Teach Your Dog to Stop Pulling the Leash
Why it’s hard to teach dogs to walk nicely on leash – and how to make it easier.
This week’s episode goes out to all the dogs and people whose walks would be a lot more fun if the leash weren’t tight as a bowstring. Let’s just fix that, shall we? I’ll teach you how to get your dog to stop pulling on the leash.
Teach Your Dog to Stop Pulling on the Leash
To begin with, you’ll notice I say “loose-leash walking,” or “polite leash walking,” not “heeling.” Heeling is a formal competitive exercise, with the dog close to the handler’s left leg and attentively turned toward her. It’s not appropriate for an hour’s afternoon stroll: for starters, if you’re the dog, never being allowed to sniff pretty much defeats the purpose of the walk. For a pleasant walk from your end, all you really need is for the leash to remain slack and for your dog to attend to you enough to turn with you and stop when you do. To me, a walk with my dog feels like holding hands.
The catch is, loose-leash walking may be the hardest behavior for you to teach and for most dogs to learn...
Factors That Make Loose-Leash Walking Difficult
To begin with, it’s unnatural. When was the last time you saw a couple of off-leash dogs walk parallel to each other, in a straight line, for more than about two feet? Our species don’t even move the same way. Humans walk; healthy, active dogs who aren’t tired are more inclined to trot. The human and canine agendas diverge, too. We want to get from place to place and maybe get some exercise; they just want to chase squirrels and smell fire hydrants.
Another factor has a technical name: random, variable reinforcement. It means this. When a behavior works occasionally, and you can’t predict exactly when, you will try it over and over and over and over again. And you will not give up trying it for a long time even after it stops working. For you and your dog, this means that whenever you let her drag you toward another dog or an interesting pee spot, you’ve built a little more staying power into her attempts to pull.
Finally, like many animals, dogs reflexively oppose restraint. Common sense suggests that if you’re living in the wild, this is a good way to improve your odds of surviving to reproduce. So, when the leash tightens and the collar presses against the dog’s neck, her natural tendency is to pull harder. That may be one reason for the sad spectacle of a dog pulling as hard as she can against a choke collar, coughing all the while.
Teach More Effectively
You may now be thinking all is lost. Not so! Here’s how to become a more effective teacher for your dog.
When you begin to teach polite leash walking, commit yourself to it. Pulling no longer gets your dog where he wants to go -- ever. Instead, use what he wants to reward him for doing what you want. Remember how artificial polite leash-walking is -- be patient and be generous. If your puppy takes a step in parallel with you, say “Yes!” to mark his good behavior, and give him a treat. Another step, another yes! and treat. My dog Juniper earned his breakfast during the first few months of his life by keeping the leash loose for gradually longer and longer stretches during walks. Permission to go sniff objects that interest your dog makes a great reward, too -- use it often. And change up the pace -- trot along with your dog now and then as a reward for keeping that leash loose.
Here’s a terrific exercise. Set up a goal for your dog -- it could be a biscuit on the ground, or a person she adores. With your dog on leash, take a step toward her goal. The instant she draws forward and tightens the leash, say “Oops!” and go right back to the starting point. Repeat, repeat, repeat, imposing penalty yards whenever your dog draws the leash tight. I did mention you’d need patience, didn’t I? Help your dog succeed by delivering treats as she keeps the leash loose on the way to the goal.
Some trainers advise coming to a dead halt whenever the leash gets tight, and just standing there till the dog returns to your side. I haven’t found this effective. Even though the dog isn’t moving forward anymore, her pulling has still brought her closer to whatever she was pulling toward. Many dogs stand at the end of the tight leash, huffing air and looking perfectly content. The penalty yards method works better, because it imposes a cost on pulling -- the dog winds up farther from her goal.
Equipment and Exercise
The right equipment can help decrease pulling, so your dog gives you more behavior to reward. And a small or frail person walking a large, powerful dog may need some physical leverage. My first choice in such cases is one of the new front-clip harnesses -- two brands are Sense-ation, available online, and EasyWalk. Rarely, I’ll suggest a head collar such as the Halti or Gentle Leader. Many dogs find head collars strongly unpleasant; if you need one, talk to a trainer about how to accustom your pet to wearing it. Otherwise, the best choice is a plain buckle collar. A dog with a thick neck and relatively narrow head can wear a Greyhound collar, also called a martingale.
A tired dog will find it easier to walk at your pace and learn from you. So if you can get your dog some aerobic exercise before each lesson, do it. That bitter laughter you hear comes from all us city people who can’t!
One last suggestion: I’m saddened by how many people pay little or no attention to their dogs while walking them. Walks are a highlight of most dogs’ lives. Walk with your dog. You’ll both enjoy having more to connect you than just the leash.
Stay tuned; in future episodes I'll be covering what to do with dogs who act aggressively on a leash, how to stop your dog from barking and lunging on a leash, as well as some Quick and Dirty Tips on getting your dog to behave off of the leash.
Visit me on Facebook – search on The Dog Trainer – email me at email@example.com, or call 206-600-5661. Your questions and comments may appear in future episodes. That’s all for now – thanks for listening!