Teaching a dog to calmly walk next to you on a loose lead will make walks more enjoyable for both of you.
Dogs pull on the lead because they are anxious on walks or excited to get to a destination.
Leads and collars need to be comfortable and not designed to tighten, cause pain or discomfort.
Teaching a dog to enjoy engaging and connecting with the handler will reduce lead pulling.
Avoid correcting a dog if they pull on the lead – this can cause physical issues, increase anxiety and stress, and does not teach the dog what you do want them to do.
Why do dogs pull?
Dogs may pull on the lead for various reasons although excitement is the most common cause. Ultimately, a calm, relaxed dog engaged with its handler is unlikely to pull.
Anxiety and associated arousal levels may cause a dog to be hypervigilant (wanting to keep an eye on everything around them) and motivated to get round the walk and get home as quickly as possible.
Excitement about getting to an off-lead location, or another destination that the dog is motivated to get to, will exacerbate lead pulling issues.
Dogs can only pull on the lead if there is tension to pull against. They learn that:
Pulling causes the handler to follow them (which reinforces the behaviour – and this will usually outweigh any discomfort or pain caused by pulling)
Pulling causes the handler to create more tension by pulling back against the dog (creating an ‘opposition reflex’ which makes the dog pull harder)
Pulling is uncomfortable or painful, which can increase anxiety (which in turn can increase pulling).
What equipment should I use to walk my dog?
Any equipment used should be comfortable for the dog and well-fitted. Avoid any equipment designed to tighten (like choke-chains), cause pain or discomfort – nothing will magically stop a dog pulling on the lead unless it is uncomfortable or painful for the dog. This pain can increase anxiety and stress and lead to physical issues.
It is sensible to use a harness to remove pressure from a dog’s sensitive neck area. Harnesses should not dig in around armpits, rub the dog or tighten if the dog pulls. A front and back lead attachment point can be beneficial for additional control and to keep a dog ‘in balance’.
Headcollars may be advantageous for big, strong dogs and/or handlers unable to manage walking a dog in other equipment. However, these must be introduced slowly and carefully so that the dog is happy to wear.
Generally a 1.5-2 meter lead is beneficial, as long as it is safe to use. This allows the dog to avoid tension on the lead which can, on occasion, instantly resolve the pulling issue.
How can I train my dog to walk on a loose lead?
Teaching a dog that walking ‘with’ you is more enjoyable for them than pulling against you is key.
As soon as the lead is put on to go for a walk, reward the dog any time they choose to ‘check-in’ with you of their own accord (i.e. acknowledge that you exist, glance up at you, match your pace, stop when you stop) Food is easiest reward to use because it can be delivered right where you want your dog to walk – at your heel, and at a rapid frequency (which is necessary to start with). Start off stationary then start walking very slowly.
If the dog does pull, immediately stop walking. Avoid pulling back on the lead. Wait for them to check in with you (they should eventually turn around to find out why you have stopped) and reward them by dropping food behind your heel. Try to then increase your reinforcement rate so that they don’t move to the end of the lead in between your reward. ,Your dog will learn that staying next to you gets rewarded highly.
Once they get the idea that walking with you generates rewards, you can start to gradually reduce the frequency of rewards. Your dog should remain happy to be engaged and connected with you, rather than returning to being self-employed on their walks!
As well as walking slowly, figures of eight and circles can help to start with. Avoid practicing loose lead walking when heading to an e towards the park, or when the dog is very excited or anxious. It can be useful to use a different piece of equipment or attach the lead to a different point of contact at these times, so that the dog learns to expect to loose lead walk when certain equipment is used or the lead is attached to a certain point. Once the dog is successful at walking well in low distracting situations, you can then practice in other environments when the dog might be more aroused.
Avoid physically correcting the dog if they pull on the lead. Pain and discomfort will increase stress and anxiety and it does not teach the dog what you do want them to do – reinforcing the dog for walking on a loose lead means your dog will enjoy walking with you instead of against you.