How to deal with dogs pulling on leads


Understand the problem.

It's quite counter-instinctual for a dog to walk in a constrained place (the length of a lead) and in a straight line. Both those activities are quite human! 

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Dogs often pull when walking on a lead.  Not only can it can be really annoying, but the pulling and jerking can cause physical pain as your muscles strain to control the dog, so for a couple of good reasons, it's something that many of us want to deal with.

Of course, it is possible for a dog to both walk on a lead and in a straight line, and there are  few ways to skin this particular cat.

Sort out your pack

Teaching a dog impulse control is important. You can teach this in other parts of the dogs life, like at feeding time, going through doorways, getting out of the car, just as examples. With the concept of impulse control in place, you are more likely to be able to extend the dog's impulse control when he wants to get to the park, or the next lamppost or tree.

If your dog respects your status in the pack, you will have the authority to determine the direction and speed of the walk, and to make other decisions, like 'sit' 'come' or 'wait', for example.

I tackle these matters in my Strong foundation session.

Use the right equipment

A good quality collar and lead is all you need. I don't advise people use harnesses, or muzzle or head collars. They are a quick fix, but don't tackle the underlying problems.

Extendable leads are a whole heap of problems on their own. No 'choke chains'- they are based on negative reinforcement and are seldom used as intended in any case.

Harnesses can make pulling easier.

Harnesses can make pulling easier.

Muzzle or head collars make the undesired behaviour uncomfortable, or even perhaps painful, by pulling the muzzle down and across when the dog pulls as a means to control behaviour. 

Chest harnesses do the same thing by increasing pressure between the front legs when the dog pulls. Depending on the harness construction, they may even give the dog more strength to pull - harnesses are used to help dogs pull sleds and carts, after all.

The behavioural concept of these devices - like choke chains - is to provide the dog with negative feedback (punishment) every time he pulls, and neutral feedback (neither positive or negative) when he doesn't pull. 

These contraptions don't teach the dog where it is pleasant to be, they teach the dog where it is not pleasant to be.

Choke chains are based on providing negative feedback, and few people know how to use them as intended.

Choke chains are based on providing negative feedback, and few people know how to use them as intended.

Use positive reinforcement, and allow choice.

Harnesses and muzzle collars are based on compulsion, not choice.

While this behavioural concept 'works', most people acknowledge that positive reinforcement is the best way to train dogs - and humans, for that matter - and most people unquestioningly use positive reinforcement to teach a dog to sit, for example.  

As an extension of this concept, modern approaches to training talk about 'choice'.

'Choice' allows the dog to decide between at least two options, one of which is the preferred option - ideally preferred by you and the dog!  So, applied to recall, for example, the dog might think 'of all the options open to me, I choose to return to you'. 

Using a harness or muzzle collar may make a rod for your back. It is more likely that the dog will never be able to be walked without them without pulling.  With harnesses and muzzle collars, the dog avoids negative reinforcement ('punishment') that can only happen when that form of collar is on.  When the means of restraint and punishment is removed, the dog soon works out that the means of repressing the undesired behaviour is gone and make other choices - to pull.

The use of harnesses and muzzle collars also assumes that the dog is not in fact perversely 'rewarded' by what you assume is negative feedback. Or there may be other feedback - like verbal, eye or physical feedback. Dogs - and people - would often rather have negative feedback than no feedback at all.

Some basic tips for dealing with pulling:

Teaching a dog to walk on a lead can be a test of your will and patience. Just like recall, it is a matter of on-going training. And naturally it's easier to prevent pulling with a puppy than to manage it with an older dog. 

I know from my own experience that it can take time, but this approach is a long term solution rather than a plaster, and one that is based on positive reinforcement.

Make walking on a lead an exercise in itself - practice several times a day in short bursts. Use TV commercial breaks to do these sort of training events!

If you need to combine the on-lead exercise with picking up the kids or going to the shops, you may not get far very fast, so give yourself more time.

  • Stay silent. There is no need to talk to the dog.
  • Keep the lead at a consistent, invariable length, that keeps him closer to your thigh. This gives the dog, and you, a consistent boundary in which to work.
  • Hold the lead handle in the opposite hand to the side you walk the dog on. Put the lead behind your back; under the buttocks is a good position for lots of people. While this is not a particularly glamorous look, it keeps the lead at a consistent length and allows you to control lateral movements. It also gives you more strength when the dog does pull and reduces strain on arms, shoulders, backs and hips.
  • Keep the dog on either your left or right.  It doesn't matter which side you walk the dog on but stick to it. Again, this gives you and the dog a rule to stick to.
  • Each time the dog puts tension on the lead, stop. When the dog releases tension, walk again. And stop each time he puts tension on the lead. Rinse and repeat.
  • As an additional technique, each time the dog pulls in one direction, you can turn around, and go in another direction until he pulls, then turn around...rinse and repeat.
  • Also, randomly divert your course around street furniture, like street lamps, bicycle stands and benches to make your course unpredictable for the dog, and so that he has to pay attention to your movements. Rinse and repeat.
  • When the dog is walking without pulling - and because your lead is at a consistently shorter length, the dog is likely to be at your leg - provide some form reward, like a tidbit, or ear tickle, for example.
  • As a very gentle physical reminder, but one that isn't based on negative reinforcement, you can get an additional length of rope and hold it in your hand on the side you walk the dog so that it forms a loose loop between the dog's shoulders and elbows. This is useful for medium to large dogs.

Hunter's owners were sick of Hunter pulling, and wanted to be able to one day run with him. After three sessions, and the owner's dedication, now have the skills and knowledge to prevent and manage Hunter's behaviour, and can go for a run!

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If you'd like to know more about walking your dog on a lead, and learning how to tackle pulling on the lead, click on the button below!