How to Desensitize Your Dog to a Gentle Leader

Desensitize dog to gentle leader

If your dog is a habitual puller on the leash, walking can seem more like a chore than a bonding experience with your dog. While any kind of harness will not be a substitute for training loose-leash walking, a gentle leader head-harness is a highly recommended tool for dogs that like to pull on the leash.

Why do dogs pull on the leash? Because it is a self-serving behavior to them. Consider this: The dog smells something really interesting in a bush off the sidewalk so he immediately pulls in that direction. What do you do? Struggle a bit, and then eventually allow your dog to drag you over to the scent. He spends a few minutes sniffing and then he’s off, pulling you to the next scent. Unknowingly, you have conditioned your dog to believe he only needs to pull on the leash to get to where he wants to go. The same theory applies to pulling to greet other dogs, other humans, or pulling you out the door. The end result is the same — the dog pulls on the leash and he gets what he wants.

In an ideal situation, you would have the time and patience to train loose-leash walking with your dog. But what about those times when you need to get your dog to the vet? You likely won’t have time to work on loose-leash walking. Instead, a gentle leader may be a good alternative for you.

A gentle leader works similarly to a horse bridle. It loops around your dog’s snout and clips behind his ears. This design allows you to have more control over your dog’s head movements. It also helps to prevent pulling. The leash-attachment is designed so that any pulling on the leash will direct your dog’s head back toward you. This helps to you to both help prevent and re-condition your dog against pulling on the leash.

Desensitizing your dog to a gentle leader can be quite a chore, especially if your dog is a bit older. Many dogs don’t like the idea of a harness wrapped around their nose and face. Your dog may try to paw at the harness or rub his head on the ground to remove it. Before attempting your first walk on the harness, you’ll want to reserve up to four weeks of desensitizing your dog to the new harness to ensure your dog is comfortable with the new setup.

Step 1: Sniff and Treat

Once you’ve purchased your harness, begin a positive association regimen with the harness. Put a handful of your dog’s favorite treats in a pouch or your back pocket. Show the harness to your dog. When your dog reaches forward to sniff the harness, praise him and give him some treats. Repeat this process 1-2 daily for a few days. Do not attempt to put the harness on your dog just yet. This will help your dog associate the harness with positive reward.

Step 2: Wear Harness While Eating

Now that your dog is excited about seeing the harness, it’s time to try putting it on. Begin by preparing your dog’s morning meal and leaving it on the counter. Be sure you are very calm; if your dog is anxious about you putting on the harness, do not match your dog’s anxiety. Remain calm and give your dog lots of praise. Once the harness is on, immediately praise your dog and place his breakfast on the ground. Once your dog has finished eating, remove the harness and put it away. Repeat this process with breakfast and dinner for one week. Soon your dog will begin to associate the harness with getting fed.

NOTE: If your dog begins to paw at the harness or try to get it off, ignore this behavior. Do not reprimand your dog while he is wearing the harness in the beginning. You want wearing the harness to be a fun, positive experience. Instead, attempt to distract your dog with his food. Praise him when he is not attempting to remove the harness. If the behavior does not stop after a few tries, go back to step 1 for one more week.

Step 3: Wear Harness and Take Treats From You

Once your dog feels comfortable eating with the harness, it’s time to step it up a bit. Put the harness on your dog and take him to a room in your house. Work on some basic obedience commands such as sit, down and stay. Give your dog lots of extra treats for performing well with the harness on. Keep your sessions short – only 5-10 minutes. Practice a couple times a day for about one week.

Step 4: Wear Harness for a Walk Around the House

After about a week of doing basic obedience, it’s time to try some walking. Once your dog has the harness on, attach your dog’s leash to the harness attachment, and walk around your house. Praise your dog, and treat him every few steps at the seam of your pants. This will help your dog associate being at your side with being rewarded. Practice walking around your house several times before going outside.

Step 5: Walk Outside

If your dog is feeling comfortable indoors, you can try to walk with your dog outdoors. Keep your walk short – only about 5-10 minutes. As time goes on, you can slowly increase the length of your walks.

A gentle leader can transform the way you walk with your dog. You can learn about other tools to help your dog be successful here.

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