We Ask A Dog Trainer - How to Improve Your Dog's Leash Walking Skills

We Ask A Dog Trainer - How to Improve Your Dog's Leash Walking Skills

Is your dog not the best walker on a leash? Do you often hear people yelling ‘who's walking who!?’ as your dog zigzags all over the sidewalk while you’re yanking on their leash? Getting your dog to walk politely isn’t an easy feat, nor is it their natural instinct. So if you're looking for advice on how to stop your dog from yanking your arm out of your socket, you have come to the right place!

We thought, who better to reach out to than dog trainer and owner Neil Day of All Day Dog Adventures in Columbia Falls, Montana. When he’s not working with other people’s dogs, Neil can be found training his own search and rescue pups, Willow and Echo, skiing, or climbing. He also enjoys volunteering at the Humane Society of Northwest Montana and working with Dog Tag Buddies, a charity providing service dogs for veterans.

After moving from London to Big Sky Country, Neil started training dogs professionally.  He has 15 years of experience training dogs for the National Search and Rescue Dog Association, and trains teams in several states from Alaska to Arizona. He teaches a variety of classes from dog obedience training, puppy classes, scent workshops, and therapy dog training. So whether you're walking down the sidewalk or the trail, Neil has a wealth of knowledge and insight for getting your dog to walk better on leash.

Wilderdog: Why is it important for a dog to have good leash skills?
Neil (Awe-inspiring British Accent): “Number one is safety. If your dog doesn’t have good leash skills, you're going to get a dog that pulls you into the road. And, number two, it's about enjoyment. If you have a dog that's good on their leash, you're going to enjoy walking the dog for 15 years rather than wishing that you didn’t have to walk the dog. There is nothing worse than being pulled down the sidewalk constantly.” 

Wilderdog: What’s one of your most important recommendations when leash training?
Neil: “The biggest thing is you need to start in a low-distraction area. You also want to become a Pez dispenser with treats to start off. Reward, reward, reward – so that the focus is always on you. A lot of the time, it's about walking around and rewarding the dog for staying close and keeping their focus on you. It’s not a good idea to take the dog to the dog park to train because of distractions and expect them to do leash work, if they won’t even do leash work in your house. Having low distractions is really, really, important.”

Wilderdog: Can you give us a step-by-step of how you leash train?
Neil: “I do something that's called the “D’s of dog training it stands for: duration, distance, distraction, and difficulty.  With all my leash work, I start with a low-distraction area. All I do initially is put the leash on the dog, and while I'm holding the leash, I just move around and when the dog comes close to me, I mark and reward them. I don’t say their name or anything, and what you’ll see that starts to happen is your dog will follow you and start looking at you, because they know they’re going to get a treat. So that starts to get your dog's focus on you, and every time the dog looks at me, I mark and reward them. And, I'm not trying to walk in straight lines, and I’m sort of just moving around, backing up, and getting the dog to come to me.

From there, once they start doing that part well, I’ll start trying my cue – whether it’s “heel,” “with me,” “walk,” or whatever word the handler wants to use. So then I do the same exercise, but when the dog is close to me now, I’ll say, “heel.” Once they do, I’ll say “yes,” then give them a reward (aka their fav treat!). Move again, once they come close, I’ll go “heel,” “yes,” and “reward.”

And, then, from there, what I do is start walking in a straight line. I start to move forward, which will then get the dog to come forward and do it again. I’ll go “heel,” “yes,” and “reward.” Then gradually, over time, I’ll spread out how far they have to walk to make them work harder for that reward.

Wilderdog: So when you say “mark” what does that mean?
Neil: “Yeah! So we use what's called a “marker word” to tell the dog that they’re doing the correct behavior. Some people use a clicker, and they click the clicker to tell them they're doing the correct thing, or you can use a marker word. We just say “yes!”. It’s just a short word that tells the dog it's doing the correct behavior, which helps us with accuracy. We follow the “yes!” with a treat every time, then over time we start to phase out treats because the “yes!” makes them feel good without the treat being there.”

Wilderdog: That makes sense; I was going to ask when you stop becoming a Pez dispenser with treats! So, what kind of leash do you recommend for leash training?
Neil: “A 5 or 6-foot leash. Possibly one that has a double handle so that you can get closer to their collar. But just a normal leash. No retractable leashes! The dog will either rip the leash out of the handler's hand or just rip the mechanism out of the plastic. So just a regular leash I find is the best for most dogs, it gives you enough control and them enough freedom, so your dog isn’t constantly pulling and stopping, pulling and stopping.” (Here's a few to choose from!)

Wilderdog: Yes! Retractable leashes are the worst. So when do you know that a dog is ready to be off-leash in off-leash designated areas?
Neil: “That depends, every dog is different. You need to have that perfect recall in order to have them off-leash. Or be in a secure area where they’re not able to get away and get into the road or something. You have to consider that every environment is going to be different, and every dog is going to be different. Some dogs like to run away, and some dogs are more mellow and loyal and just want to stay by their owners and don’t roam that far. Where if you have a dog that keeps getting off the leash and does run away, you probably shouldn’t let them off because it's just going to get reinforced, and the behavior will just get worse. It will be more reinforced to run off and chase a deer than stay by your side.”

Wilderdog: When would you recommend reaching out to a trainer to get some help?
Neil: “As soon as you have a dog! (Giggles.) The sooner, the better! The sooner you can start the training with a trainer, the better results you are going to get. You're not going to get them into bad habits, where they (your dog) start to realize they can just do what they want. I start dogs off in puppy class at 8 to 16 weeks for socialization and some obedience training. It's in a safe environment, it's clean, and all the dogs have started their vaccination program.”

Wilderdog: How does training build a bond between you and your dog?
Neil: “Yeah! So, any kind of training you do with your dog, whether it’s obedience, scent work, tracking, or agility, will build a bond between you and your dog. You’ll learn to trust each other, they’ll learn to trust you, and you’re there to be your dog's advocate. So you’re the one that should be putting your dog in a safe situation – you’re the one who decides what that is for your dog. And, your dog will help you – you want to listen to your dog. It’s going to show you behavior, and it's going to tell you when it’s not comfortable, and you'll learn a lot about your dog.” 

Quick Recap: How to Leash Train Your Dog

  • Keep these tips handy when leash training your dog:
  • Train in a low-distraction area. 
  • Use lots of treats at first.
  • Use a 5-6 ft. leash.
  • Train for short periods &often.
  • Go through training again in new environments.
  • Be patient & make it fun!

Step 1: Get Your Dogs Attention

  • Start training in a low-distraction area like your house and have treats ready.
  • With the leash on and in your hand – move around your house, in no particular direction, and without saying their name.
  • When your dog comes to you and looks at you use a marker word (a word that lets them know they did the right thing like “yes!”), then reward them with a treat. 

Step 2: Add a Cue

  • Now, you’ll repeat “Step 1” but this time add a cue like “Walk” or “Heel”.
  • For example, you’ll walk and when the dog comes to you say, “heel”, “yes”, then reward with a treat. 

Step 3: Walk in A Straight Line

  • Repeat the steps above but this time walk in a straight line. 
  • Try to increase the distance of walking in a straight line before they receive a treat.

Step 4: Take it Outside

  • Once your dog is doing well with the steps above, you can take your training outside for a short walk. Don’t be surprised if it seems like they forgot some of their training – just be sure to have treats with you and keep implementing your training. 

Step 5: Phase out Treats

  • After lots of practice, you’ll notice your dog won’t need as much motivation to walk nicely on his leash, this is when you can start phasing out treats and really begin to enjoy your walks together!

The Four D’s of Dog Training

The ‘Four D’s of Dog Training:


Duration is how long or fast it takes for a dog to respond to the behavior you want or how long it will carry out that behavior.

  • How long does your dog keep his attention and focus on you during your leash training? 
  • How long does it take to get your dog to respond to come during your leash training?


This is the distance between the handler and if the dog is able to hold the command despite being really far away.

  • How much leash can you give the dog without them pulling?


Distractions are anything competing for your dog's attention...smells, squirrels, other dogs, basically everything! Always make sure distractions are low when training a new concept and remember to keep your treats close on hand when going into a new environment so that you can practice your training there. 

  • Are they able to leash train inside without getting distracted? 


How is your dog doing with all the other “D’s”? Good? Make things more difficult, go for longer walks or longer distances without giving them a treat.

Thanks, Neil for stepping away from your pups in training to chat with us. And to the Wilderdog Pack, we wish you happy training! Check out all our leashes here »


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