“My dog is pulling me during walks.” This is likely the most common problem behavior people report about their dogs. Books and the internet are full of advice—some good, some not so good. Much money is made selling ‘easy fix’ devices and equipment like head halters and harnesses. So why would we want to talk about it?
Leash pulling and the numerous published and advertised solutions to the problem illustrate quite eloquently two fundamental training approaches available to you: (1) The dog shows a desired behavior because he HAS to, or (2) The dog shows a desired behavior because he WANTS to. Now add to the mix whether you consider or ignore canine pack structure, your own state of mind and the dog’s view of the problem.
Which approach will quite predictably foster mutual trust, respect, bond and partnership between you and your dog? Ultimately it is you who gets to decide.
Why do dogs want to pull you along in the first place?
There are many reasons. Most commonly the dog has both excess energy to burn, then sees, hears, or smells something exciting. Through prior experience the dog knows that pulling makes the human either walk faster, go the direction the dog wants to go, or both. Bottom line is the dog knows he can, and he has successfully trained YOU!
Why does it matter?
A pulling dog is actually not under your control and can cause a multitude of problems. Leash pulling by larger dogs can lead to serious accidents and injuries. Often, leash pulling becomes an ongoing struggle that leads to avoiding walks, which in turn makes matters worse.
Like most things in the world of dogs and humans, there are several pieces to the puzzle including state of mind (both yours and your dog’s), equipment and the actual behavior. Safe to say the behavior you want is your dog walking next to you, calmly; with a loose leash and paying attention to you.
Let’s cover the basics first.
Trying to teach anything meaningful to a dog that is full of energy is not going to be very successful. Many dogs initially and understandably want to run instead of walking, so let them. Run or bike with them, have them chase the ball, or play some serious tug – do whatever drains your dog’s excess energy before trying to teach a new behavior. Shift your dog’s state of mind further by having him hungry and carrying his ration of kibble in your pocket. Your dog needs to see you as the keeper and distributor of good things such as food, and minor distractions will then become less appealing to your dog.
Now that the dog’s state of mind is where it should be, let’s make sure yours is there, too. You are the boss! Know that your emotions travel down the leash. Positive thoughts about a successful dog walk need to be in your head, which also needs to be held high. Keep your shoulders back while letting go of any tension in your body. Feeling relaxed will work miracles as your dog will see you as a confident and competent pack leader and begin trusting you. You need to be the first one out the door and the first one in. Your dog should be beside or behind you during the walk. Leading really means leading: Your dog should not walk in front of you, unless you want your dog to be the pack leader. Your body language needs to remain calm and assertive, even if you correct your dog. Being angry or frustrated will set you back further. You may enroll a friend to watch you and give feedback, as you often cannot see yourself objectively.
Choice of collar is key
Watch dog sledding on YouTube and notice where the harness attaches to the dog’s front body: it sits on the proximal part of the dog’s neck, near the shoulders. As it should be, because that part of the dog’s neck is very muscular, insensitive and any tension there induces pulling reflexively. This is all required in dog sledding. Next time you are in town or in the park, watch for a dog pulling his owner (you won’t have to wait very long). Then, look at what type of collar the dog wears and where it attaches to the dog. Quite a discovery, isn’t it? Many dog owners actually INDUCE pulling by having their dogs wear a flat, loose-fitting collar riding on the lower neck/shoulder area. In contrast, the dog’s upper neck right behind the ears is very sensitive and thus amenable to leash communication with you. The collar also needs to stay there and thus have a tight fit around your dog’s neck. This will provide all the control you need and help better guide and correct your dog. Ordinary flat collars don’t do a very good job of that. We recommend existing flat collars be used as yard decoration or perhaps only to hold the small metal tags documenting rabies shot and municipal registration. We prefer to custom fit a simple slip collar made of braided paracord. (Any commercial slip collar will be fine as long as it stays on the upper portion of the dog’s neck.)
About the leash
Choosing a leash is even more simple: Short and neither abrasive nor slippery in your hand. The leash should form the letter ‘J’ with you and your dog standing relaxed side by side.
Flexi-leashes and other long lines make communication with your dog difficult or impossible and are best retired for the purpose of walking your dog. But what about the heavily advertised, commercially available head halters or front-attachment body harnesses? Don’t they offer an immediate solution to leash pulling? Yes, they often do by providing a mechanical advantage for the human to control the direction and speed of the dog. They also shift your training approach into a different category (see opening paragraph). Which job offer would you accept: (1) You are forced into a tiny cubicle for the workday, are punished every time for wanting to stretch, you perceive your boss to be a jerk, and there is very little pay, or (2) you are free to enter or leave your cubicle to work, your boss is super nice and respectful, the pay is making you happy, and better work increases your compensation. A difficult choice to make?
Now that you made up your mind which training philosophy to pursue and which equipment to use, and both you and your dog are in a relaxed state of mind the actual training can begin. This part has now become fairly easy because of the foundations you set in place.
Again, a common theme applies here as well: Your dog will get what he wants after showing you the behavior you want.
If your dog pulls on the leash, you simply deny what the dog wants (moving) by stopping to walk. Your dog will instantly realize that something is up and pulling the leash no longer works as it used to (for the dog). Stand still and wait, first for your dog to realize he is not getting anywhere, and second for him to turn around, looking at you and wondering what is going on.
At that point, loosen the leash a little for the dog to realize that paying attention is worth it. You can also change directions, even walk backwards and instead of moving in his desired direction your dog is now losing ground when he pulls. Anytime he turns around to wonder what went wrong in his game, the leash will loosen a little bit and he will get a little praise and you slowly start walking forward again. Basically you want your dog to realize that pulling activates the brakes and not pulling will get him what he wants (moving). Anytime the dog maneuvers into a loose leash position next to you, reward him with some food from your hand (remember that he is hungry and you hold the key to his wants, his kibble, in your pocket).
The frequency of pulling will gradually diminish and eventually disappear as the dog learns that good things only happen with a loose leash and next to you. Remember that new behavior is not learned overnight and is mostly achieved through repetition. Keep the initial training sessions short, and ALWAYS end on a high note. After your dog has maintained the behavior you want, allow him to be a dog and sniff around. Then YOU decide when reward time is over and start the walk again. Reward time is always less than time spent walking. When it is time to walk, keep the leash short but loose and keep your dog’s head up. It is ok and needed to give a quick correction for behavior you don’t want, followed by relaxing the leash. Capture desired behavior and reward it, and maintain a calm and assertive stance throughout these training sessions.