If your dog would rather sniff than walk, allow them some time to sniff. Make sure they get some free time and plenty of exercise before you begin leash training. If your dog sniffs for too long, coax them along or call them back to your side with a treat.
In this article, I’ll discuss why you should allow your dog to sniff on some walks, how to train your dog not to pull on walks, and how to teach them to focus on walks.
Allow them to Sniff on Walks Sometimes
If your dog goes outside and wants to sniff, it’s best to let them do so. Dogs learn a lot about their environment through smell, and this provides them with a sense of security. It’s also how dogs communicate with one another.
When your dog sniffs a fire hydrant every walk, they’re not just smelling the same thing over and over. Rather, they’re smelling all the new smells that are there since they last checked.
Maybe it’s the scent of a passing squirrel or another dog’s urine that they’re smelling.
Smells are also major distractions to dogs—it’s kind of like asking us to ignore all the sounds and sights in our environment. Sometimes we need a moment to take it all in!
If the neighbor begins speaking to us, we might stop and listen. If another dog urinates someplace and your dog is smelling it, they’re also stopping to listen to what that dog communicated by marking the area.
Of course, we can’t allow our dogs to linger in one spot forever just sniffing. But if you can give your dog some time to do so, or dedicated walks for sniffing and even a bit of wandering, that will benefit them and you!
Dogs who’ve been able to get the sniffing out of their system, as well as release some energy, will be more receptive to leash training.
Don’t Allow Your Dog to Pull on Walks
Your dog needs to learn that while sniffing is fine on a relaxed walk, pulling isn’t! Pulling can put a strain on your dog’s neck if they’re wearing just a collar, and big dogs might even be able to tug you off your feet.
They might pull you into an area you’re not supposed to be or stroll onto a finicky neighbor’s lawn. No one wants to deal with the neighbor with the “no walking on the grass” sign, who saw your dog decide that’s where they want to poop!
An extreme consequence might be if your dog is strong enough to pull you right into traffic, or to pull the leash from your hand and run off.
But even if your dog is small, learning to walk on a leash without constantly tugging will make for a better walking experience. You’ll be able to take your time, and they’ll also learn that there’s no rush when it comes to getting where they want to go.
Stop your dog from tugging on the leash by:
- The stop and turn method. When your dog tugs on the leash, teach them that this isn’t how to get where they want to go. Stop in your tracks, but don’t tug your dog on their leash. Simply wait until they stop pulling, then turn around and encourage them to follow you in the opposite direction.
- The simple stop method. If you don’t want to turn, you can also try stopping in your tracks as I discussed above. Don’t tug on the leash, but stand still until your dog stops pulling. Then continue on your way.
- Reward good walking behavior. The above methods tell your dog how not to behave, but rewarding good behavior is just as important! Remember to praise and treat your dog for behaving well on their walks.
- Use a harness for strong pullers. If your dog is pulling on their collar, this puts a lot of pressure on their neck that can injure or choke them. Dogs who slip out of collars face different dangers, such as getting lost or racing into traffic. A harness will solve both of these problems.
Avoid tugging on the leash, as this can become a fun game of tug of war for your dog—and a very frustrating experience for you!
Never use choke collars or shock collars on your dog. The goal of both of these is to hurt your dog in order to get them to obey—which can cause fear, aggression, and a bad relationship between you and your pup.
Hurting a dog in this way is just as abusive as hitting or kicking your dog for disobeying.
Positive training methods (like those outlined above) are much more effective, don’t hurt your dog, and don’t come with the downsides of harsh training methods such as fear or aggression.
Dedicate Separate Time to Leash Training
Dogs need to be able to sniff, have fun, and just generally be dogs! However, you may also want them to learn how to behave on a leash, to go where you want or need them to go, or even to heel (to walk at your heel rather than ahead of you).
Before training, though, you need a way to get your dog’s energy levels down. It’s unfair to expect a hyper dog to behave perfectly on a leash when all they want is to play, run, and jump around.
Your dog will have more difficulty focusing if they haven’t had proper exercise yet. That’s why dedicating some walks to fun, and some walks to training is useful.
On fun walks, your dog still has to behave—but they get a longer leash, and the rules are less strict. They’re allowed to sniff and maybe wander off the sidewalk from time to time.
I allow my dog Charlie to go around the yard sniffing before a walk so that he gets a bit of energy out. It also gives him a chance to poop before we leave!
Fun walks come first to get your dog’s energy out. You might also have some playtime in the backyard or at the dog park!
Fun walks are especially important for young dogs or puppies who don’t know the rules yet, and thus have a much more difficult time following them.
You don’t want your dog to be too exhausted to train, but you also don’t want them hyper and unable to focus.
On training walks, you can implement the below steps to train your dog to watch you while walking, instead of paying attention to distractions, or to heel at your side.
How to Train a Dog to “Watch Me”
By training your dog to “watch me” they will look up at you, rather than at any distractions that are present.
This command is very valuable for leash training, and is also a foundation for teaching a dog to “heel” or walk at your side.
It’s also useful for training a variety of other commands and to get your dog’s attention whenever distractions are nearby.
To train your dog “watch me:”
- Hold a treat up to your dog so that they can see and smell it.
- Once your dog acknowledges the treat, say “watch me” or “look” and bring it up to your own face. Your dog’s eyes should follow the treat until they are looking in your direction.
- Reward your dog with the treat and lots of praise!
- Repeat these steps until your dog is a pro.
Make sure you’re standing upright, and that your dog doesn’t try to jump after the treat as you bring it to your face. They could accidentally hurt you!
You can then add to the difficulty by:
- Using an empty hand rather than a treat.
- Begin drawing the treat to your side rather than your face. Wait for your dog’s eyes to move from the treat at your side to your face, then reward them!
- Practice your dog’s new trick in a variety of settings with various distractions.
Remember not to up the difficulty until your dog really understands the command! Trying to progress too quickly is likely to frustrate you both.
How to Train a Dog to “Heel”
Before training your dog to heel, I recommend training your dog to watch you as I showed above. This is because keeping their eyes on you is the foundation to heeling.
If you’re unsure what the “heel” command means, there are a few aspects to it. Your dog should:
- Walk in step with you on your left side
- Watch you while walking
- Sit when you come to a stop
This keeps your dog’s attention on you first and foremost as you walk. It can help if there’s an area on your daily walk that your dog tends to get distracted by, or if you just need or want them to walk at your heel in certain situations.
To teach your dog to heel:
- Start inside your home. Call your dog to your left side while holding a treat. Begin to walk slowly forward, with the goal of keeping your dog’s eyes on the treat as they walk at your side. Reward them every few steps until they get the hang of it, then space the treats out further.
- Add to the difficulty. Once your dog gets the hang of walking at your side, begin practicing turns, walking in a zigzag, or stepping to one side. Praise and reward them for following!
- “Watch me.” Now, add in the “watch me” command so that your dog is looking at you while walking instead of the treat.
- “Sit.” Teach your dog to sit at your side when you stop walking by coming to a halt and telling them to sit (I like to stomp my foot once as an added cue). Reward them for listening and repeat, repeat, repeat!
- Take it outside. Practice in the yard or on a leash. Make sure your dog is calm and ready to learn, and try to keep the distractions minimal at first.
- Increase the difficulty again. Now your dog is almost a pro at heeling! Increase the distractions by taking them to new places or introducing new experiences, such as having them heel while another dog walks by.
Now that you know how to train your dog to heel the “right” way, I do want to note that you should do what works for you! With my dog Charlie, I don’t use the “heel” command nearly as strictly.
What I wanted from this command was for my dog to pay extra attention to me and walk by my side. I don’t focus on getting him right at my heel or which side he’s on.
It’s always fine to take and leave aspects of training you like, dislike, or just don’t care about! Revise the steps above to what works for you if you need to.
Train Your Dog to “Leave it” When they can’t Sniff
While I’m a fan of letting your dog sniff on at least some walks, like I discussed above, there are also times when they cannot sniff everything they’d like. This is where the “leave it” command comes in handy.
Maybe your dog really wants to sniff a person, other dog, or inside a fussy neighbor’s yard. Maybe they even get carried away with their sniffing and get obsessed with leading you someplace you can’t go, like private property!
My dog Charlie used to love sniffing other dog’s poop when he was young, and I was afraid of him attempting to eat it. Obviously, this is dangerous as you never know what parasites or diseases could be carried by random neighborhood dogs.
I taught him to “leave it” mostly for this purpose, but it comes in handy often—whether we’re playing fetch or he’s gotten into something he shouldn’t.
Teach your dog the “leave it” command by:
- Hold a treat in your closed hand. Your dog will sniff and may even nudge or paw at your hand in an attempt to get the treat.
- Tell your dog to “leave it” and distract them with your other hand.
- Praise your dog for looking away from the treat by giving them a treat with your other hand.
- Continue the above steps until your dog learns to leave the treat when told.
- Set the treat on the floor and cover it with your hand. Repeat the above steps again using this method.
- Once your dog obeys with your hand over the treat, increase the difficulty by removing your hand and repeating the steps above.
- Practice “leave it” in various other ways, such as teaching your dog to leave toys, scents in the yard or on walks, people, and other animals.
- Continue the training until your dog consistently leaves things, people, and animals alone when told!
It’s Okay if Your Dog Walks Ahead of You
Some people think they need to be the leader, dictating their dog’s every move on a walk. This is often because they believe in dominance theory, or that you must be the “alpha dog” so that your dog knows their place.
Dominance theory has been disproven, and is based on a very faulty study on wolves—ancestors that domestic dogs are already thousands of years removed from!
So long as you have control of your dog on the leash, it’s okay for them to walk a little ahead of you or even not to behave 100% perfectly on a walk.
The main trouble comes in when your dog is tugging you or even pulling the leash out of your hand.
Keeping your dog behind you or at your side does give you more control if you need it to keep them or you safe, so it’s definitely not always a bad thing either!
It’s up to you to decide whether or not your dog walking ahead is okay with you. Think about their size, strength, and how well you can control them on the leash.
Play Scent Games with Your Dog
Dogs who love to smell will enjoy scent games that include finding hidden treats, toys, or people.
I play scent games with my dog Charlie often, and he really loves them. If your dog is a scent hound, or a dog who was bred to hunt using their sense of smell, they’ll love scent games even more!
Below, I’ll outline various games to try that will get your dog’s nose working.
This is my dog’s favorite game we play, and there’s no question as to why—he gets lots of treats during it!
I tend to use soft, chewy treats (his favorite!) and break them into small pieces. Once you have your treats ready, play the hidden treats game:
- Take your dog to another room and tell them to “stay” or close the door.
- Hide the treats around the room. You can put them under furniture or rugs, in corners, inside the toy bin—anywhere you like! Try to make it a little challenging for your dog, but also leave some easy treats out in the open so that they get the hang of the game.
- Let your dog into the room and tell them to “find the treats!” Watch them run around, sniffing frantically for the treats! Praise them when they find one.
- Help if necessary. If your dog has too much difficulty finding certain treats, lead them to the area or point to where the treat is located.
You can up the challenge level of this game by playing outside, where there are more scents, or hiding the treats in places that are trickier to get to.
This game can also be played by hiding a toy (or several!) and having your dog find it. You may want to put a treat nearby at first to guide them, then take that added scent away once they’re good at the game!
The toy game is especially fun if your dog knows the name of his toys. For instance, I give my dog’s toys names such as “bear” or “ball” and repeat them often.
If I tell him to get his bear, he knows just which toy I’m talking about!
Hide and Seek
For this game, you’ll either need a second person or a dog who knows how to “stay” on command—otherwise your dog will peak!
To play hide and seek with your dog:
- Tell your dog to “stay” in a room where you won’t be hiding, or leave them with someone else to hold onto them.
- Grab a treat and choose a hiding spot. Start easy, then increase the difficulty as your dog learns to find you.
- Tell your dog to “find me!” Call out to them so that they know they’re meant to come to you, and watch them run around sniffing or—if they’re like my dog—whipping their head around looking for you! (If someone was keeping your dog in place, now is when they let them go!)
- Reward them for finding you. Give them the treat and lots of praise!
- Repeat the above steps until you and your dog are tired or bored of playing.
Over time, you can try leaving the treat behind and allowing your dog to track your scent instead.
Only do this once they know to look for you, however. It’s just like phasing out treats during training!
Puzzle toys often work like the “hidden treats” game above. There are toys such as treat balls or the KONG where your dog can simply spill out the treats, or more challenging puzzle toyswhere your dog has to figure out how to get to the treats.
I don’t use the more challenging puzzles personally because Charlie is a big dog who can be pretty destructive! I’ve been afraid he would tear them apart to “find” the treat rather than using them properly, and didn’t want the hassle of training him.
I think these toys work better for small dogs, or people who have a bit more patience than me to train their dogs to use them right!
Writer: Katelynn Sobus