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Nobody likes being dragged around by a dog that pulls. It’s much easier to leash train a puppy right from the beginning than it is to break a bad habit later on.
While leash training a puppy isn’t necessarily a safety skill (like come when called or drop it), it’s important for your dog’s quality of life. If it’s fun to walk your dog because he walks nicely, you’re more likely to give him the exercise that he needs!
It’s the frustrating truth that almost all dogs pull on walks if we don’t train them not to. But why? Why don’t dogs just learn that if they walk slower, the collar won’t press their throat and they get to enjoy the walk?
While we can’t exactly ask dogs why they pull us around all of the time, there are a few pretty reasonable reasons your dog might pull on walks:
Understanding the why of your dog’s behavior does two main things for you:
As I said above, it’s much easier to build a good habit from Day One than it is to break a bad habit. The reason many dogs pull so much is because we let them “practice” pulling every day for years, then try to fix the problem in just a few hours of obedience class.
Before we get started, here are four important tips:
Leash training is really hard! While we consider it a “basic” skill for our dogs, it’s anything but. A nice, consistent loose-leash-walk is one of the most challenging skills I’ve ever taught any dog – including dogs that also trial-ed in obedience, agility, and scent work.
If your dog gets to pull towards squirrels one day and is expected to walk nicely the next, you’ll end up with a very long learning process. You’ve accidentally put your dog on an “intermittent reinforcement schedule,” whereby your dog gets rewarded for pulling sometimes. This is a really hard habit to break – it’s like gambling!
Treats are your friend. They’re your dog’s paycheck, and it’s important to be liberal with them when you’re working on a difficult skill like leash training. Instead of getting a fancy training collar, put your dog’s kibble in a fanny pack and bring that on every walk.
I generally leash train my dogs using two different setups: one for training, and one for walking. I have a four-foot leash that I attach to a flat-buckle neck collar for training. When we’re hiking, exploring, or otherwise not actively training, I use an eight-foot leash and a Ruffwear Front Range harness. This helps my dog know when he’s supposed to be on his A-Game.
This seems counterintuitive at first because you probably don’t want your dog to ever pull. But it helps you be consistent (Rule #2) without spending every single walk in Dog Training Mode. If you’re in a rush and can’t train for a potty break before work, just clip on the harness. But later when you have time, use the collar. Eventually, you can fade out the harness and long leash for more situations.
If you stick to these principles, the steps below will be much easier.
If you peruse the shelves of almost any pet store these days, you’ll be overwhelmed with the variety of tools available for dog training. That’s especially true when it comes to dogs that pull! From pinch and choke collars to front-clip harnesses and flexi leads, where do you begin?
As a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, I’m bound to the rules of the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) training framework. This means that I never reach for a tool that’s meant to startle, reprimand, correct, or hurt a dog as my first step.
Instead, my first step should always be to start with environmental management to set the dog up for success (you wouldn’t teach multiplication in an arcade, so why try to teach loose-leash walking at the park?) and positive reinforcement training. For most dogs, positive reinforcement means treats.
Even if you don’t care about LIMA, there’s a strong argument to stay away from most training collars (pinch, choke, or e-collars). With the exception of some really competent trainers, most dogs that are trained using a training collar never really get weaned off of the collar. You often see the training collar interrupt the behavior (pulling), but it’s not stopping the behavior from happening in the first place.
So what use is that?
If you’re going to have to put a training collar on your dog for every walk forever, why not bring treats instead?
When I work on teaching a dog not to pull, I use the following tools:
I’ve worked with thousands of dogs of all shapes and sizes, including incredibly powerful and untrained mastiffs in animal shelters. I’m five foot two and I’ve never needed to use a training collar with a dog. If you really feel like you need mechanical help to control your dog, work with a trainer to ensure you’re doing it right!
SEE ALSO: 5 Best Dog Harnesses to Stop Pulling
Leash training is hard, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun! The most important (and arguably hardest) thing about leash training a dog that pulls is to slowly add distractions and build up the difficulty.
I generally find that it’s best to separate training time from walks to reduce frustration on the human end of the leash!
I start indoors with the dog on the neck collar and shorter leash. Then we try the backyard. Once we’re doing well there, we go to the front yard. Then a quiet park or suburban street at dusk. Then a slightly busier park – and so on. In the meantime, I walk the dog using the harness and longer leash.
How to Play: Clip your dog’s leash on and go to a quiet area. Wait for your dog’s attention, then put light and gentle pressure on your dog’s leash. When your dog leans towards the pressure, steps into the pressure, or even shifts weight a little bit, click (using a clicker) and give her a treat.
The goal is to teach the dog to loosen the leash on his own! Ask your dog to move further towards the leash pressure over time, eventually taking steps together. Then start taking it to new locations as described above!
Learn More: Grisha Stewart started teaching this game at Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle. You can learn more about the Silky Leash Technique in her fantastic book, the Ahimsa Dog Training Manual.
How to Play: Stand with your dog on the leash and do nothing except count (out loud) “1, 2, 3.” At 3, give your dog a treat. Repeat this 10 times. Then start to slowly walk in circles or down the hallway, continuing to count and give a treat at 3. Be sure to give the treat right near your pant pocket, where you want your dog to be. Gradually start to play the game in more and more distracting environments.
Learn More: This game features in Leslie McDevitt’s DVD, Pattern Games.
How to Play: Head to a quiet area for practice. Walk in random directions – think following a child’s scribble pattern. The more erratic your direction, the better for your dog! Whenever your dog looks at you or gets into “heel position,” start feeding treats near your pant pocket. Transition to less and less erratic movements, rewarding your dog for staying near you the whole time.
Eventually, you’ll be moving in a straight line! If your dog starts getting out ahead of you, just “pull a U-turn” and reward your dog when he catches up. This game is so fun that my dog and I often do this instead of marching around the neighborhood in boring straight lines.
Learn More: I don’t know if this game actually has a name. I started playing it at the animal shelter years ago.
Over time, you’ll find your skills from your games bleeds over into walks. I like to switch from “The Walk” to “training games” several times over our walk so that my dog quickly learns that loose leash walking is actually the FUN part of our walk. Eventually, your dog will just stay close for occasional pieces of food.
If you’re watching your dog’s weight, be sure to use healthy treats (I like white chicken breast) and cut down meal sizes if needed. Eventually, you’ll be able to reduce the number of treats that you use per walk, but it’s always good to continue “paying” your dog for his hard work sometimes!
As a professional trainer, I still bring treats with me on almost half of my walks. That helps my dog and I always get better, rather than getting rusty!