Pulling on walks is one of the most common reasons we get called in to help. It can be very frustrating but also dangerous, if you have a large or strong breed of dog! Not only that, but pulling on leash can lead to frustration (dogs who bark excessively until they can greet the other dog or person) and reactivity (dogs who are fearful or anxious about dogs or people and bark to make them go away).
Dogs are not born and bred to walk on a leash. It is not a natural behaviour for any animal, so it's important that we adjust our expectations and work at our dog's pace. If they were not accustomed to wearing a leash and harness/collar before they came to live with you, it is typically frightening, uncomfortable, or at the very least confusing.
Instead of thinking of pulling as a naughty behaviour, remember that your dog is simply trying to communicate what they want. Some dogs pull forward: "I want to get there", other dogs pull backwards: "I don't want to go that way", some dogs plant themselves and don't want to go forward or back: "I'm uncomfortable and I need a break."
First, let's think about tools.
- Your leash should be 5'-10' long, depending on where you are and what you are doing. On a city street, 5'-6' is ideal. Too short and you'll have a frustrated dog. Too long and you won't have control. In a suburb, 6'-10' is ideal to let them sniff and move around a bit. Hiking or in a large open space, 10'+ is just fine if you have a friendly dog with few concerns (poop eating, Pica, reactivity, etc).
- Retractable (Flexi) leashes don't have any place on city streets - they are far too dangerous and they are also against city bylaws unless they are locked at 6'. We have no control when we use this tool. We reserve this tool for hikes, introducing a dog to a body of water, or for large open spaces.
- Collars are meant for tags and as a backup tool, double clipped to a harness for safety. It is not safe to walk a dog with a leash attached solely to a collar as tension and jerking can cause damage to the neck, spine, trachea, oesophagus, thyroid, optic nerves, nerves leading to the front legs, and more. Dogs are no different from us in that their necks are extraordinarily sensitive and delicate areas. A flat/buckle collar or a martingale collar is a great option for ID tags as well as double clipping to the harness for a backup if you have a Houdini on your hands.
- Collars such as prong/pinch, choke/check are designed to be aversive and while they may discourage pulling, they create a game of "whack-a-mole" in the sense that the pulling may be resolved, but 3 more issues will pop up in its place, such as fear, anxiety, pain, reactivity, frustration, shutdown, etc. Because of the physical and psychological damage these collars do, they are not recommended by qualified professional dog trainers, veterinarians, nor by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.
- Head collars (Gentle Leader, Halti, Snoot Loop) can be a humane way to stop pulling, however, they should only be used on non-geriatric dogs who are over 20-25lbs in weight. Small and toy breeds are not ideal candidates for these tools unless absolutely necessary and overseen by a qualified trainer. Dogs with neck injuries or sensitivities are also not candidates. Caution must be taken with dogs who have eye issues, or who are brachycephalic (pugs, French bulldogs, boxers, etc.). We use these with horses and they work wonders!
- Back-clipping body harnesses are great for puppies and small/toy breeds. Clipping to the back does not cause a dog to pull - it simply makes pulling comfortable as the weight is evenly dispersed. We still need to teach dogs wearing back-clipping body harnesses to walk politely. These are also great for older dogs who need support or balance. Watch that they have a full range of motion with all their limbs!
- Front-clipping body harnesses (Freedom, Haquihana) are great for strong pullers. The leash clips to the front of the chest and discourages pulling by adjusting the direction in which the dog is pulling. Watch that they have a full range of motion with all their limbs! These harnesses can be wonderful, but some are poorly made and are not fitted properly; they droop too low in the front, affecting the dog's gait.
Second, let's think about mechanics.
- If you are walking around with a handful of treats, your dog is likely to follow you, yes...however what happens when you don't have a handful of treats? You will be forgotten. Ideally, we are not luring or bribing our dogs to walk with us, however, in the beginning, you might find it helpful to show the treats and then hold them up at your waist as you walk. Take a couple steps and then feed. Lather, rinse, repeat!
- If you want your dog on the left, your leash should be held in the right hand with your leash slack across the front of your body. The treat pouch can be swung over to your left side for easy access with your left hand. If you want your dog on the right, your leash should be held in the left hand with your leash slack across the front of your body. The treat pouch can be swung over to your right side for easy access with your right hand. This prevents you from having to twist your body to feed in position (up next!) and also prevents your dog from lunging in front of you toward the treat hand.
- Mark them for the desired behaviour (walking at your side with a loose leash) with a "yes" or a click, then feed them. Avoid walking with your treats down in front of the dog, your hand in the pouch or reaching into the pouch before you mark with a "yes" or a click.
- Most people find that using the clicker on walks is too much. If you choose to use it, place it in the leash hand. If you prefer not to use it, use a short (consistent) word like "YES!" instead. It is just as effective if you treat it the same way you treat the clicker.
Third, let's think about position-feeding.
- Wherever you feed, your dog is going to be magnetically drawn to that area next time. If you feed in front, your dog will hang out in front of you. If you feed behind, they will hang out behind you. If you feed at your leg, your dog will hang out beside you. If you feed too high, they will jump. If you feed too low, they will lie down or you will topple over!
- If you want your dog on the left, choose a spot on your left leg at the seam of your pants at the height of your dog's nose. If you want your dog on the right, do the same on that side. Memorize it! This is going to be your drive-thru window. You will feed here on walks when rewarding polite walking. Your dog will have to come to the window to get their food as opposed to you providing a delivery service wherever they are.
- Stand with your dog and if they are not pulling and they are within an arm's reach, click and then feed them at that drive-thru window. Repeat this ten times, standing still. No need to move around just yet - we just want them to know where to pick up their food.
Lastly, let's put it to some movement.
- While moving forward, look for one of three behaviours to mark and feed in position:
- eye contact (cued or captured)
- not pulling (seriously - any loose leash walking can be rewarded!)
- walking within your personal space bubble (as far as you could reach your arms out around you)
If you encounter any of these criteria, click or say "YES!" and then feed in position. You can prompt them for eye contact or use kissy noises to keep them engaged with you - that's no problem in the early days. Ideally, they learn that doing these things on their own is what gets rewarded more.
- Over time, you can leave the food in your pouch and once you mark with a click or "YES!", then you reach into the pouch and feed at that drive-thru window! We don't want to lure forever!
Q: Where should I practice?
A: In the beginning, it's best to practice somewhere quiet and low-distraction, like a hallway, backyard, underground parking lot, etc. If you don't have access to any of these, you'll be jumping straight into medium- to high-distraction environments and that means you will have to be patient, understanding, and bring REALLY great novel treats.
Q: What if my dog pulls?
A: If your dog pulls, you can say "too bad", stop moving, and walk back about 10 feet to reset. Going in the opposite direction to where your dog is pulling is the most effective and humane punishment. Once you get back 10 feet, you can start moving forward again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Some dogs catch onto this quickly and others take a lot more time. It's you who has to be consistent! If you let them pull a few times here and there, you will see this behaviour fall apart.