Walking your dog is a daily activity, usually enjoyed by all parties involved. However, some pups are better at pulling than walking relaxed on a loose leash. Sound familiar?
We reached out to AnimalKind accredited trainers to talk about why dogs pull and asked them to share humane training tips to help you teach your dog loose-leash walking (and to stop pulling on the leash).
What is loose-leash walking?
Loose-leash walking means you and your dog are relaxed on a walk. There is no tension on the leash, and neither of you are pulling. Stephanie Champagne, one of the trainers at Wild Tails in Nanaimo, says, “loose-leash walking means that I’m relaxed, my dog is relaxed and therefore the leash is loose and relaxed as well. It doesn’t matter to me if my dog is in front, on my left or on my right as long as the leash is loose.”
Loose-leash walking is different than heeling. Lynn Gagnon of Stoked Dogs explains, “when your puppy is right next to you, keeping exactly next to your leg as you walk forward. That’s called the heel position.”
Teaching your dog to stop pulling and training them to walk on a loose leash, regardless of whether they are in heel position, will help you avoid unnecessary stress and frustration and have a more enjoyable time on walks.
Why do dogs pull?
You might have seen your dog start pulling you as soon as you clip the leash. That is called the opposition reflex.
Gagnon says, “Opposition reflex is essentially when our dogs feel something pulling them, they just pull against it,” which might not be a big issue for guardians of small dogs or puppies. But for those with bigger dogs, the frustration of walking a strong dog who is constantly pulling on the leash is enormous!
Leash walking doesn’t come naturally for dogs, so you may need to adjust your expectations as your pup probably won’t be very good at it when they first go on a leash. Especially if pulling is something they learned.
Dog guardians accidentally teach dogs to pull when the guardian uses the leash to pull and move their dog around. “Leash pulling is a habit that usually starts in puppyhood,” says Carol Millman of Wag the Dog. “There are people who actively move their dog around by the leash. If they want their do in the heel position, they hold the dog in heel. And if they want the dog to come with them, they pull the dog back.” So a good tip to keep in mind is that if you don’t want your dog to pull you, you should not pull your dog either. “The deal is a simple one, I won’t pull you, and you won’t pull me. We can only walk if we are not pulling each other.”
Dogs also pull on the leash because it gets them to something they want. When your dog pulls and you follow them, you are rewarding the behaviour, and your dog learns that pulling works. Lisbeth Plant at Cowichan Canine explains that if “pulling gets the dog where he wants to go, to a smelly bush, for example, then we are teaching him to pull. We are rewarding him for pulling if we are following him”.
It’s important to realize that equipment like a harness doesn’t cause your dog to become a leash-pulling machine. “There isn’t a single harness in this world that teaches your dog to pull. They learn to pull on leash because we inadvertently teach them to pull on leash.” Plant says.
How can you stop your dog from pulling?
Humanely stopping your dog from pulling is possible. What’s best, many of the methods and games used by AnimalKind trainers make the process fun for everyone.
Heather Fox of Proud of My Dog, explains, “One of the big challenges, of course, when you put a leash on a dog is they don’t know what that means, and they are going to surge ahead.” The reaction of the dog guardian is to pull back, and then the dog pulls forward. “It triggers that opposition reflex and my dog learns that if I pull hard enough, eventually my human is going to take a few steps and move forward with me.”
To address opposition reflex, Fox recommends the “give into leash pressure” game.
Give into leash pressure game
There are three layers to the game:
- First layer: Applying a bit of pressure to the leash
- Second layer: Toss food and let your dog get it
- Third layer: Toss food outside your dog’s reach
First layer: Applying a bit of pressure
Clip your leash to a harness, not a collar, then apply a tiny bit of pressure to straighten out the leash and clip. Fox explains that you are not trying to move your dog, “When I say put the pressure on, I am not talking about dragging my dog.”
When your dog gives into the pressure and comes to you, it’s time to give a treat reward. Repeat it by putting a little bit of pressure in one direction; your dog comes to you, reward. Then the other direction, and continue on. “I quickly get a dog who starts to learn at the first layer to give into that pressure and follow me.”
Second layer: Toss food and let your dog get it
Here, you will toss food so your dog can get it, then apply the pressure on the leash and give a reward when your dog comes to you. Repeat many times, and be patient. “You might have to apply that pressure and just wait your dog out. It might take a little bit before they turn into you.”
Third layer: Toss food outside your dog’s reach
The idea here is to toss food, but this time do it outside your dog’s reach. You then wait for them to give in to the pressure. Once they do, bring them around your body, and then, together, you go get the food, adding a few more treats to reward the effort.
You can access all the helpful information shared by AnimalKind dog trainers in the video series Training your dog to walk on a loose leash that addresses questions like how to train your dog to walk on a loose leash, puppies and leash walking, reactive dogs and leash skills, and many more!
Going for a walk with a dog who pulls on a leash can be frustrating and stressful for both you and your dog. Learn all about leash walking on the BC SPCA’s AnimalKind site and get on your way to more enjoyable walks!