Leash training a rescue dog is the fastest path to building a bond I’ve found. Nevertheless, too many of the volunteers, fosters, and even adopters I talk to find leash walking to be the single greatest challenge they face in working with a rescue dog.
Leash training a rescue dog demands patience and consistency, but it doesn’t require nearly as much strength or skill as many people expect.
My process for leash training a rescue dog can work for any handler. It’s based on behavioral science and has been honed by my experience walking hundreds of dogs over the years. Here’s what you need to know to walk a rescue dog with confidence.
Why is rescue dog leash training important?
It’s true that a leash is a restriction on your rescue dog, but leash training is a path to greater freedom. Leash walking is an opportunity to teach your rescue dog discipline, self-control, and awareness of their surroundings.
It’s an excellent way to ensure that your dog gets enough exercise and it’s an essential safety measure for your rescue dog. If they get lost or need to be moved during emergencies, knowing how to walk on a leash is vital.
Walking together is, perhaps, the most natural thing a person and dog can do together other than run together. Leash walking is an incredible bonding opportunity.
I can say with confidence that I have gotten closer to the rescue dogs I work with faster through leash walking than anything else, including playing in the yard, being loose in my house or yard, and doing social groups with other dogs.
Walking together helps a dog focus on me and trust me to open up the world to them. Shy dogs becomes more self-assured with the leash as they go places they wouldn’t normally go. And overbearing dogs learn self-control, shifting focus to their surroundings instead of charging recklessly ahead.
Regardless of whether you have adopted a rescue dog, are fostering one, or volunteer at a shelter, numerous studies have shown the tremendous benefits of walking with a dog. Therefore, knowing how to properly leash walk a rescue dog is essential.
Working on a very specific leash-walking issue with your rescue dog? Click the jump-links below to skip ahead to my problem-specific advice:
Leash Training A Rescue Dog Steps
If you’re getting started training your rescue dog, you may find some of my other guides helpful:
- Crate Training A Rescue Dog In 9 Steps
- Alternatives To Crate Training A Rescue Dog
- Crate Training A Rescue Dog With Separation Anxiety
Know Your Rescue
The leash walking techniques that work marvelously on a confident, overbearing dog would be a disaster with a timid or fear-aggressive dog.
Dogs that have had previous negative experiences with the leash (which is quite common with rescue dogs, I’ve found) will need additional training to acclimate them to the leash and undo the negative associations they have before training can begin.
A rescue dog who has never seen a leash before needs to be gently eased into it as though they were little puppies.
Gather as much information as you can about the rescue dog you’re handling. Understand their personality—whether they’re outgoing, shy, fearful, or anxious. Assess their energy levels and overall health. Determine their familiarity with being leash walked, or if they’re used to having freedom to roam as they please.
Talking to your shelter is the best way to find out about the dog’s history. However, in reality, we often don’t have much accurate history. Nevertheless, there are some things you can look for to tell what kind of dog you’re dealing with and how they’ll respond to a leash.
The reaction to you bringing out the leash provides the first clue. Do they show enthusiasm, anticipating a walk? Do they step back, eyeing the leash warily? Maybe they disregard it or view it as a toy. This initial reaction to the leash gives insight into their past interactions with it.
Once a dog is leashed, their responsiveness to the pull is a great indicator as well.
Dogs that quickly pull back as soon as they feel the tightening of the leash have likely never had one on before. If dogs lean into the leash and charge ahead, they’re likely used to being walked, but not trained. Dogs that are responsive to the pulls and check back have likely been trained appropriately on the leash in the past.
Tools For Leash Training A Rescue Dog
To leash train a rescue dog, you’ll need a Martingale collar, which offers gentle corrections without choking; a dual-clip harness, which offers superior control and support; a durable leash like one from Mendota for managing pulls and tugs; and a strong carabiner to securely connect the collar and harness, ensuring your rescue dog cannot escape.
After handling literally hundreds of rescue dogs over the years, using all kinds of equipment both donated and purchased myself, I’ve come to some pretty concrete ideas about what I think is the best setup for walking a rescue dog. I’ll tell you that setup now, and then I’ll go into some alterations you may decide on depending on the dog.
What’s the best collar for leash training a rescue dog?
The best collar for leash training a rescue dog is a Martingale collar. Its limited-slip design prevents dogs from slipping out of their collars while ensuring that the collar doesn’t choke them. It’s the ideal collar for leash training a rescue or any other dog.
It’s’ especially useful for breeds with heads narrower than their necks, like Greyhounds and Whippets. But its functionality also makes it a great leash for dogs that pull or who are not used to walking on a leash.
The term “martingale” actually comes from the equestrian world. A martingale is a piece of equipment used on horses to control head carriage. It prevents them from raising their heads too high. The martingale collar for dogs works on a similar principle: when pulled, the collar tightens to a certain extent, providing control without choking the dog.
Here’s how a Martingale collar works
The Martingale collar consists of two loops. The larger loop is the main collar that goes around the dog’s neck and has an adjustable length. The smaller loop, where the leash is attached, is the control loop.
The smaller loop pulls the larger loop tight (but only up to a point) whenever there is tension from either end of the leash.
When a dog tries to pull, the tension on the leash pulls the small loop taut, which makes the large loop smaller and tighter around the neck, but not to the point of choking. When the tension is released, the collar loosens again.
Martingale collars make it nearly impossible for your dog to get free of the collar. Plus, because they offer immediate feedback to the dog when they pull, they are a more effective tool for leash training than traditional buckle collars.
And, unlike choke collars and slip leads that continuously tighten and can cause serious injury, the Martingale collar’s “limited slip” design is safer because it tightens only up to a certain extent. This prevents potential injuries and stress from choking.
They are especially beneficial for dogs that might try to pull out of their collars, and they are great for loose leash training a rescue dog because they offer a more gentle correction than more popular collars.
What’s the best Martingale collar?
The best Martingale collar is the Max and Neo Nylon Martingale Collar. Not only does Max and Neo donate a collar to a shelter for every collar purchased, their collars offer special features that set them apart. The lockable buckle, designated tag loop, and choice between a chain or nylon strap set them apart.
I overwhelmingly recommend Max and Neo Martingale collars over their competitors like the PetSafe Martingale Collar or the Blueberry Martingale collar. I do like that Blueberry allows you to customize the collar with your pet’s name and your contact info, but that gets confusing fast when working with rescue dogs.
Max and Neo Makes the Best Collar for Rescue Dogs
Buying a collar from Max and Neo gives you the following unique benefits:
- Charitable Donations: Max and Neo has a one-for-one donation model. For every collar purchased, they donate one to a dog rescue or shelter. I’ve seen this firsthand; there are a lot of these collars in my local shelters’ donation boxes). I really appreciate a company that consistently strives to do more.
- Lockable Buckle: I typically prefer a collar that can be unlatched quickly. It’s invaluable for emergencies like a dog getting hung up on something. However, the thought of the latch breaking loose at the wrong time is simply terrifying. That’s why I like the Max and Neo’s lockable buckle; just slide the mechanism to prevent it from unclasping. It can be unlocked in an instant, and it’s never failed me in the years I’ve used it.
- Chain or Nylon Strap: As I mentioned, Martingale collars have a limited slip design. When the leash is pulled, the outer loop tightens, constricting the inner loop around the dog’s neck. This provides a secure grip without the endless tightening of a choke collar. The Max and Neo collar gives you the option of a chain or nylon outer loop. The chain produces a click as it tightens, which is great feedback for dogs learning leash manners. However, for more sensitive dogs, the quiet nylon option is preferable.
- Tag Loop: For some reason, many Martingale collar manufacturers overlook providing a simple loop to attach the dog tags to. On Max and Neo collars, a designated loop is thoughtfully positioned to the side, making it easy to read the tag without reaching under the dog’s neck. This is nice because it also keeps the tags from jingling when the leash is pulled.
What’s the best harness for leash training a rescue dog?
The best harness for training a rescue dog should have two leash clips, one on the back close to the neck, and one on the chest over the sternum. Step-in vest designs are the most convenient and comfortable for your dog, and a harness that utilizes a limited-slip design, too, is best for training your rescue dog.
Harnesses work better for dogs that have been trained to walk on a leash, not dogs that are learning a loose leash walk for the first time. One study found that shelter dogs pulled harder on a harness than a leash when they wanted to get to food.
Harnesses are an essential part of training a dog to walk on a leash. They may be a better long-term solution than a collar for dog who can loose-leash walk. For dogs that shouldn’t be walked on a leash, like many small breeds and dogs with short muzzles like Pugs or French Bulldogs, a harness is the only safe option.
Who makes the best harness for training a rescue dog?
The PetSafe 3-in-1 No-Pull Dog Harness has all of the important features of a great dog harness for training a rescue dog. It has a clip in the front with a limited-slip design, great for when your dog upgrades to harness-only walks. And it features a clip on the back that works great for collar-harness leash training.
Many harnesses only have a single clip on the front or the back, which gives you less versatility.
Back-clip harnesses are the most common type of harness. Using it alone is best for calm dogs that don’t pull much because it doesn’t offer much control. However, when used with a carabiner attached to a Martingale collar, it’s the perfect training tool (more on that later).
You’ll want to get a harness that has a clip on the front, too. Front-clip harnesses provide more control over the dog’s direction and can deter pulling, especially when used with a limited-slip design.
PetSafe No-Pull harness
This is why I like the PetSafe No-Pull harness: it has the features of a Martingale collar but in a harness, making it perfect for transitioning your rescue dog away from the complicated training setup.
I’m not nearly as particular about the harness as I am about the collar. The Dexil Limited “Adopt ME” is a popular choice at my local shelter, and I’ve got no problem with it at all. I like that it can be slipped smoothly over the chest and has a lot of adjustability on the girth. I find that a large size works for a wide range of dogs.
This is also a great donation option if you’re looking to help out your local shelters. You can just change the shipping address to the rescue or shelter you want to support.
Regardless of the type of harness you select, the key is to ensure it fits snugly and securely. Additionally, it’s vital that the harness has a leash attachment near the neck, close to the collar.
What’s the best leash for training a rescue dog?
Mendota has a long history of use with working dogs. It is overwhelmingly my preferred choice when it comes to training leashes for rescue dogs.
The half-inch thick, 6 ft long variety is my favorite. It’s durable enough to handle the pulls and tugs that often come with training a rescue dog, and the 6ft long leash gives the dog some space is not so long that you lose control. It doesn’t hurt that it comes in a huge variety of colors and patterns.
I usually put a few knots in it up and down the length to make it easier to grip and shorten it a little bit, depending on the particular dog I’m working with.
My Mendota leashes have gone through a lot, and while I do eventually retire them, it’s almost always because a dog finally spent enough time chewing at it to do some damage.
Fleece leashes have gained popularity, especially in agility and other dog sports where letting the dog bite the leash is actually used as a reward and a training technique. Naturally, these make great leashes for anyone wanting to leash train a rescue dog who is prone to biting the leash.
When a dog bites into a fleece leash, the fleece material allows their teeth to sink in and then retract without causing any damage to the leash.
These fleece leashes might come with a slightly higher price tag compared to other leash types and they typically lack the extra features that other leashes boast. However, their durability and simple design may make them worth the investment if you plan on working with a dog who is prone to biting the leash.
If you want to go this route, I’ve used this one before with great results.
Bite-proof flat leashes often don’t live up to their name. A determined dog with strong jaws can gnaw through them quicker than you might expect.
While dogs might be more prone to biting soft, round leashes, these types generally withstand damage better over a short period. Teeth go in and out of a fleece or Mendota leash without damaging it.
However, what’s most important about the leashes I recommend is that you can grip them without hurting your hand, and you can wrap them for a tighter grip.
Though I’ve experimented with various “bite-proof” leashes, none have really impressed me, and I don’t often use them. Most shelter dogs that bite on the leash can be taught not to relatively quickly. However, I have had some committed leash biters for which I used a bite-proof leash.
Between cable and chain varieties of bite prof leashes, I lean towards cable. Dogs can get their teeth caught in chains and risk damaging their teeth.
I haven’t tried the Mighty Paw Chew Proof Dog Leash, but I like the simplicity of the steel cable design.
The Secret Ingredient: The Carabiner
You won’t find this in the dog section at Petco, but it’s still an essential piece of equipment for walking a rescue dog (you’ll see why in the next section).
Opt for a carabiner or carabiners made from strong materials like stainless steel or aircraft-grade aluminum.
Choose a size or quantity that is proportionate to the size of your dog and the distance between the clip on the back of their harness and the clip on their collar. You may need to connect two or more clips for them to connect securely and comfortably for your rescue.
A locking mechanism is ideal for powerful dogs or those that may bite at the equipment.
Carabiners are readily available at most hardware stores, but some are designed to just be keychains and can’t actually handle the weight of a lunging dog, especially a big shelter dog.
These ones by GABBRO can handle up to 2,697 pounds, so they’ll surely be the last piece in your setup to fail. They’re affordable, and buying the wrong ones puts a weak link in your chain.
Putting Your Leash Training Gear Together
Put on the harness securely, but loose enough that you can easily slip two fingers under it. Adjust the Martingale so it’s tight enough not to slip over the dog’s head when pressure is applied to the leash, but loose enough that it hangs loose when there’s no pressure.
Attach the carabiner to the harness’s neck ring and through the collar ring. You can connect the leash to the Martingale, harness, or both. If the dog escapes the collar, the harness secures them and vice versa.
For more detailed instructions, check out my article about leash training a rescue dog.
Why Use Both a Martingale and a Harness?
A martingale collar alone is great for a dog you’re familiar with who knows how to walk on a leash. But harnesses distribute the force of a pulling dog across their body, making it easier for you to handle them. And they redirect that force away from their neck in a way that collars simply cannot.
Harnesses in this setup are also a tool to physically guide or lift your dog if needed.
That said, harnesses are notoriously easy to slip out of if a dog gets bucking at the end of the leash. With this arrangement, you get the benefits of a harness and the security of a collar.
If all goes well, your rescue dog will be able to learn to walk on the leash while getting gentle corrections from the Martingale collar through the tension supplied by the harness via the carabiners.
If your dog slips the harness, you’ll still be attached to them by your leash, carabiners, and martingale collar.
Essentially, there is no way for you to lose your dog if you use these tools to leash-train your rescue dog, as long as you don’t let go of the leash. While this process involves an added step, the enhanced security and peace of mind it offers are invaluable, especially when managing powerful dogs.
Other Leash Training Tools
Here’s a quick overview of equipment you might want to try or read the reviews for. Some may help some dogs, but most aren’t appropriate for beginning leash training a rescue dog.
- Hands-Free Leash: I wouldn’t advise this until you know the dog better. It can be a good secondary measure of safety if you’re working with a dog that is particularly prone to bolting. However, keep your hands on the leash at all times so you won’t go for a ride.
- Long Lines: The further you get from a dog, the less control you have. That’s why long lines aren’t my favorite for training a rescue dog to leash walk. Down the road, when your dog has good leash training and you’re working on off-leash work, socialization, or other training, a long line may be useful. I recommend Mendota when shopping for a long line.
- E-Collar: There’s absolutely a place for an e-collar in leash training a rescue dog in some circumstances. However, it isn’t realistic for most people working with rescue dogs. If you want to use an e-collar, attach the beep to a treat as a way to redirect a dog’s attention and train them on the go. Think of it like a clicker, but because it’s right against the dog’s face and always makes the exact same sound, it can be more reliable.
This E-Collar by Bousnic is the one that we chose for our dog and we’re very satisfied with it.
The Gentle Leader controls dogs similarly to how a horse’s halter controls them. It applies pressure on the dog’s nose bridge, stopping pulling and directing the head downward. While potentially effective, it may be uncomfortable, so I don’t typically recommend them for rescue dogs.
The pull can be painful at first, especially for a dog that isn’t used to wearing it. However, in very rare cases, when adopters or fosters are struggling to keep a dog because they can’t walk it, I may suggest working with a trainer to transition to a Gentle Leader.
Don’t Use These Training Tools
These are tools I never recommend using. If all you’ve got is a flat nylon, chain, or multi-handle leash, then it can be used in a pinch. However, I’d never use stretchy or retractable leashes because they offer so little control.
- Stretchy Leashes: Don’t use them. The idea is that the stretch in the leash warns the dog of an impending correction and that it softens the tension for you as you pull. In reality, it turns pulling into a super fun game, which many bully-type dogs already think leash walking is.
- Retractable Leashes: While they might offer a dog more freedom to roam, the thin cord can easily snap, and they’re notorious for causing injuries to both dogs and humans. When training, particularly with rescue dogs that might have unpredictable behaviors, you need control and consistency. Retractable leashes don’t give handlers this, making them a poor choice for leash training. Furthermore, there’s a serious issue with them snapping back and causing serious injury to the handler’s eye.
- Standard flat nylon leashes: Steer clear of popular flat nylon leashes that will rip your hands to shreds. Though they might look sleek, they can really do damage, especially when your rescue dog pulls as they learn how to leash walk.
- Chain leashes: I touched on this previously, but I don’t like using chains because of the concern that a dog’s teeth will get snagged in it and break. Also, it has an intimidating look that isn’t ideal for rescue dogs.
- Multi-handle leashes: Leashes with two or more handles may seem like a smart choice, but these additional handles are more likely to tangle your dog’s legs then help you walk them. When you’re trying to control a dog, you will grip every part of the leash, so the handles don’t really help much.
More Essential Tools For Leash Training A Rescue Dog
- ID Tags: The dog should always carry the shelter’s name and identification number or your contact information. They should also always wear their rabies tags.
Don’t leave home without them. They should be extra special treats reserved for leash walks. I love boiled chicken, but liver-flavored treats usually work too.
Always carry plenty of water during long walks, especially in hot weather. Even on cooler days, rescue dogs, prone to excitement and anxiety, may pant and need extra water. A dog-specific water bottle offers a handy way to quench their thirst.
You’ll probably need a good relationship with a rescue dog to pull this off. If you want to walk a rescue dog when it’s very hot or cold, consider training them to tolerate booties.
Rain or Snow Jacket
Shelter dogs, especially short-coated bully breeds, can get cold quickly in cold or wet conditions. Preparing them with a jacket can help keep rain or snow from stopping your leash training sessions.
The smells brought out by the rain make it a favorite walk for many dogs. So, throw a rain jacket on them and get going.
Don’t be THAT person. Bring more dog poop bags than you think you need. Rescue dogs often have digestive issues, especially if they’re on one of their first walks out of the shelter and feeling a bit anxious.
Dog Mace: I cannot overemphasize the importance of dog mace. This specific dog mace has literally saved me, my husband, my baby, my dogs, and countless rescues and stranger dogs multiple times. I always have two or three on hand. The citronella-based product is harmless but can disorient a dog long enough for you to regain control. I call it invaluable for chance encounters with both aggressive and overly friendly dogs, especially when your rescue is just learning to walk on a leash and socialize “in the wild.” Another great product on this list by PetSafe.
Reflective Equipment for Nighttime Walks
Walking reactive dogs at night can minimize encounters with other dogs, which can help equip them with the leash walking skills they’ll need when they do encounter other dogs.
Prioritize safety by equipping them with a light-up collar or reflective collar or harness. You should also wear something reflective and carry a flashlight.
Phone and Emergency Contact:
Always bring your phone and ensure someone knows you’re out walking a shelter dog. They should be available to help in case of an emergency.
Before You Get Started
Before you start leash training, aim to start with a calm dog. If you’re beginning at the shelter, take the dog out to the yard and let them run to their heart’s content. At home? Go outside and play until the dog is happy and relaxed.
If you’re unfamiliar with the dog, spend some time bonding before you begin. When you’re working with a shelter dog, spend an hour or so in the yard getting to know them.
Introduce the dog to the leash well before you’re ready to walk. If they seem apprehensive, it can be beneficial to let them drag it around while rewarding them with treats before using it to guide them.
Ensure you have plenty of treats, water, and all the essentials we discussed earlier for the walk.
When holding the leash, always loop it around your wrist and then grip the main line. This way, if the dog pulls and your hand slips, you’ll still have the loop. I find it useful to tie a couple of knots in the leash for added grip and to shorten a long leash on a new dog.
Always check the weather and prepare accordingly. If you’re unfamiliar with the dog and thunderstorms are looming, consider waiting until the weather is clear, as thunder can be a trigger for many dogs.
Choose Command Words
Before starting, determine how you’ll communicate with the rescue dog. While they may not understand the commands initially, they’ll learn over time. You’ll be surprised by how quickly rescue dogs pick up on commands like “heel,” “leave it,” and “come.”
Select a Side
Select a side (your left or right) that you’re most comfortable with and be consistent. This consistency will help both of you move in sync and avoid tripping.
Pick Your Distractors
As you walk, try out different distraction techniques. Begin when the dog is merely glancing around and see if you can redirect their attention to you using a toy, treat, or touch. Knowing how to capture their focus will be crucial when faced with more significant distractions.
Plan Your Route
Start in an area with minimal distractions, if possible. However, I understand that in a shelter environment, this might not always be feasible. But aiming to find a location where your dog isn’t overly reactive as you begin training will set them up for success.
Get Ready to Zigzag
When you commence walking, the dog will likely lunge forward and tug on the leash. This behavior is typical for dogs with limited or no leash training.
If they do, simply change direction, use an upbeat tone, a command like “come,” and encourage your dog to follow.
There’s no need to correct the pulling; instead, reinforce the behavior you desire. Do not use the leash to reprimand the dog. You’re merely changing direction and urging the dog to join you, not yanking or punishing. When they follow, reward them with praise, a toy, or a treat.
This method, sometimes referred to as the Major-Minor Walking Program, is the most effective way I’ve found to teach a rescue dog not to pull on the leash. The dog learns that tugging leads to the opposite of their intention. The goal is to ensure the dog doesn’t pull on the leash, even if you’re walking in circles.
Watch for Triggers
I’m going to discuss a few of the most common ones here, but please don’t assume this list is exhaustive. I’ve had dogs react to the most inexplicable things, from traffic cones to a sudden clearing of trees revealing the open sky. You truly never know.
That’s why you always need to be observant of your dog’s reactions and be prepared for anything.
The ears are an excellent indication of how your dog is feeling. This can be challenging for those of us working with bully breeds with cropped ears.
However, you can still discern the intonation of the dog’s ears: pulling back in anxiety or fear or perking forward in attention. Ideally, you want your dog’s ears to be relaxed and to the side, occasionally perking up when they detect something but without hyperfocus. The dog should glance back at you occasionally, especially if you talk to them. They shouldn’t be constantly looking up at you or clinging to you.
It’s essential to observe body language as well. The dog’s gait should be loose, and the tail should drift behind them or be held slightly up. The head should be at a comfortable height for walking. A dog with its head held high and tail arched may be on the verge of overfocus or reactivity.
In contrast, a dog with its head and tail held low, maintaining a tense body close to the ground, is likely fearful and should be guided back to a less stimulating environment.
If you sense that your dog is becoming overstimulated or triggered, simply turn around and go in another direction.
Over time, you’ll deliberately expose them to these triggers to reduce their effect, but we’re not at that stage yet.
Here are some of the most common triggers I’ve encountered:
- Other Dogs: Whether they want to play, attack, run away, or they’re unsure, many rescue dogs have a potent reaction to other dogs. It’s best to avoid them at first
- Things on Wheels: Cars, bicycles, strollers, skateboards — you name it, I’ve seen a dog lose its composure over it. Cars, for some reason, seem to be especially common triggers.
- Prey or the Smell of Prey: The rescue dog doesn’t necessarily need to see a squirrel; a strong scent might be enough to send them racing after it. This is especially true of hounds and gundogs.
- People: Some dogs may have limited exposure to humans, resulting in varying reactions to different individuals. Pay attention to your dog’s responses. Do they react differently to men and women? How about those wearing hats or holding items?
Keep It Up
The first walk is a huge step between you and a rescue. You may see positive results in your dog after the first successful leash walk, but each additional walk offers another opportunity for your dog to engage with the environment, explore new scents, and expend pent-up energy.
The repetitive physical activity helps build muscles, endurance, and cardiovascular health, which many rescue dogs particularly lack. And frequent walks can lead to better behavior; with more outlets for their energy and curiosity, dogs are less likely to exhibit destructive behaviors.
I frequently take out the same shelter dogs to build a deeper relationship with them. While it pains me to see the other dogs get less attention, I believe this continuous interaction greatly benefits the dogs most in need. Especially for those with poor kennel presence, consistent attention helps address behavioral issues and highlights their potential to adopters.
Create as Much Routine as Possible
Maintaining a regular walking routine provides structure and predictability, which can help reduce anxiety and instill a sense of security in your rescue dog. Your dog will learn to anticipate and look forward to going out into the world and getting some exercise with you at least once or twice, if not more, every day.
Based on your circumstances and specific dog, maintaining an ideal schedule for leash training might be challenging. However, you can establish a routine in almost any situation.
Even if you’re just visiting a dog at the shelter when you get a chance, create the same routine. Take the dog into the yard, bond for a while, and then go on your walk. If you are fostering the dog or it’s your dog, walks should happen daily if at all possible.
Twice daily is even better. Three times? Amazing. The more you walk, the faster your dog will learn. Just make sure you set realistic goals and stick to them like glue.
Falling out of a routine can disrupt your dog’s sense of stability, leading to potential behavioral issues and increased stress.
How to Walk Your Dog More
In researching this article, I stumbled upon a fascinating study published by BMC Veterinary Research that studied nearly 300 dogs and owners to understand what factors influence dog owners to walk their dogs daily.
Owning multiple dogs, a small dog, and increasing numbers of people in the household were negatively associated with daily dog walking, and thus may be barriers or disincentives to dog walking. Other factors associated with daily dog walking were related to the strength of the dog-human relationship, for example: acquiring the dog for the purposes of a hobby; letting the dog lie on furniture (which may indicate a closer relationship); and letting the dog lie on laps (that may reflect a relationship based more on tactile interactions and comfort than enjoying shared outdoor activities).Westgarth, C., Christian, H.E. & Christley, R.M. Factors associated with daily walking of dogs. BMC Vet Res 11, 116 (2015)
Many people struggle to walk their dogs regularly. So, after spending way too much time analyzing the studies various tables, I made the following Dos and Dont’s list of behaviors. If you follow this guide, you WILL be more likely to walk your dog more frequently:
|Walk in the country.|
|Walk in a group sometimes|
(or every time!).
|Stick to set routes and times so you get in the habit of seeing the same people and dogs.|
|Change your walking route occasionally to see new people and dogs.|
|Keep walks between 16-30 minutes.|
|Play fetch games in between walks.|
|Ensure your dog is playful with other dogs.|
|Encourage your dog to have free roam of the house.|
|Regularly check up on your dog’s health and ensure they haven’t had any walking-related health issues.|
|Assign one main person for dog duties.|
|Get a Gundog, Terrier, or Working breed.|
|Get a dog for the right reasons, like companionship, as a hobby, or for exercise.|
|Work in sales (only 46% of salesmen walk their dogs daily compared to 90% of personal service workers).|
|Walk alone with your dog every time.|
|Walk in the same place so often that you both zone out.|
|Own a horse (you’re twice as likely to skip walking your dog if you own a horse).|
|Take walks over an hour long.|
|Play chase or rough-and-tumble games in between walks.|
|Let your dog growl at household members.|
|Let your dog lie on laps in the house.|
|Skip the vet check-up and vaccinations.|
|Share walking responsibilities with more than one other person.|
|Get A Toy Or Miniature dog|
|Get a dog just because a family member wanted one.|
Build Up to Leash Cues
As your dog gets better at responding to your directional cues, you can experiment with a leash pull to grab their attention, rather than completely changing directions.
This is not a leash correction; it’s a mild pull – a gentle tug, just enough to get their attention. If it doesn’t get the dog to turn around, your dog isn’t ready for this more subtle correction yet.
Be very careful you do not overcorrect and venture into negative reinforcement training. Studies have shown that, while it’s true that negative training techniques are equally effective at leash training dogs as positive ones, those same studies also prove that positive reinforcement makes happier, more attentive, less stressed dogs.
If a gentle pull causes your dog to come back and check in with you, reward them with all of your heart. This is a huge step towards loose-leash walking.
Train a Heel
A good heel makes any rescue dog look like a stellar candidate for adoption. It’s actually not nearly as hard to train the heel as many people assume. What’s hard is convincing a dog to hold it for any amount of time.
- Hold the treat by your side.
- Say the command word “heel”.
- Reward the dog with treats as they walk beside you.
- If the dog follows closely, periodically give the treat and offer praise.
- If the dog pulls ahead or drifts away:
- Stop walking.
- Guide them back to the correct position.
- Continue walking.
- Avoid delaying the treat until you stop; they might associate the reward with stopping.
- Over time, lengthen the intervals between treats.
- Once done with the “heel” command, deliberately release the dog into a loose leash walk.
Explore and Build
It’s natural to settle into walking the same path you’re used to, especially if you’re worried about your dog being reactive. However, dogs must be trained in lots of different situations in order to internalize training.
Build up to bringing your dog to new and potentially more triggering environments. Ideally, they’ll be able to walk with you through a pet store, a busy city sidewalks, or a forest trail with equal ease.
Rescue dogs learn best on an X + 1 learning strategy: always push them a little bit.
Just be careful not to leap too far and ask for something they’ll fail at (it’s X+1, not X+5). Being challenged and succeeding is how your dog gains confidence and joy in learning.
Speed It Up
Your dog is right: the faster you go, the better.
I know it seems unintuitive to take off running down the road with a powerful rescue dog, and it’s definitely not the first step, but dogs are much more responsive when at a trot than at a walk. You’ll find it requires fewer corrections and that you can go in a straighter direction if you move faster.
Mix It Up
Don’t treat the walk as just exercise; treat it like a combination of agility, obedience, and a stroll in the park.
Blending walking with training exercises is a great way to engage multiple commands and behaviors with your dog simultaneously. While walking, spontaneously request a sit and give them lots of praise if they sit. Change direction abruptly and if they easily follow, again, lots of rewards. Be funny; try walking backwards or get them to jump on walls or benches.
Have Them Carry Something
Lots of dogs do better on walks when they’re holding something in their mouth. Ensure it doesn’t hinder their ability to pant, but if it’s small and smooth, it should be fine. Breeds like Bullies and retrievers are particularly suitable for this method.
Carrying something seems to help rescue dogs in managing their impulse control, possibly because it gives them a sense of purpose.
I know, it gets old walking zigzags all over the neighborhood like a crazy person for the second month in a row because your rescue dog just won’t stop pulling.
As rescue dogs get more confident in their environment with their person, they’re likely to act out with new confidence and get new ideas.
This means that you may need to take a few steps back or even go all the way back to square one.
That’s okay. I promise they’ll learn it faster the second time. However, if you give in to letting your rescue dog pull you down the block or bite at the leash when they’re feeling excited, you’re not doing them any favors.
You’ll be less likely to want to take them for a walk, and if they’re a dog that’s up for adoption, so will whoever would want to adopt them.
Trouble walking a dog is one of the most common reasons I hear that fosters give up, volunteers avoid certain dogs, or adopters surrender the dog back to the shelter. And that’s fair; walking a powerful dog can be dangerous.
I’ve encountered numerous accounts of individuals sustaining injuries like hip fractures or ankle strains due to handling a strong, untrained rescue dog. It’s ok to ask for help.
- Dog walkers: A good dog walker won’t just walk your dog, they’ll work on leash handling just like you do, extending your training and quickening the results.
- Dog trainers: If your dog has special issues to work on like leash reactivity, a professional dog trainer may be the best option.
- Dog walking groups: Sociable dogs tend to settle down into the same gait when they walk in groups.
- Essential oils or medications: These kinds of things are hit or miss but are helpful for some dogs who are just too excitable.
Common Loose-Leash Walking Problems
Common leash problems include pulling, especially in bully breeds, barking, fear in unknown areas, dog and people aggression, chasing prey and other things, lunging, jumping, over-excitement, going dead weight, and marking.
All of these have simple fixes if you know what you’re doing and have the time, patience, and resources to address them:
Every rescue dog I’ve encountered pulls on the leash, though some more than others.
Bully breeds are known pullers, making them great at activities like weight pulling or bikejoring, but not ideal for casual walks. Arctic breeds are naturally inclined to pull, given their breeding to pull carts. Hounds, driven by their sense of smell, often seem oblivious to the leash, regardless of reminders.
How to stop a rescue dog from pulling on the leash: Changing directions will work most of the time, but some dogs are always going to pull sometimes.
Hounds often can’t resist baying at potential prey, other dogs, or even people. Smaller breeds tend to be yippy, either in response to stimuli or just by nature. Barking usually indicates an overstimulated dog.
How to stop a rescue dog from barking on the leash: Pull back into a less stimulating environment or distract them with one of the distraction techniques you’ve developed.
Fearful dogs are often most fearful on walks. Unknown environments and missing a safe space can be very intimidating. While it takes a lot of patience, I’ve never failed to get a fearful dog to eventually enjoy a walk.
How to help a fearful rescue dog walk on the leash:
- If the dog is afraid of the leash, you can try the “around the house” method where they wear the leash while you supervise and praise them inside. The “gentle love” method is another great option in which the leash only goes on when you’re playing, thereby associating the leash with positive experiences.
- If they’re afraid of the walk, choose as calm, low-triggering environments as possible, and make sure they have plenty of yummy treats. If your rescue dog is still shut down and won’t eat treats, they may just not be ready for walks yet.
Dog aggression commonly lands dogs in shelters. Unsurprisingly, living in a cell surrounded by hundreds of barking dogs doesn’t help them get over their dog aggression.
While many rescue dogs show specific aggressions, such as barrier or leash-related, they often play well off-leash. Overcoming this reactivity can be a lengthy process.
How to help a dog-aggressive dog walk on a leash: Let your dog approach another until they notice but don’t react. Reward their calm behavior. As they adjust, move closer. Start with dogs they’re least reactive to, like smaller ones, those of the opposite gender, or non-aggressive ones.
People-aggression in a rescue dog can be extremely frightening. This is something that needs to be taken seriously.
It’s unacceptable to allow your rescue dog to frighten or put people in danger during the training process. Think hard about whether you are up for this.
How to leash train an aggressive dog: Muzzle training is a crucial first step when working with aggressive dogs, but it is imperative that you work with a trainer. If you’re working with a rescue dog as a volunteer or foster, tell your foster or volunteer coordinator about the aggression as soon as you see it.
Dogs naturally have a chasing instinct, and often forget they’re on a leash when tempted. It might be challenging to entirely curb their urge to chase animals, wheels, or running children
How to leash train a dog who chases things: By recognizing your dog’s triggers, you can get ahead of the reactions. If something triggers your dog, like a prey scent, distract them with a high-value treat or toy. Over time, this can help them resist the urge to chase while leashed.
Lunging most often occurs when dogs are trying to chase something, but some dogs are also prone to lunging as a way to try to get leverage on the leash. It’s particularly common in herding breeds.
How to leash train a dog who lunges: The trick is to get ahead of the lunge and distract them in the same way as if your dog was chasing something. You can tell a lunge is coming by looking for the attentive ears and the gathering of weight into the haunches.
Dogs might jump on you out of excitement, anxiety, or affection during a walk. Regardless of the reason, it’s not suitable on a leash. Such behavior can unbalance you, leading to falls or a dropped leash. It can easily throw you off balance and cause a fall or dropped leash.
How to leash train a dog who jumps: Calmly turn away from the dog and continue the walk. Do not push back on them. Pushing back is an invitation to a give and take, which isn’t what you want.
Whether spinning in circles, manically yipping, or generally behaving like a yo-yo at the end of the leash, shelter dogs are frequently too excited on leash walks.
How to leash train an overly excited dog: Before walking, it’s best to try to get their excess energy out through exercise and play. However, if they get over-excited during the walk, engage them in obedience or focus games, like tossing a treat. If a specific stimulus excites them, walk in calmer environments.
This isn’t the most common problem I encounter, but it definitely happens, especially with hounds and older dogs. It’s challenging with unfamiliar dogs to know if they’re being stubborn or having an actual medical issue.
How to leash train a dog who goes limp: Wait it out. If the dog doesn’t get up or you’re worried that there’s something wrong within 20 minutes or so, call a support person to come get you and bring your dog to the vet immediately.
Marking isn’t a serious behavior for most people walking rescue dogs. It’s normal for dogs to mark, particularly male dogs. Many rescue dogs aren’t fixed until they come to the shelter, which means they may be habituated markers for a long time.
How to stop a dog from marking on leash walks: Call them away as they begin to approach it and give them a high-value reward. If you do this repeatedly, you’ll see that your dog looks to you for a reward when they see a place they would normally have marked.
Most dogs want to move significantly faster than the average person walking them, leading them to pull on the leash to encourage us to speed up. Furthermore, many breeds have been selectively bred to pull sleds (like huskies) or carts (like Rottweilers), making pulling instinctive.
Use both a harness and a collar, connected by a carabiner, to walk a rescue dog if you want total confidence that they will not slip out. This arrangement allows you to switch between the increased control of the martingale and the increased comfort of the harness at will.
Frequent direction changes are key to training a rescue dog not to pull on the leash. Dogs pull because they want to move in the direction they’re pulling. Changing directions breaks their focus and teaches them that pulling won’t get them what they want, which, in turn, encourages positive behaviors.
Puppy leash training is simple, but it’s important you do it right the first time. Habitual leash issues are harder to fix. Start by familiarizing them with the leash indoors. Connect a gentle tug to commands, rewarding movement towards you. Regular rewards for approaching and changing directions during pulls break will prevent them from developing bad habits.
Elderly dogs, untrained on a leash, might exhibit stronger resistance due to ingrained habits and health issues. Train an older dog the same way as you would any dog but make sure to go slower and be patient with their slower pace.
Follow the same techniques you would if you were training the dog in the first place with frequent direction changes whenever they pull and rewards when they follow you. Introducing additional actions such as spontaneous sits, stays, and enjoyable activities like “toss the treat” can jazz up training sessions, fostering increased engagement and cooperation.
Whether or not you can teach a rescue dog to be off-leash depends tremendously on the dog. Breeds trained to return, like retrievers and herding breeds, tend to excel off-leash, while hounds and Northern breeds, accustomed to more freedom and independence, may face challenges being off-leash. It’s best to work with a trainer if you are moving towards off-leash training with your rescue dog.