How To Stop My Dog Pulling On The Lead
Arguably the most challenging aspect of dog ownership is attempting to have an enjoyable, loose-lead walk with your pal. You look on with envious eyes at the perfectly behaved dogs prancing at the heels of their owners passing you by, as your own dog drags you to the next tree. We all would prefer our dog to walk more like Perdita and less like Pongo in 101 Dalmatians (although if you know anything about Dalmatians, you understand they are the more boisterous type for sure!).
Why it is important not to let your dog pull on the leash
- It can cause repetitive and long term injury to your dog’s neck
- Your dog is learning not to listen to you
- You or a family member could be hurt or pulled over by your dog
- If your dog manages to get free, you have no assurance it will come back
- It can be very invasive for people and other dog’s trying to walk past your dog
- It is simply an unpleasant walking experience, when walkies should be fun!
Walks may have become a battleground for speed and direction fought between you and your dog. But do not give up just yet, at least, not until you have considered the following. Before you begin to solve the problem of how to stop your dog pulling on the leash, it is important to consider your individual dog. There are a number of factors affecting your dog’s leash walking behaviours, including:
- The age of your dog
- The breed of your dog
- The size of your dog
- The energy level of your dog
- The home environment of your dog
- How often you walk your dog
The dogs age:
Your dog’s age is a critical consideration. If your dog is a puppy, do not be harsh on your pup for pulling on the lead, they are still getting used to the whole ‘walking in a straight line with their master’ thing. Creating a positive experience on the lead should be more important than seeking perfect loose leash walking for your puppy. Alternatively, letting your puppy run like a maniac and pull you in any direction like it is a sled race is not ideal either. It is okay to give your pup gentle guidance as to what behaviours you are looking for, just be more understanding of their training success (or mistakes).
If your dog is an adult (or worse, the 12-18 month old teenager), a clear set of expectations right from the start is always best. Even if pulling on the lead is an established bad habit, not tolerating it anymore is better than these constant battles of where and how fast the walk will proceed. Your dog will not respond to half measures or unclear changes in what they believe to be the rules. Old dogs can learn new tricks, if their masters are consistent in what they expect of them.
The dog’s breed:
Your dog’s breed is important to consider, as it comes with hundreds of years of conditioning and heritage as to what your dog was designed for. Sporting dog groups are much more energetic, guarding dogs much more assertive and in the lead, or hunting breeds much more likely to jump forward with a high prey drive. It is important to have an understanding of what your dog’s background might say about its willingness to behave on walks, but there is no breed that loose leash walking is impossible to achieve. So although you need to consider what drives your dog, there is no excuse for them driving you around on a walk.
The dog’s size and energy level:
The worst thing you can do is excuse pulling on the lead because your dog is small in size. Firstly, if you have a small dog that pulls on the lead, when that dog grows up into a big dog, what seemed funny is now a big problem that you have let slide in a critical period of training the dog.
Alternatively, if you have a small dog breed, you are not doing your dog any favours by allowing constant pulling on the lead. It results in repetitive stress on its neck, which can cause health problems down the track. Many people excuse their small dog from pulling them around because they can physically overpower them if they wish to, but it is not a good habit. Your dog should have some consideration as to how you expect it to behave out on a walk.
Puppies and small dog breeds are often excused for pulling on the lead because they have high amounts of energy that they ‘just need to burn off’. There are other ways to achieve this, pulling on the lead is not a healthy or well-behaved answer. Alternatively, larger dogs are often the types commonly associated with problems like pulling on the lead, because they are bigger and have higher exercise needs. However, it is surprising the number of large breeds that prefer to chill out on the couch than be constantly out and about. Either way, a large dog or a high energy dog must be able to respond to their owner. It is very risky to have a dog you cannot trust if they might overpower you.
The dog’s home and regularity of walks:
If your dog does not leave the home very often, it is understandable that a day out on the lead will be so exciting that pulling on the lead is highly likely. Additionally, if your home has little room for the dog to run, the dog is going to see walks as the best time to burn that energy off. It doesn’t matter if you have a large yard where your dog can ‘entertain itself’. If you do not live on a property, it is only fair to walk your dog on a reasonably regular basis. Imagine if you were only able to exercise on the same patch of grass your whole life. Most dogs know what the ‘W word’ means and it is the highlight of their day spent with you, but it still doesn’t excuse taking you for a walk. Click here to read how much exercise a Dalmatian needs.
Ways to stop your dog pulling on the lead
Below is a list of some of the best methods collected from different training techniques and schools of thought on the issue. It is best to consider all the factors and choose a method (or multiple methods) that is right for you and your own dog. If unsuccessful, try another method, persistence is key.
Methods to consider to stop your dog pulling on the lead:
- Positive reinforcement
- Mark and correct
- Conditioning behaviours
- Burning off energy
- Consistency in expectations/boundaries
- Exploring corrective or supporting tools
What is it?
This training method relies on rewarding good behaviours when your dog is doing the right thing, in this example, walking with the leash loose. The reward may be different depending on the nature of your dog, including praise, a favourite toy or treats. The reward must be something the dog can easily associate with good behaviour. For example, walking further because they are being so good has no translation for your dog, they don’t know that is why they got a longer walk.
How do you do it?
When your dog is walking by your left side and not pulling, reward the behaviour instantaneously. This might be saying ‘good heel’, followed by marking it with a small treat if necessary. If the dog is walking and checks in with you (looks up/back at you to see what is happening or where you are) this is also a really positive behaviour to praise.
- An excellent method to use with puppies
- Builds positive relationships
- Works well for dogs willing to please their owners or those that enjoy working
- Works well for food driven dogs
- Gives them a positive focus and a challenge to please you on your walk
- If your dog never does the right thing, it becomes difficult to stop the behaviour
- Difficult if your dog has no interest in food or praise when on a walk
- Your dog may take advantage of this method and walk by your side just to get the treat, then return to pulling the lead as it wishes (this is a very common result of using this method, where the dog learns what the behaviour is, but choose when to behave)
- Overly praising your dog (particularly patting them) can cause them to get excitable and so walk faster and go back to pulling on the lead
Mark and Correct:
What is it?
Providing a cue to allow your dog to know you are not pleased with the behaviour, followed by a correction of the behaviour. In this example, when the dog reaches the end of the lead and begins to pull you, you give a loud command that indicates it is not tolerable and correct the dog by bringing it back into the limits of the leash.
How do you do it?
First phase: As soon as the dog pulls on the lead, mark the behaviour with a loud voice that will make the dog stop and think ‘oh, something is up, I better stop and check in’. A command like ‘hey’, ‘enough’ or ‘ease up’ is best (the word ‘no’ is so overused). If the dog stops (you should stop walking when they start pulling), then great, keep walking together, lesson over.
Second Phase: If the dog fails to stop pulling, a small correction on the leash can be used. This should occur within a moment of the command, so your dog has had the opportunity to stop, but is still pulling ahead on the leash not listening to you, and this is the result. Stop walking and give a firm tug on the leash as the dog fails to stop, pulling them back into the circle of the loose leash area. Give a short pull on the lead, to the side of the dog and from a low angle. Do not pull upwards on your dog’s neck or pull constantly or roughly, it is not good for the dog. Some suggest this measure is harsh, but if you have a dog constantly pulling on the lead, you are already causing it more harm by allowing this than what this method could ever cause. This method is not about punishment, it is simply teaching the dog if they continue to pull on the leash, they are going to run out of room and be pulled up. If the dog doesn’t get the point, do not have constant pressure on the lead, rather, do another correction in small jolting actions, until the dog realises they must check in with you.
Final Aim: When the dog starts to get the idea, do not use a command word anymore, just stop every now and then or change direction and see if your dog checks in or stops too. If they don’t, a small tug on the leash will remind them these are the parameters of the leash and they will get the idea.
- Dogs learn this method very easily, some in as little as 15 minutes
- Dogs tend to respond well to it because the owner is being the boss, to which the dog can easily agree to and even feel comfort in knowing you are in charge
- It strengthens the level of respect your dog has for you and improves other obedience training as a result
- Clear parameters must be set (often, people are inconsistent as to what constitutes pulling, it needs to be clear cut as to where the end of the leash is)
- If you do not remove the mark/command word or you are too obvious in your stops, dogs easily predict when they will be corrected and annoyingly stop just before a correction
- People do not use a strong or loud enough command (usually because it is awkward to do in public or they don’t want to seem like they are mean to their dog), so the dog ignores them or their behaviour doesn’t change
- People think it is mean or harming the dog. If done wrong then yes, but it would seem common sense if the dog reaches the end of the lead to give a small correction, and is harmless in comparison to allowing constant strain on a dog’s neck through pulling
What is it?
This method involves redirecting the behaviour of your dog into something more desirable, or a literal direction change. It is really quite straightforward, if the dog is doing the wrong thing, redirect the behaviour to achieve a different outcome.
How do you do it?
As soon as your dog pulls on the lead, redirect yourself and your dog will be forced to follow you rather than pull in front. As soon as the lead is pulled tight, pivot and walk in the opposite direction. The dog is all of a sudden behind you and has to catch up to be back and involved in the walk. An alternative can be to practice recall and redirect the dog’s thinking. Do so by running backwards and calling to your dog, praising it when it is right back in front of you and watching you.
- Particularly useful for dogs that fixate on things (birds, other dogs) as is breaks obsessive watching or tracking behaviours
- Good for dogs that have leash reactivity, anxiety or fear on the leash, encourages them to keep focus on you
- Can mean that you don’t get very far on walks or can be restricted by straight pathways
- People often find it silly or embarrassing to enact in public and so do not consistently uphold the strategy enough
- Can just be frustrating, lengthy and tiresome as a strategy
What is it?
Conditioning a dog’s behaviour is a very complex and well studied area in animal behaviour. Some of the other methods listed already feature an element of conditioning training. Conditioning your dog means to develop an association, whether it is a positive, negative or otherwise neutral link, with that of a particular behaviour, in this case pulling on (or not pulling on) the lead. Conditioning creates a link in your dog’s mind of ‘if this thing happens, this is the result that can be expected’.
How do you do it?
The most important thing about conditioning behaviour is to get an immediate link, even seconds after the event has happened (good or bad) is too late to condition the dog, it needs to be immediate and clear what they are being conditioned for. Some conditioning training uses a clicker (a button that makes a distinct noise) to mark the behaviour quickly. The dog has been conditioned using the clicker, so the dog associates the clicker as meaning they have done the right thing and a reward will soon follow.
What is more important to talk about in this training method, is what people are conditioning their dog to do without actually knowing it. Take the following examples as common ways we condition behaviours in our dogs that we may not even consider (and probably should) when walking on the lead.
Good behaviour conditioning:
- Your dog wags its tail and does a happy dance when you pick up their lead. This can be difficult in setting expectations for a calm loose leash walk, but ultimately is a good thing, the dog associates the leash with a walk and obviously enjoys the experience.
- Looking up at you or checking in with you on a walk causes you to give your dog a happy smile or a bit of praise (aren’t they just the cutest?). Your dog is being conditioned to associate interacting with you on the walk as a positive part of the activity.
Bad behaviour conditioning:
- Puppies become conditioned to pulling on the lead because right from the start they are pulled around by their owners, as they don’t know how to walk on a lead yet. Then they start to pull as they grow up, they are more confident and it is excusable because they are still young. This then causes constant tension on the leash, until the dog starts to associate a tight leash with how walks are supposed to be, slipping into this behaviour because that is what they were inadvertently conditioned to do.
- As you pass other people or dogs, you tense up and tighten the leash to protect your pup. Dogs are extremely sensitive to how you hold the lead, and holding the lead in a tense fashion conditions the dog to feel tense in those situations as a result. This fosters leash reactivity.
- When you first walk out the door, the dog is excited and rushes out for the walk in front of you, basically dragging you out. This is the FIRST place that you should condition your dog not to pull on the lead, as unfortunately this behaviour sets the tone for the whole walk. If your dog started pulling in the house, why not the whole way? Even if you have to open and shut the door several times, recondition your dog to understand loose leash walking starts from the first step you take together.
Burning off the dog’s energy:
What is it?
Well, rather obvious, let your dog run off that excitable energy before you go on a walk and it will be a more calm affair.
How do you do it?
It is not so easy to do, most people use a leashed walk to burn off energy so a run beats the point. Whatever you do, mix it up, perhaps it’s a game of tug of war before grabbing the lead, or a quick round of frisbee in the yard. Perhaps it is a walk to an oval, with the majority of the time spent there before the walk home.
- The obvious advantage is your dog is tired and not so excitable and pulling you around
- It establishes a clear difference between the structured experience of a good walk and the more free range vibe of a good run
- It is best for larger dogs or high endurance dogs, which will happily have a run and a walk
- Weather and available areas do not alway permit this strategy
- Dogs that get walked to their area to be let off for a run often begin to expect it, and madly pull on the lead to get there
- The strategy won’t suit smaller dogs to stop pulling on the leash, they will be exhausted before the walk begins
Using walking gear and training tools:
What is available?
There are a wide variety of leash and collar options, each with their own suggested techniques as to how to use them effectively when walking with your dog. Follow the advice given for each item, many of these devices you do not need to use (for leash pulling some are not ideal, but nonetheless are listed to explore what is available). Nothing will be successful if you cannot make any progress on a simple collar using the suggested training techniques outlined.
- Standard collar
- Gentle leader/Halti/Head halter
- Front attached harness
- Under the chest/front legs correction harness
- Prong collar
- Correction chain
- E collar
- Leash length (short or long length)
- Retractable leash
How do I choose what to implement?
You should carefully consider what is right for your dog and your situation. The factors listed at the start of this article play a huge role in determining what might be right for your dog. For example prong collars, choker chains and e collars are considered extreme measures which can promote leash reactivity and fear, larger dogs tend to require head halters more than small dogs, and dogs with problems pulling on the lead haven’t exactly earnt the right to be on a retractable lead. Consider your dog individually, consult your vet, pet shop or dog club and be willing to try a method that gives an opportunity for your dog to succeed and have a pleasant walk with you.
Finally, consider what is the desirable outcome you seek for you and your dog on a pleasant, no pulling walking experience:
- How bad is the problem of your dog pulling at this point?
- If you do nothing about it, is it going to get worse?
- How important is it to fix it?
- What are the parameters for a successful walk on the leash?
- Have you made it easy for your dog to be able to recognise these parameters?
- In what environments do you need the rules to be met, and with who?
- Are all members of the family carrying out the same expected outcome for the dog?
- What value is placed on obedience training overall?
Considering your answers to these questions sets a clear standard of what you want from your dog when you go on a walk. You should lead by example when it comes to expectations for a trip outside. There are a wide range of options to explore about how to stop your dog pulling you around on the lead. No doubt, with some persistence, a successful loose leash walkies with your dog is just around the corner.