up the handle. Make it fun – run around and play with him. If he balks, move in another direction. You should be letting him lead at this point. If that doesn’t work, crouch down and call him to you. Give him a treat and praise him when he comes.
Step 3: Start taking the lead. Begin walking in a straight line for a few yards, praising the dog when he walks with you. Turn 90 degrees away from him. Don’t jerk him, but call him, tugging the leash gently if needed. When he follows, give him a small, easily-swallowed treat and keep moving in a straight line. Turn 90 degrees again.
Repeat this so that you are walking in big squares. Walk a couple squares like this, with the dog on the outside, then start making your turns toward the dog, so that he’s on the inside of the square. As soon as he gets the hang of it, reward him with a toy, attention, or something else he likes.
Always stop your training sessions BEFORE the dog gets frustrated. This usually means leash training should be broken down into many short sessions. But if your dog seems relaxed and enthusiastic, and you can fit all three steps into one long session, great! For other dogs, this process can take a few weeks of consistent training (or longer if it’s inconsistent)
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Now, let’s talk about the rest of the reasons a dog can hate his leash:
- He was improperly trained to use one, never having time to get used to wearing the leash or getting jerked around a lot
- He was hit with it
- Unpleasant things happen when he’s put on leash – going somewhere scary like the vet or groomer, or if he was a shelter dog, being turned in by his previous owner or led around by sympathetic but impatient shelter staff
- –Something bad happened last time he wore the leash – attacked by another dog, stepped on, a loud noise in close proximity, or some other shock.
While these reasons are all different, they all boil down to the same thing: The leash is associated with something negative.
With any of these reasons, there are two things you need to do:
One, make sure the negative stuff doesn’t happen anymore.
Sure, you’ll still need to take him to the vet or groomer on leash, but if that is the only reason he is ever put on leash, the negative association will continue. Make sure he is put on leash for good things -like walks and trips to the park- much more often than he is taken to the vet.
If your dog received a shock, take extra care to make sure that doesn’t happen again. If your dog was attacked by another dog once, he may treat it as a fluke, but can you imagine what will go through his mind if he is attacked AGAIN?
Two, actively change the association to something good.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, who learned that the ringing of a bell meant goodies were coming, teach your dog that the leash = good stuff.
Step one: Put the leash on, and give him lots of really good, small treats, like a hot dog chopped into tiny pieces. Give him lots of attention, tell him what a good dog he is. Do this for about 20 seconds, less if the dog is really uncomfortable. Then, take the leash off quickly and ignore him for a minute. Put the leash back on, praise/treat, take the leash off, ignore, repeat. The message you’re sending is that he actually has to wear the leash to get all the good stuff.
Some dogs are fine with the leash on in the house or backyard, but freak out once they’re out the front door. If that is the case, be sure to practice this step in the front yard/porch as well as indoors.
Step two. With every repetition, slowly increase the time he’s wearing the leash until he is reasonably comfortable wearing it for a couple minutes, with you giving him a small treat every 15-20 seconds.
Step three. Make him work for his treat. Now, only give him a treat when he is doing something you like. Does your dog sit down and refuse to move when you put the leash on? Treat him only when he takes a step forward. Does he bite at the leash? Treat him when he lets go of the leash.
Once he realizes that nothing bad is going to happen, and in fact very good things happen when he cooperates with the leash, you can begin leash training as outlined above.
Keep training sessions short and never let your dog get overwhelmed.
How long this whole process will take depends on how severe the dog’s leash aversion is, how much time you put into training, and how consistent your training is. Anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks.
When to get professional help: The instructions in this post will work on the vast majority of dogs who dislike their leashes. However, if your dog is truly afraid and is in danger of hurting himself or you, or if you’ve trained consistently for about a month and you’re getting nowhere, it’s time to seek out a professional dog trainer.