Walk This Way: Stress-Free First Time On A Leash

I couldn’t wait to take Oscar, my new Dalmatian puppy, outside for his first walk around our block. Clipping the leash onto his collar went well but taking a step out the front door to enjoy nature was another story. I never knew that paws had brakes, but he sure applied them in a flash and refused to move an inch.

While many dogs like their debut outing on a leash, others feel unsure about the new experience and need some help to push through their fear.

What To Do

To encourage Oscar to venture out into the fresh air I tried coaxing him with sweet, upbeat talk, crouching in a play-bow position to lighten the mood, and promising him a treat—lots of treats, when we finished our stroll, but nothing persuaded him. Making the most mournful expression I’d ever seen on a dog, he looked at me and refused to budge.

I couldn’t imagine the source of Oscar’s shutdown. The spring weather seemed perfect–not too hot or too cold–so I didn’t think the temperature of the sidewalk was hurting his feet. And our street is usually quiet. It wasn’t trash collection day, so no noisy trucks or honking cars could scare him. I ruled out health issues, as we had recently visited the veterinarian for a checkup and everything was fine.

But something people may not even notice, such as a faraway sight, smell, or sound, may frighten a dog.

How can you help your dog when he refuses to see the great outdoors while on a leash?

Make Friends

From the day you bring your dog home, begin building a strong relationship with him. Always use positive reinforcement, and never force your dog to do something he doesn’t want to do.

While it may seem tempting to yank the leash to get the dog to move or to shove him outside quickly, resist the urge. This aggressive move won’t change the fear, and it will make matters worse. The drastic act can also diminish the level of trust you’re trying to build with your dog.

The best thing to do is to try and get into your dog’s head and figure out what triggers his reactions.

With a dog who’s apprehensive, give him time to adjust to following you on a leash in a familiar, quiet environment.

To familiarize your dog with the leash and to walk politely alongside you, take these steps:

  • Practice inside your home before moving outside.
  • Put some yummy canine treats in your pocket or a fanny pack. Keeping these handy helps you reward your dog quickly when he follows your instructions.
  • Attach the leash to your dog’s collar.
  • Maintain a loose hold on the leash. If the leash is held too tightly, your dog may feel restricted and frightened.
  • Encourage him to move by saying, “Let’s go!”
  • Lavishly praise your dog and give him a treat or a toy when he steps forward.
  • Continue offering him treats with every step he takes.
  • Spend several short, three-minute sessions walking him throughout your house.
  • Keep sessions positive. If you’re relaxed and confident, your dog will feel the same way.

Once you sense your dog’s comfort level indoors, graduate to walking him around your yard. This time add some distractions. Invite someone he’s never met to enter through the gate and throw a toy, turn up the sound system, or carry a fragrant potted plant. At the same time give your dog some treats. When your dog connects the appearance of unexpected objects with receiving a reward and knowing nothing will hurt him, he will feel safe and ready to take on the world.

Walking your dog in the house and your yard may take longer than you anticipated, but with time, patience, and perseverance, he will feel comfortable, and happy when the leash clicks on and he’s eager to explore the neighborhood.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz is the author of 15 dog books and a lifelong dog owner and show exhibitor. Her Dalmatians and a new Corgi continually train her.