Biting the Leash

Does your dog think walks are time to play Tug with the leash? Learn what to do if your dog bites the leash during walks.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #163

by Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA 

Here’s a common problem. You’re trying to walk your dog on leash, but instead of keeping her feet on the ground like a civilized canine, she’s constantly bouncing up, grabbing the leash and playing Tug with it. Sometimes, you’re reduced to shouting “No! No! Dogalini, stop it!” – which -- surprise! -- doesn’t seem to do any good.

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The first thing to bear in mind is that behavior tells the truth. If your dog grabs and tugs on the leash while you’re walking her, she really, honestly does like holding things in her mouth and playing Tug. The kind of game she likes is not a problem. The problem is that she’s playing that game in an inconvenient and annoying context – and one that’s potentially dangerous. A strong young dog can pull the leash out of your hands, or even take you off your feet.

Why Reprimands Don’t Stop Leash-Grabbing

One reason reprimands don’t work is that playing is a social activity. Social behaviors are usually reinforced by the attention we give them, even if it’s annoyed attention. Most of the time, when I see someone with a dog who plays Leash Tug, the script goes more or less like this:

[Dog is walking with all four feet on floor and nothing in her mouth. Person holding leash is silent and doesn’t look at Dog or interact with her.]

[Dog grabs leash and gives a yank.]

Person: Dogalini! Stop it! [Person pulls leash to get it away from Dog. Dog tugs back.]

Person: Dogalini! I said quit! [Startled, Dog lets go of leash.] [Alternatively, Person pries Dog’s mouth open and extracts leash.]

[Dog walks 3 or 4 paces with all four feet on floor and nothing in her mouth. Person holds leash silently, not looking at Dog or interacting with her.]

[Dog grabs leash and gives a yank.] …

You can see the pattern here, right? When the dog is walking politely, the person neither pays her any attention nor does anything else to reward her appropriate behavior. The instant the dog grabs the leash, success! Interaction is achieved! And, bonus, a little tug-back action usually comes with.

Here’s how to change that picture.

Tip #1: Reward Your Dog Whenever She Isn’t Leash-Grabbing

On walks, lavishly reward Dogalini with attention and treats whenever she is not grabbing the leash. Clicker training is excellent for this purpose, because you can use that quick, distinctive noise to mark out for your dog exactly what behavior you’re rewarding. When you have had some practice with the clicker you can mark and reward in a super-rapid-fire way – also an advantage with fast-moving leash tuggers.

Here’s an important point: Bring those treats down to your dog’s mouth level! If you deliver them high up, so that she has to hop or jump for them, you wind up rewarding hops and jumps. If your dog gets grabby about treats you can drop them on the ground right in front of her, or use a treat-feeding tube.

If your dog grabs and pulls the leash, you’re getting reliable information about what kinds of games he enjoys. Use that knowledge to change his behavior.

What to Do When Your Dog Grabs the Leash Anyway

Especially early on in your re-training, your dog will almost certainly still grab the leash sometimes. Since any attention you give that behavior probably winds up rewarding it, your goal is to make the result as boring as possible for her.

Here’s one trick: Attach two leashes to your dog’s collar and let one drag while you hold the other. Then, if she grabs the leash you’re holding, you can pick up the second leash and drop the first. If nobody’s holding the other end of the leash your dog is tugging, she’s thwarted in her attempt to start a game.

Another possibility is to get one of those old-fashioned choke chains. Please do not actually put it on your dog’s neck! Attach a double-ended clip or a carabiner to the metal loop at one end of the choke chain and use it to clip the choker to the leash attachment on your dog’s collar. Then attach the leash clip to the other end of the choke chain. Now there’s a length of metal in between your dog’s collar and your actual leash; if she bites the leash, she gets a mouthful of metal, which is not tasty, resilient, or fun to chew.

A chain leash will also work for this purpose, but a four-foot or six-foot chain leash is heavy and believe me, it gets uncomfortable to have that weight dragging off your hand after a mile or two. Plus, you won’t need the choke chain forever, and when you’re done with it you can repurpose it as a plant hanger.

Tip #2: Give Your Dog “Legal” Chances to Chew and Tug

As I said earlier in this article, if your dog is grabbing and pulling the leash, that gives you trustworthy information about activities that he enjoys. He’s not just pretending to like to chew and tug. If you’re a regular to these articles, you already know what’s coming next: the advice to lose your dog bowl and instead use chewable food-dispensing puzzle toys.

Tug, played by the rules, is a fun way to teach your grabby dog “mouth manners” and impulse control. The rules of Tug are that your dog lets go of the toy on cue and waits for your okay before she grabs it again. Also, if his teeth touch your skin or your clothing, the game is over. My article on Tug explains how to teach these rules and also how to use the game to teach your dog to respond to your cues even when he’s super excited.

Even Your Dog Doesn’t Want to Chew and Tug All the Time

No matter how much we enjoy an activity, we eventually get to the point where we’ve had enough of it, and the same goes for your dog. If you give him ample opportunity to get his chewing and tugging ya-yas out, he will have less interest in grabbing the leash. If he has less interest in grabbing the leash, then you will see more behavior that you can reward. The more you reward his non-leash-grabbing behavior, the stronger that polite behavior will be. If you’ve ever heard people speak of a “virtuous circle” – the opposite of a vicious circle – well, this is one.

One last point: Any time a dog makes a habit of an excited, physically vigorous behavior that is a problem for his person, it’s a good bet he could use more aerobic exercise. Exercise won’t solve your problem, but if your dog has had a good solid off-leash romp he will be less inclined to bounce and grab when he’s on leash again. Like giving him legal outlets for his mouthiness, exercise helps set him up to behave calmly and learn self-control.

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Dog with Leash and Dog Playing Tug images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).