Imagine if you are a young puppy (or a newly adopted dog) and you’ve just joined a new home. It’s such fun - all those toys, treats, and cuddles. Then, suddenly, your human companions take out a new thing and strap it around your neck.
Gulp! Ick! You’ve never felt anything like it, and (scratch, scratch, roll, roll) you do your best to get that thing off. Then, before you can scratch or wriggle anymore, they hook something that looks like a tug-of-war rope onto it. Well, okay. Maybe this is a brand new game. You love to play, so you start tugging and pulling at that new rope even more- only to hear them yell, “No!!” And, adding insult to injury, they start dragging you around. Ouch! You try desperately to get out of it and run away, but that only hurts your neck more. This is no fun at all…
While we can’t get into the minds of our dogs, we sure can read their body language to assess what’s going on and where they’re at in their reactions, responses, and behaviors. It takes time for puppies and dogs to acclimate to wearing a collar or harness and walking on a leash. The more you are prepared to go slow, introduce them to the new apparatus, and patiently support their learning, the sooner you’ll be able to walk, jog, or rollerblade with an eager and cooperative canine companion.
First of all, understand that this is not a one-and-done experience. If you try to make it that way, you can do more harm than good. Take your time from start to finish. As with any dog training experience, a calm, gentle, and patient presence is key to success.
As we indicated in the introduction, trying to see things from a puppy’s perspective is helpful. As a human with collar, leash, and dog walking awareness, you know the ultimate goal is to have more fun and positive experiences with your dog in the outdoor world. Your dog, on the other paw, has NO idea what any of this is about.
Your ability to imagine not knowing anything at all about a collar, harness, leash, or what to do (or what you won’t be able to do), goes a long way toward providing a supporting and understanding experience for your learning dog. It’s best to wait until your puppy is at least 9 weeks old before getting her used to a collar, harness, or leash.
Let’s review the potential “equipment” list.
Getting the right collar. In the beginning, collars and leashes were the only options. Now, however, most dog trainers (us included) prefer harnesses to collars when walking a puppy. So, I recommend getting a collar for everyday wear that includes a tag with the dog’s name and your contact information. This is the best way (other than microchipping) to help your dog get back to you if they get away from the yard.
Collars are selected by the size of the dog (aggressive dogs may need special collars, but that’s a non-isssue for most puppies). If you have a small breed dog, you might get away with a single, adjustable collar that works from puppyhood through adulthood. If you have a larger-breed pup, you may need two or three different collars between the puppy and the full-grown stage.
The collar should be about 2 inches bigger than your puppy’s neck - enough for you to comfortably fit two fingers between his neck and the collar. However, your dog shouldn’t be able to wriggle his head out of the collar - a sign it’s too loose. Also, don’t leave a collar or harness on an unsupervised puppy as they can get caught or trapped by them, and that’s dangerous.
Harness. A well fitted comfort Harness is better than collars when it comes to walking a puppy or taking them out in public. A puppy that is untrained will run to the end of the leash with a collar and risk being choked (or, worse, tracheal damage) when they meet resistance from a collar. Harnesses alleviate that risk. Finally, some of the best methods for securing a dog in the car rely on harness connections.
Sizing the harness relies on specific measurements (usually around the neck, the biggest part of the chest, and from the base of the skull to the base of the tail). Do not rely on the manufacturer’s categories of small, medium, or large. Always err on the side of slightly too big over not quite big enough to keep your dog comfortable.
Leash. Like harnesses, leashes are usually selected in proportion to the puppies or dog’s size - bigger dogs need stronger, thicker leashes. Leash length is also important. To start, I recommend a 6 foot leash and only allow the slack to be long enough to allow your dog to be in the heel position (right next to your legs). With a 6 foot leash you can also give them more freedom from time to time.
Introduce your dog to the new items and give them a treat. They’ll sniff, play, and get curious - and then want to move on to more fun toys. Once they’re familiar with them, start getting their bodies used to the sensation. Put the collar or harness (not both at once to start) on for just 10 seconds or so, and then take it off again. Give your pup a treat.
If that goes well, try again and leave it on for longer. Most dogs will try to get out of it, and that’s normal. Don’t give them treats or positive attention while they’re trying to wriggle out. Instead, engage them in their favorite forms of play for a minute or two. Then give them a treat when they aren’t trying to get out of it.
Keep increasing the time they wear their collar, harness, or leash. Once they wear it calmly for a few days (removing it when unsupervised, overnight or for crate time), then begin introducing the leash.
Assuming you’re in a space where the puppy is safe and contained (a fenced backyard is fine, a public park is not), connect the leash to the harness and let them walk around with it without you holding it. They’ll start playing with it for a bit, and that’s okay - but don’t laugh or encourage the chewing or tugging. Just calmly let them adjust. If your dog is overly eager to suck on or chew on the leash, you can use pet-safe, bitter-tasting spray from a pet store to break that habit.
Now, get the puppy to come to you and then pick up the leash. Walk a step or two and be prepared for the leash to distract them. Remain calm and do this over and over, walking a little longer each time as your puppy learns to cooperate. Never yank on the leash or jerk it as a way to “discipline” a puppy learning to walk on a leash. This just scares or hurts them, which makes your job increasingly harder. Keep leash training sessions very short to start, increasing them with time. Within a week or so, you’ll be able to start practicing with your dog outside and on longer and longer walks.
One of the best ways to get your puppy used to a collar and leash is to sign up for group or one-on-one dog training sessions with a professional trainer. Group classes are great for puppies and newly-adopted dogs because it simultaneously supports their socialization with other people and dogs.
Would you like professional support with basic dog training commands and techniques, including getting your puppy or dog used to a collar and leash? Contact Alternative Canine Training. We have decades of experience supporting healthy, happy, and loyal relationships between humans and their beloved dogs.