Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
How to Calm Your Dog Down for a Leash Walk
If your dog gets overly excited and wiggly when it sees the leash, you probably get frustrated trying to clip the leash on. On top of that, you may even be tired of getting dragged towards the door. Luckily, there are two ways you can tackle this issue. First, let's start by understanding why the leash is so exciting in the first place.
Why Do Dogs Get Excited When They See the Leash?
Let's think like our dog. A leash on its own may be a neutral stimulus and something that your dog could care less about. In fact, a puppy who has never seen or worn a leash before may even perceive it as annoying, entertaining, or something to chew on.
As your puppy or dog gets used to having the leash clipped on and taken for a walk, the leash starts to represent some strong, positive associations. It turns into a conditioned stimulus (previously a neutral stimulus), and your dog develops a conditioned emotional response to it.
This conditioned response may consist of excitement, tail wagging, wiggling, and even jumping. For some dogs who are fearful of the great outdoors—those scared of noises, seeing people, or other dogs—their emotional response may be based more on fear than excitement. Some dogs are so terrified of going out that they may hide at the sight of the leash; the majority of dogs get excited.
The Leash Signifies Stimulation
The leash signifies the opportunity for a walk and is associated with a package of good things such as releasing pent-up energy, emptying the bladder and bowels, sniffing, and for the social butterflies out there, meeting other people and dogs.
Many dog owners attempt to tone down this excitement by scolding their dogs. Yet, this often leads to problems. In sensitive dogs, it may lead them to mistrust the owner, or negatively associate the act of going outside. Fortunately, there are alternatives to getting angry and scolding your dog.
Instead of getting angry or frustrated, you can tackle the excitement in two ways:
- Use the leash to your advantage to reinforce desired behaviors.
- Reduce the salience of the leash.
Technique 1: The "Unleash the Calmness Method"
If every time you grab the leash and your dog gets excited just by seeing it, you will have to start changing things, or you'll be stuck with a dog that lacks impulse control. Your dog may even engage in these behaviors for many other aspects of its life if you don't gain some control over them now.
If you attach the leash every time your dog sees it and goes crazy, you are reinforcing the behavior. By default, your dog will engage in the excited behavior no matter how often you tell them to stay calm. Let's start with the "Unleash the Calmness Method:"
- Ask Your Dog to Sit: Learn to tone down the excitement and clip on the leash only when the dog is calm. One way to accomplish this is to ask your dog to sit; this way, you will have rewarded the sitting behavior.
- Walk Away From Undesirable Behavior: What if your dog gets up right when you are about to clip on the leash? In that scenario, stop trying to clip the leash, turn around, and walk away. By doing this, you are informing your dog that their excited behavior sends you away.
- Be Persistent: Come back and try again. If your dog is still wiggly and bouncy, make a turn and try again. At some point, your dog will tire out from acting excited and will get the message. You should, therefore, start seeing some calmer behaviors. At that point, ask for the sit, clip the leash on, and go for a walk.
- Don't Be Afraid to Repeat the Technique: What if your dog sits nicely when you clip the leash on but pulls towards the door, jumping and acting hyper again? In that case, once again, turn around. You don't want to reinforce this behavior. Make sure you exit the door only when your dog is in a calmer state of mind.
It may take some time to get out of the door the first few times, but since you keep going towards the door and then turning the moment your dog acts hyper, your dog will get tired; you will eventually start to see a calmer dog. Things get better once your dog understands that calmness equals walking towards the door and getting out. If you are consistent, you will notice an improvement.
Technique 2: My "Unpower the Leash Method"
On top of reinforcing calm behaviors when you put on your dog's leash and walk towards the door, it helps to loosen the association between the leash and walks. Basically, you are toning down some of its power to evoke excitement. How is this done? Make the leash lose its salience. From now on, keep the leash near you:
- Attach it to your belt and walk around with it.
- Keep it next to you on the couch while you are watching TV.
- Pick it up at random times and put it down.
- Grab it when you go to get a drink from the fridge.
You may notice that your dog will come rushing towards you at first when they see or hear it. After doing this exercise several times, you will notice that the excitement gradually tapers down. The leash will become boring!
At some point, your dog will barely turn its head or may keep sleeping when you grab the leash. Try grabbing it and walking towards the door. Again, your dog may rush excitedly towards you and think they're going on a walk. Instead, you will turn and go back to sitting on the couch.
Now, you may notice a bit of frustration building up at times. This is normal for some dogs when they no longer gain reinforcement as they did in the past. Most dogs get over this eventually as they learn to cope with their emotions a little better.
The Benefits of Dissociating the Leash
Once the leash has lost its salience and you are putting the leash on and walking towards the door only when your dog is calm, you are tackling the issue on several fronts:
- You are no longer reinforcing excited behaviors.
- You are rewarding calm behaviors.
- The leash will have assumed less importance so that you can help your dog succeed.
Of course, the above techniques are tailored for dogs who act super excited when they see the leash. Remember, if your dog is super excited, this may be a sign that your dog needs more exercise and mental stimulation. Make sure you provide enough of that so that you will have a calmer and happier dog.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: If I talk to anyone approaching us while walking, my Chihuahua goes crazy. I've tried calming him, but if doesn't last. Can you help me calm my Chihuahua while walking?
Answer: I am assuming your dog is going crazy because he's too excited and wants to meet people? If so, he's likely too over the threshold and you need to work on getting him to a calmer state gradually and systematically. It helps to work with some helpers at first who can approach you from a distance exchange a brief word where your dog is still responsive and practice at that distance until he is calmer, before proceeding to closer distances and for longer chatting times. It also helps (as he gains more composure) to get him tired of seeing people by walking in crowded areas and stop to talk every now and then so to keep up his socialization skills without getting over-excited. Here are more tips: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/How-Can-I-Stop-My-Dog-...
If your dog is instead going crazy because he gets tired and wants to go back to walking, it can help to give him something to do while you chat to keep him busy. You can try to toss him some kibble so he can go "on a treasure hunt" or you can let him target your hand in exchange for a treat, or you can give him a toy to tug every now and then. With time, he should start looking forward to your chit-chatting because great things happen during your talks.
If he is going crazy out of aggression because he's acting protective of you or doesn't like people coming close, please consult with a behavior professional.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 22, 2018:
Ms. Darlene, what a lucky dog to have found such a dedicated owner. Kudos to you!
Ms. Darlene on April 17, 2018:
My 2 year old, shelter save and I have been together 4 months. She was mistreated and now gets a lot of loving and has learned how to receive and give it back. She doesn't like to be off the leash, but, we have made positive baby steps. Your article is going to be helpful to calm her excitement of being leashed. Thank you.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 21, 2018:
Our dog recently died but he was always excited to see the leash. We did however make him sit to attach it to his harness. From reading this it is nice to know that we were doing something right. We used to have some dogs that pulled at the end of the leash and pretty much walked us instead of the other way around. I guess we were not the best animal trainers! Haha!
MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on January 27, 2018:
Thanks Adrienne. I have to admit my dog is the super excited one, and it is probably because I do not take it out enough. - It is a toss up between reading, writing, and walking the dog. . LOL!!- so I will take your tips on board and practice your useful teaching! Great Article.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 23, 2018:
At this point, my guy is usually pretty good about being cooperative with the leash. But I will say that with some subzero cold, ice, and snow we've had, he's been a bit more anxious to get going and lurch for the door. Doggy cabin fever!
Another great article! Thanks for sharing your canine expertise with us!