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.
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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.