Pulling on the leash is a behavior many dog owners complain about, naturally, because it makes a walk unpleasant at best, and unsafe at worst when the animal at the loop end of the leash is pulled off her feet. It’s a problem, and a common one at that. Why?
For starters, and despite what you hear on TV, moving right next to or behind someone for the duration of a walk is not natural to dogs.
If you watched dogs that travel together, off the leash and not lorded over by a human, you don’t see them march constantly in a linear configuration. Rather, you could observe a variety of arrangements: moving parallel, widening and shortening distances, one lagging behind and then catching up, one running ahead and then waiting, all the while staying mentally connected to the others - and all regardless of age, gender or status.
Yes, status. Dominance, again contrary to popular belief, is not the reason why your dog wants to be ahead of you.
In our house, bossy Aussie Davie was clearly the dog that controlled the others’ space, and yet she didn’t give a rat’s tail where they, including a foster puppy, positioned themselves in relation to her on a walk.
In “Evolution of Working Dogs”, Raymond Coppinger and Richard Schneider write that in a sled team the lead dogs are not chosen for strength, but because they are willing to take directions from the driver; they are the literal leaders of the pack not because they dominate all others, but because they are most responsive. I referenced that with an acquaintance who is a knowledgeable and conscientious Siberian husky breeder, and she said that with double leaders one knows the commands, while the other has the drive to keep the team going.
Tracking dogs are also typically in front, and are also mentally connected to the handler.
And I get the same from my dogs. I am rarely physically in the lead, but I am metaphorically. I signal which direction we’ll take – a signal my dogs are checking for whenever we come to crossroads.
To sum the: the-dominant-one-is-the-one-walking-in-front fairytale up, here is a quote by one of history’s unarguably greatest leaders: “A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are directed from behind.” Nelson Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom
So, what’s the point? Dogs may not be dominant when they pull ahead, but they still pull, and that’s still a problem.
Well, if we could convince the public that pulling has more to do with lack of cooperation than lack of submission, then perhaps the everyday owner would feel less challenged and more inclined to handle the issue without the use of pain. That alone might contribute to better leash manners: Believe it or not, a dog who experiences discomfort near you wants to be away from you.
But even a dog who likes her human might pull, because, as said, the natural traveling range relative to each other is greater than 4-6 feet, which means that whenever we clip a leash on a dog we automatically set her up to fail.
I bet you see the dilemma. Of course, dogs must be leash managed, at least at times. So what can we do?
We could stop reinforcing it.
Every step a dog makes on a taut leash teaches her that pulling works, and which way you walk doesn’t matter. Unless a dog has a specific destination, neither changing directions nor backtracking helps, because moving is reinforcing in its own right. You add what you believe are penalty yards, but your dog gets to move even more and maybe circle around you – what a pleasing consequence for pulling, especially for the herding dog.
Reality is that as long as your dog succeeds with pulling, she’ll continue to pull undeterred by your frustrated badgering and ineffective tugging.
There is another thought coming from the classical conditioning front: Does a tight leash become an associated cue for pulling? I am not so sure. My dogs walk off the leash, on a tight leash, and a loose one, exactly because moving is an intrinsic drive and self-reinforcing. However, maybe the opposite has weight: If moving only happens if there is a slack in the leash, the loose feel links with moving and the dog might halt when the leash gets tight.
In any case, the answer is to stop walking the moment there is leash tension, wait until your dog reorients to you and creates a loose leash again, and then you move and only as long as there’s a slack in the leash. When you are about to make your first step together, add your walking cue. Mine is let’s go.
Easy as pie and it works - other than that it puts most everyday dog owners in a jam: People want to cover ground because they think they must in order to meet their dog’s exercise needs. Thus, they continue the pulling relationship.
I suggest treating the leash walk as any other training exercise: Short sessions and incrementally incorporating distractions, even if you only get to the end of the driveway, while providing physical outlets separately on a long line or off the leash. You might be surprised how much the mental training tires your dog out, and with practice, you will get increasingly less pulling and can walk with the leash loose for increasingly longer periods.
Dominance isn’t the issue; being attached to a slow-moving biped is. Being outside is exciting for your dog: seductive smells and sounds, and memory of past fun in certain places, compel her to get there speedily.
The way to counter that, and hence decrease pulling, is for you to become more desirable. Don’t walk faster if your dog is bored unless you always want to walk fast, but make yourself more attractive.
Play catch-me-if-you-can: in a securely fenced-in space off the leash, otherwise on a long line. As usual, begin where there are no or few distant distractions, and expand from there outward.
Whenever you are snappy and animated, your dog pays attention and becomes curious about you, and that’s when you cajole her to catch up. When she is within a 3-4 feet range, give her your full attention, abruptly change directions, speed up, or toss a food treat. That will make the environment less appealing and you more, and she’ll begin to want to be within the 3-4 feet range because she experiences that life is great there. Then, when you clip a 6-foot leash on, you have loose leash walking.
Being near you becomes a habit, and once it is you don’t have to be that overtly high-spirited anymore, but being attentive never stops. Reinforce attention when your dog gives it, and attract attention when she doesn’t.
You can bring your dog closer than 3-4 feet, and built heel work into every walk. Instead of tossing the treat out, drop it when she is right next to you, or let her nibble on a closed fist that contains a treat to slow her down, periodically releasing it.
Jennifer Arnold, you might have seen the PBS documentary "Through A Dog’s Eyes", doesn’t punish when a future assistants dog leaves a person’s side, but allows her to lick a wooden spoon dipped in peanut butter when she doesn’t. Is it real choice or coercion with a cookie? Jennifer Arnold: “Choice is allowing the dog to find out what feels good”, and she also says that all obedience comes easier with dogs who learn from the start that being by a person is a happy spot.
The spoon only serves as a tool. The dog, in addition, also receives a lot of attention. The spoon eventually disappears, the attention never does.
You want to be the cake and icing for your dog, but that doesn’t mean that you can or should forget the environment completely.
A quality walk is much more than moving: It is being in the environment together, and that includes being sensitive to the fact that some things you might not appreciate are important to your dog and vital for her wellbeing. Exploring with the nose is such a thing, and although I don’t propose letting your dog pull you, she must have autonomy where she wants to sniff. The dog is the one who knows what’s sniff-worthy – you have no clue. The moment she is done with social media and ready to move with you again is another good time for your verbal walking cue. It’ll become a feel-good signal, my goal with every command, and then you can use it to prompt your dog without triggering anxiety or resistance, which is the case when what you say is a warning and threat.
If you facilitate access to what is important to your dog even if you don’t comprehend it, like a parent does who drives her kid to football practice even though she dislikes the sport, the bond between you and your dog deepens more, and she wants to be with you more, and you get more attention, and so on.
Being attentive to one another is walking with a friend. The goal is not the person walking the dog, or the dog walking the human, but walking together – coordinated cooperation you can’t force with putting a rope or choke collar high around a dog’s neck.
That is the ideal I am aiming for, and in my experience it is achievable with perseverance. However, there can be hurdles:
If your dog has a long history of reinforced pulling, progress can take time. Every person, at some point, experienced how hard it is to get rid of a habit, and it is not any different with a dog.
Change is also more difficult with dogs that are outside a lot unsupervised, or let loose at the dog park as their primary form of activity. They are used to stimulation away from you and will not suddenly pay attention to you just because you put a leash on them.
A pup corrected for following, common in the name of popular but misapplied boundary training, becomes uncertain about following. While working with a client at a local dog park, we met a 4-month-old Border collie puppy, the owner boasting how perfect her pup was - except that she won't come when called.
For some people the loose leash protocol is impractical. Maybe you walk the kids to school each day, or maybe you love long walks, and it makes no sense leaving the dog at home. Perhaps there isn’t enough time in your day for both training and exercising, and maybe you don’t mind a tight leash all that much, because then you can see what your dog is up to, and you don’t drip over it.
Truth is that people live in the real world, not a theoretical concept however effective it may be. So, if managing works best for you, that’s okay. A front clip body harness gives you decent physical control and, unlike aversive gear, makes the walk pleasurable for your dog as well. Remember, you can force your dog next to you with certain tools, but you can’t force how she feels about you. My favorite is the Freedom Harness, and there are suppliers in many cities.
Still, don’t skip training altogether. It is good mental stimulation, you are working on the connection you ultimately want, and in time leash manners will improve. Using distinct walking gear: The harness for “free-dog” walks when you’d put up with some pulling, and a flat collar for “training” walks when you strictly enforce the loose leash, can expedite progress.
There is one more reason why a dog pulls: Anxiety. Merely being outside can feel scary for some dogs even without the fear triggers present. The dog is aroused and tries to flee before something really bad happens. She pulls regardless which direction you are going, and often harder toward the car or home, the familiar refuge she wants to get back to.
Other signs that your dog might be agoraphobic are frantic sniffing and/or excessive marking and/or over-reaction, barking and lunging, when a specific stimulus is in the vicinity – a stimulus seemingly benign to you.
If this reads like the reason your dog pulls, I recommend you consult with an experienced, force free behavior specialist. There is a solution for that too, but it can be complex and multi-faceted, and addressing it the wrong way can make matters worse.