Walking Off Leash

So, leashes for toddlers: that’s a thing. LicenseAttribution Some rights reserved by rocketjim54

And believe me, I can sympathize.

After all, if you’re in a crowd and your child is desperately trying to get his face onto the next Amber Alert, a leash seems like a great idea.

You probably think that, as a dog trainer, I’m all for putting your tot on a leash.

Isn’t that the ultimate in treating your toddler like a puppy?

But you’re wrong.

I don’t find leashes to be useful training tools, but for dogs I recognize that they are a necessary evil.

First of all, the leash is legally required outside your own yard unless you’re in a designated off-leash area.

There’s also the slight detail that the average dog can book it at 30 km per hour, or faster, which is a bit of a problem unless you’re Usain Bolt (and I’m really, really, not).

If my dog is dragging a long leash, I just need to get within 20 feet of him and step on it. BOOM. Dog caught.

Finally, if you want to keep your dog close for safety, you can’t just, like, hold their ear. They dislike that. So a leash gives you a handle.

But it doesn’t TEACH him anything.LicenseAttribution Some rights reserved by r.nial.bradshaw Candid Approach Project - The Kodak Library of Creative Photography

Teaching a dog to walk close to you is actually taught best without the frigging leash.

I find owners use the leash to drag the dog around, instead of teaching their dog what they actually want. It distracts and frustrates the dog, who feels trapped.

Now, tell me – when YOU feel trapped, does that make you feel cooperative and ready-to-learn?

I feel the same way about leashes for kids. Sure, it’ll keep them safe in a crowd but it doesn’t teach them anything.

It’s not  bad parenting, although people tend to equate it with that.

It’s just a sign that the parent doesn’t trust their kid not to take off on them.

But I’m a trainer.

I’d rather train my kid to stay close to me. I also have faith in the ability of young children to learn seemingly-impossible things. So I believed I could teach my son to stay close, even though at the time he seemed hell-bent on taking off for Abu Dhabi.

I mean, I had to teach him at some point, anyway. I can’t leash him when he’s 16 (although I’m sure sometimes I will be tempted).

Besides, my reasons for leashing my dog don’t exist when it comes to toddlers:

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  • No legal requirement to do so.
  • Even I can outrun someone who can barely walk.
  • We have these nifty dangly things called HANDS.

Hands? Are great.

We don’t need to use them to walk, which means that they’re just swinging free, which means that we can grab them and still be able to perambulate.

…Which means that there is absolutely no reason for my son to get away from me, so long as he holds my hand.

We instituted hand-holding as a rule when we first street trained him, basically from the moment he could walk.

But it was a trip to Vegas when he was 20 months old that brought us closest to considering The Leash.

The thought of your tiny one year old taking off into a crowd full of drunken, smoking gamblers can do that to you (no offence intended to any drunken, smoking gamblers who may be reading this. Well, maybe a tiny bit of offence, but just a tad).

Instead, we used it as a training opportunity.

How To Train Your Puppy Toddler To Walk Off Leash 

Step 1: Freedom Comes At A Price

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We know that our children want freedom: Freedom to explore, freedom to get dirty, freedom from being the constant pawns of the immensely powerful adult beings who control every niggly detail of their lives.

Meanwhile, we just want to keep them alive, and ourselves sane.

I’ve spoken before about how training involves a meeting of mindsbuilding a win-win scenario that makes them want the same things you want.

With dogs, training a dog to walk without pulling on the leash is a complicated process involving lots of cookies when the dog is next to you, refusing to allow the dog to move forward until the dog is the correct position, and so on.

But with kids, thanks to language and hands, it’s so much easier.

In order to train our children to stay close to us and not run away, we just need to establish the following:

  • If you stay close to me and do as I say, you can have a bit of freedom
  • If you disobey me and run off, you will lose ALL YOUR FREEDOM.
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Not yet, thankfully.

Freedom is a privilege.

If your child wants to walk and explore, she needs to earn the right to do so by demonstrating that she can follow basic rules.

She will need to do the same thing again in 15 years when she makes a bid for the greater freedom of driving a car.

Before you get the freedom, you need to learn and demonstrate that you can follow the rules.

So, sit your kid down and tell her that if she wants to walk, she has to do it holding your hand. If she lets go, then she either gets picked up, or goes back in the stroller.

Step 2: Mean What You Say

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This is the hard part.

Because you’re just trying to get where you’re going without your child disappearing down the fresh produce aisle.

The first couple times you do this, I recommend you specifically go out on a training walk. Don’t have anywhere to go. Don’t have anywhere to be.

…And bring your patience, because your child will probably hold your hand for about 3/8ths of a second before squirming free and taking off.

That’s when consequences come in:

If you run a red light, you can lose your beginner’s license.

If you let go of Dad’s hand, you lose your freedom.

Chase her down, pick her up, and either wrestle her into the stroller or hold him in your arms (whichever was the promised consequence).

Yes, do this while she bellows rage from the depths of her tiny heart.

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While you do it, explain, “I told you that if you didn’t hold my hand, you had to go back in the stroller. You let go of my hand, so now you go in the stroller” (boy, kids are so much easier than dogs. You can’t have this kind of dialogue with a dog).

If your child is at all verbal, this is where she is likely to wail “want down!” or “walk! walk!” or similar.  Simply repeat that she has to hold your hand.

Continue walking for a minute or so until she begins to calm down. Then give her another chance, repeating the instructions, letting her down, and taking her hand again.

A word on leashes: Just like in the dog world, there is no reason why you can’t use a leash during this training process. I always tell my clients to think of a leash not as a training tool, but as a simple safety line. If it would make you feel better to have your kid clipped to your belt or similar while you do this, that’s fine. Just use it only as a safety line, and not as a training tool.

Step 3: Increasing Trust

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“He’ll be back. I’m fairly sure.”

Once your child has understood and grasped that freedom comes with expectations, you may want to begin letting go of his hand.

By all means, go ahead. But don’t forget to set fresh expectations, such as “you need to stop when I say, or you get picked up” or, “you can’t go across that bridge, or I’ll feed you to the troll who lives under it.”

When your child doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, be sure to hold up your end: Go pick him up, kicking and screaming, and have a serious talk with him.

Combine this level of off-leash walking with good street training and a solid recall, and you’re golden:

You have a child you can trust.


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