Controlling Pulling on Walks

Why do dogs pull on the leash?  

Dogs pull to get where they are going. Dogs want to engage with the environment, and humans, to a dog, can be slow. Wearing a leash and being tethered to a human is not a “natural” behavior for dogs.

Many dogs will naturally “lean in” when they feel pressure on their collars and strain forward. Loose leash walking is a complex skill and it requires patience, planning, and persistence.  

How do I get started?

All dogs need plenty of social, mental, and physical stimulation every day. Regular leash walks may help with mental and social stimulation, but they rarely truly satisfy a dog’s need for physical exercise. Before teaching a dog loose leash walking, you should start by making sure the dog’s daily needs are being met.

Unstructured exploration and low-stress walks in a quiet location are an important part of wellness for most dogs. Here are a couple of items to consider before getting started:

  • Has my dog had a vigorous exercise or play session today? This could be in a safely fenced area or on a long line (use a fixed-length leash 15-50’ long and avoid retractable leashes).
  • Has my dog had an opportunity to sniff, explore, and interact with the environment today? This could be in a safely fenced area, or on a long line.  

What equipment does my dog need?

Choose a leash that is 6-10’ in length and feels good in your hands. It should be wide enough that even if the dog pulls, you will not have a friction burn on your hands, but narrow enough that it is comfortably light weight for the dog to wear. You will also want a long line – a leash that is 15 -50’ in length to use for unstructured safe exploration. Avoid the use of retractable leashes; these can result in serious friction burns to both people and animals.  

If you choose a collar, use a plain, flat collar that is fitted so you can put 2-4 fingers between the collar and the dog’s neck. The collar should be snug enough that it can’t be slipped over the dog’s head. If your dog pulls very hard, pulls until they cough or have noisy breathing, or can physically unbalance or overpower you when they pull, a collar is not the right choice for this dog.  

Training collars
Training collars, such as slip, choke, prong, or electronic collars, all rely on causing pain to stop a dog from pulling.  When the leash is tight, the collar causes pain around the dog’s neck. When the leash is loose, the pain is stopped. If the collar is effective, the dog learns to keep the leash loose to avoid pain.  

There are a few difficulties with these collars:  

  1. The pain needs to hurt enough that the dog stops pulling. Some dogs will not stop pulling until the pain is quite severe. Training without pain is a priority when we are building a trusting and healthy relationship with our dogs.  
  2. Some dogs can be injured by heavy pressure on the collar, especially training collars.
  3. Some training collars do not have a limit on how tightly they close, putting the dog at risk for strangulation if entangled.  
  4. If the dog is straining toward a person, another dog, or anything else in the environment and we tighten the training collar, causing pain, there is a risk the dog will associate the pain with what he was looking at or approaching when the leash was tightened. This can contribute to fear or aggression toward strangers, other dogs, or other stimuli in the environment.  

A well-fitted H-Style or Y-style harness can be a wonderful tool for many dogs. Harnesses should only be worn when the dog is on a leash. What to look for in a harness:  

  • It is easy to put on and remove.
  • It does not cause chafing.  
  • The shoulder joints are freely moving with no straps across the front of the shoulder. Be especially mindful of “no pull” harnesses; some styles can cause injury by pressing on the front of the shoulder joint.  
  • The dog can’t back up and slip out of the harness. Some deep chested dogs, like Greyhounds, may need a “Double-H” harness for safety.  
  • There are at least two places a leash can be clipped: on the back between the shoulder blades, and in front below the dog’s neck between the front legs.  

Head Collars
Head collars fit around the nose and ears of a dog, like a halter. Head collars can give added control, especially when a strong, powerful dog has a smaller or infirm handler. A head collar needs to be carefully selected and introduced. Dogs are not accustomed to wearing things on their faces! It takes time to positively condition a dog to accept a head collar, and they are not right for every dog. When using a head collar, a second leash should be connected to a harness or neck collar as a safety backup. The safety leash is helpful because if a dog lunges quickly and hits the end of the leash wearing only a head collar, the leash can pull the dog’s head sharply to the side placing unnecessary strain on the dog’s neck.  

How do I get started? How do dogs learn?

Dogs, like any animal, do what “works.” They will repeat behaviors which have a favorable or meaningful result. When we are working to change or improve a dog’s behavior, we need to consider what the behavior accomplishes from the dog’s point of view – and how we can modify that event so the dog’s behavior will change for the better.  

Using the 'A-B-C' method to consider why the dog is walking a certain way is often helpful.  

A = Antecedent. What happens immediately before the pulling?  

B = Behavior. Pulling is the behavior in question, but it is probably accompanied by other behaviors, too!  

C = Consequence. What happens during or immediately after the pulling? This is the “result” from the dog’s point of view.  

Creating a training plan means identifying A, B, and C – and considering how A and C can be changed so B will change. Each training plan will be unique to the dog and the family, but most pulling can be prevented or reversed using a positive reinforcement based training approach.  

Let's consder an example: pulling toward another dog. Remember, your dog can only see the world through his own eyes. He is being held back, but can see something he wants. Straining in the direction of travel might be productive from the dog’s point of view. Let’s look at the A-B-C’s for pulling toward another dog.  

A = Your dog sees another dog appear.  

B = Your dog pulls on the leash.  

C = You and the dog are moved closer to the other dog.  

In this example from the dog’s perspective, pulling is an effective way to get closer to something he wants. Barking is one way dogs will ask for space, or try to move another person or animal away from their space.

Prevention: Foundation Skills
Start with a well-prepared dog and in a non-distracting environment such as inside the home or your yard. Have plenty of small delicious treats with you, and if your dog likes toys, bring your dog’s favorite toy along as well.  

The A-B-C’s: Loose Leash
Clip on your dog’s leash and stand quietly. Wait for even the smallest second of slack in the leash. Tell your dog “Yes!” when the leash is slack and quickly deliver one or two wonderful treats either putting them in his mouth or dropping them on the ground near your foot. Encourage him to eat them with a happy excited voice as you point them out. Take 1-2 steps forward and repeat this process.  

A = The dog is on-leash, you are present with treats.  

B = The dog stays close enough to you that the leash is loose.  

C = Wonderful treats and happy praise.  

In the beginning, it can be helpful to use luring. Luring means encouraging the dog to follow a treat so they perform a certain skill. Hold several treats in a closed hand next to your leg at your dog’s nose level. Once your dog’s nose is attached to the treats like they are a magnet, deliver one treat every 2-3 seconds. Begin walking, just a few steps at a time, consistently delivering tiny treats as long as the dog stays near you and the leash remains loose.  

A = Leash is on and a handful of treats is within easy following reach.  

B = Following the treat hand with a loose leash.  

C = Receiving a small treat!  

Putting it On Cue
Have a word or phrase that means “Walk with me!” Common choices are “Let’s Go!” or “Let’s Walk” or “With Me!” said in a cheerful happy voice. Once you’re able to repeat the sequence of starting a nice loose leash walk for a few steps at a time, say the cue in a happy voice. The cue means rewards are available for the loose leash walking.  

A = “Let’s Go” cue is heard, leash is on

B = Dog walks on a loose leash for a few steps (or further, as the dog’s skills become more advanced)

C = Forward progress in the environment with frequent delicious treats for staying near the owner.  

What should I do if my dog pulls?

A = Something interests the dog.  

B = Leash gets tight

C = You stand still or take a few steps away from the thing that is interesting – then wait for any sign of loose leash and quickly reward as above.  

If your dog can’t disengage from the distraction, move further away and try again.  

If it goes well, it looks like:  

A = Something interests the dog.  

B = You both walk toward the point of interest; the leash stays loose.

C = Progress is made toward the point of interest, and small delicious treats are intermittently delivered as well!  

Group classes for leash walking and life skills are a wonderful place to refine leash walking techniques. Attending a group class in a controlled environment allows a professional training coach to help you develop excellent timing and to modulate the number and type of distractions your dog learns to walk around while keeping the leash loose. It takes most dogs several months of regular practice to learn to walk on a loose leash. There are entire books, online courses, and 8-week or more in-person courses devoted just to learning leash walking!  

How do I handle lunging and barking?

For dogs who lunge to the end of their leash, bark and frantically try to chase or approach other animals, people, moving cars, bicycles, etc., additional help is needed. Talk to your veterinarian for a referral for a professional behavior consultant and trainer for individualized coaching.  

Some dogs lunge or bark because they are afraid. Others are too excited and have trouble controlling themselves. Still others may have the urge to hunt or chase. Depending upon the severity of the behavior and the underlying motivation, the individual training plan needs to be tailored to the specific dog.