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The Best Leashes and Techniques to Train a Strong Dog to Walk on a Leash

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

You know you have a well-trained dog when leashes are no longer needed. Off-leash walks are the best, but not many dogs can earn this luxury!

You know you have a well-trained dog when leashes are no longer needed. Off-leash walks are the best, but not many dogs can earn this luxury!

What Leashes Work Best for a Strong Dog?

Leashes, also known as "leads," are what connect dogs to owners. They also ensure that the owner is abiding by local leash laws and keeping the dog safe and out of trouble. There are many leashes on the market nowadays—enough to make heads spin! Choosing the best leash is important to keep a dog and their owner safe. The following are some leashes that are NOT recommended, especially when dealing with large, strong dogs with a predisposition for pulling.

Leashes That Don't Work for Strong Dogs

  • Retractable Leashes. These leashes are really not even recommended with smaller dogs. There are many reports of them causing serious injuries such as amputated fingers and serious eye injuries. Because dogs are often allowed to walk in front of their owners, dogs are also susceptible to potential dangers ahead. For example, dogs have been injured by kids on skateboards or larger dogs that surprise them around corners. You can read what happened to my hand after training a dog for a client who was fond of such leashes.
  • Nylon Leashes. Nylon leashes may look like a good idea and they are often the most common leashes on the market, but they are not the greatest when it comes to dealing with a large, strong dog on the exuberant side. Nylon leashes tend to chafe skin, and if the dog pulls enough, it may even cut through skin causing cuts and abrasions similar to "rope burn".

What leashes to choose, then?

Best Leash for a Strong Dog That Pulls

My favorite is a 6-foot-long leather leash. These leashes may appear tough, but they do soften considerably over time. Braided leather versions often offer the advantage of offering a better grip.

However, ultimately, the choice of leash or collar is superfluous, because they are ultimately tools. No tools should be really used as a replacement for training. If you are here looking for a leash or collar that will miraculously train your dog to heel, you are in the wrong place. Gone are the days of jerk and choke training. If you are looking for the best way to train your dog to successfully walk on the leash, you are in the right place.

A Guide to Loose-Leash Walking

As mentioned earlier, your ultimate goal as a dog owner is to train your dog to walk on a loose leash. This takes time and is best if done in a class setting with several other dogs and people around. If you choose to do private classes or try at home, it is your responsibility to add the distraction element to your training by asking your dog to walk on a loose leash in gradually more and more distracting environments. Many trainers start private classes and then as the dog gets more manageable the presence of other dogs is added.

Following is my personal step-by-step guide to training your dog to walk on a loose leash. It combines a variety of training strategies—COR training—which should help your dog learn how to focus and walk on a loose leash.

How to Train Focus Using COR Training

  1. Make a noise with your mouth, a smacking sound, a whistle or any other noise you can make that you will use throughout your training and that you will stick to for the remaining of your dog's training.
  2. Follow each noise you make with a treat. Noise, treat, noise, treat, noise treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until your dog looks at you for the treat
  3. Once your dog is classically conditioned to associate the noise with the treat, add some operant behavior. Basically, make the noise with your mouth and bring the treat at eye level. Mark the wanted behavior, in this case it's looking at you, with a clicker or a "good boy" the moment your dog makes eye contact and immediately deliver the treat.
  4. Gradually, make eye contact longer by delivering the treat a bit later. For instance, if your dog looked at you for a split second and then you marked and delivered the treat, this time keep the treat at eye level and the moment he looks at you, count to two before you deliver the treat.
  5. Now tell your dog "let's go" and start walking, moving your left leg first. The left leg is an additional cue you are starting to move if your dog walks on your left side. Make the noise with your mouth in motion now and keep your treat at eye level and see how your dog responds. If your dog continues to look up at you, mark the behavior and reward immediately but make sure you reward with your dog in heel position, this means you will deliver the treat right next to your left knee. You want to make the place by your knee very rewarding!

This trains your dog to focus on you and is very helpful for distraction purposes. Because your dog will keep an eye on you and the treat, he will be walking on a loose leash. Your dog cannot lunge, bark and pull towards other dogs if he is busy looking at you and that tasty high-value treat you are carrying!

Best of all, if your dog is somewhat fearful or aggressive of other dogs and you do the focus exercise every time he crosses a dog, you may change his emotional state from "Oh, no a dog! bark, bark, bark," to "Oh, a dog! Where is my treat, where is my treat!".

Obviously, this exercise needs to be taught sub-threshold and very gradually at first, which means your dog will need to be at a certain distance from its distracting triggers. If your dog is too aroused, chances are he may not take treats or will be too nervous to even pay attention to you.

Heel position with attention (Note: For competitions, dogs should be sitting tighter and closer.)

Heel position with attention (Note: For competitions, dogs should be sitting tighter and closer.)

How to Train a Dog to Come to Heel

To encourage loose-leash walking, you want your dog in heel position, which means his shoulder is even with your left knee. Your goal is to walk with your leash forming a nice "U." To start from the right step, you should train your dog how to "come to heel."

There are two ways of training this: one way has the dog circle you (you will pass the treat from your right hand to your left hand midway as you do this) and then sit right next to you by lifting the treat up, the other has your dog do a "U" next to your left leg with your dog sitting as well as you lift the treat up. In both cases, you would use a treat as a lure. Your dog's nose will be following the food lure as if it was a magnet. This is better seen than explained. See the video below to better understand it. Your dog will be at an advantage in learning this if he already knows how to "target."

Once your dog knows how to "come to heel," "heel" and maintain focus, you are all set to chain these behaviors together and proceed to loose-leash walking. However, it does not end here. Your dog needs to know what to do and not what to do. Consistency is key. Training your dog what not to do, in my protocol, does not mean delivering a collar pop or a leash correction. Rather, it means ignoring the behavior and instructing the dog on what to do instead. Because walking close to you yields rewards, dogs—as opportunistic beings—will soon learn which behaviors are more advantageous.

You will therefore see more loose-leash walking and less tight leash walking. Per Thorndike's law of effect, "responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation," which means that the behavior of loose-leash walking will increase. Unrewarded, the behavior of pulling and tense-leash walking should decrease and possibly extinguish over time.

So if your dog pulls this is what you would do:

  • Ask your dog to come to heel
  • Mark, reward and then proceed walking

Happy training!

Come to Heel Video

Training a Labrador That Used to Chase Chickens

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.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on November 12, 2014:

My pleasure Adrienne. It is truly worthwhile. Keep on going strong, as you are.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 12, 2014:

Thanks so much for taking your time to comment and the votes up! Kind regards, Adrienne

MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on November 12, 2014:

Alexadry, What a great article. It is full of clear information that each one of us will absorb easily. I really do intend to go through ALL your articles, as I can. This is another gem, thanks. Top votes for you.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 23, 2012:

Thank you and thank you for posting the question, happy training!

Linda Liebrand from San Francisco on March 23, 2012:

Thanks for answering my question and sharing all your tips about lead and heel work! Now all we need to do is practice :o) Voted up and shared.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 22, 2012:

Note: added video of "come to heel" so to have a better idea on how to teach it with treats.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 22, 2012:

You deserve a big congrats for keeping it up! Consistency is key and it sounds like you are doing a very good job! When your dog comes to heel automatically when you stop, it means that you have done extremely well in teaching her the alternate behavior to pulling, ie coming back in heel position, yayyyy! To answer your question; some dogs are smart enough to chain the act of pulling and coming back to heel with getting the treat. So it's like "If I pull and I correct myself and come to heel I get a treat, cool! Treats are for the most part given when a dog is in the learning stages of a behavior. If you have been saying "good girl" right before giving treats, the good girl is already a reward on its own by now. So since walking ahead is on its own a reward, try to fade treats when she comes to heel after pulling but remember to use your "good girl". However, if there is something really distracting ahead and she comes to heel I would give a treat every now and then to reward the fact that she chose to heel rather than pull. So start fading those treats and leave them for those exceptional behaviors every now and then or given them randomly. Make them unpredictable! See how it goes and let me know, best wishes!

Kristen Haynie from Scotia, CA on March 22, 2012:

Immediately after reading this hub, I got up and started the process with my dog. The first session was a bit tough, because we spent more time stopped than actually walking. But I remained consistent. Every time she pulls, I stop immediately and we do not start again until she comes to heel. After 5 days, I already see a noticeable difference. She doesn't pull nearly as much. When she does, and I stop, she immediately comes to heel without even being asked. She's picked up the drill. I do have one question though: Should I be rewarding with treats as we're walking, or just when she comes back to heel after we stop? My concern is that she will eventually learn that if she pulls and forces me to stop, she'll get the treat. Even though she's getting the treat for coming back to heel, she may pick up on the fact that she can trigger that process by pulling.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 17, 2012:

I hope it works for you! these are scientifically proven training methods to train dogs to walk on a loose leash, best wishes!

Kristen Haynie from Scotia, CA on March 16, 2012:

I'm trying this! This is the first method I've heard of that uses positive reinforcement for good behavior instead of scolding for bad behavior.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 16, 2012:

Thank you, this is how I train my clients and the most successful way so far!

Cosmic Bus from Maryland on March 16, 2012:

Needed this one for my Boxer! She is extremely strong. Voted up.