Dogs love walks, the only exception is stressed or worried dogs who benefit from less outside time because the world is a scary place.
A dog pulling on the lead makes that choice because it’s his most natural behaviour. No animal is born on a tether and if we put a tether on, we must also include guidance on how to act when tethered – for the dog.
The first thing we consider when a dog pulls on walks is what they are wearing. A collar or slip collar around the neck of a pulling dog is a recipe for throat pain and injury. The dog’s throat is a tender area and – in my opinion – collars should be reserved for dogs that never pull or discarded altogether.
The worst use of collars is by trainers and those giving advice that a certain collar is the key to solving a dog’s behaviour. For example, a tightening chain or even a chain with prongs on that push into the dog’s skin when they pull. Another collar type is one that uses electricity to change behaviour, which is thankfully becoming gradually banned in most European countries.
The idea behind a collar like the ones I have mentioned here is that they make the dog change their choices via the threat of pain. They don’t really teach a different choice though or start off with a good lesson because the dog has to practice the behaviour before the pain is delivered.
So, what we have in this situation is a dog that has never been taught to relax on the lead. We then bring in a collar that’s supposed to change that dog’s behaviour. The dog then pulls as he always does, but this time, he gets hurt, getting punished for doing something that no-one has asked him not to do. The punishment has been delivered by his most trusted human or a stranger whilst his human looks on. How very sad is that?
There is a much nicer option though, an obvious one if we look at it carefully. It could still involve changing walking equipment but this time to something kinder, a harness. There are a range of harnesses available now; however, some scary looking harnesses with areas that tighten in vulnerable places should be avoided. Most are comfortable though and redistribute the dog’s weight to make walking less of a struggle for the human and often naturally stop pulling. A good harness will fit around less vulnerable body areas, and be comfortable and kind to the dog. If you have a dog that pulls on a collar, it’s worth considering a harness instead.
When we have the walking equipment right, we can begin teaching the dog not to pull. To make the choice of a loose lead because it’s rewarding and motivating to do that. Like everything we have learned on this journey so far, we are aiming for helpful choice that’s easy and has the best consequences.
First, change the routine. A new routine is a good idea to teach a new skill. If you usually go out of the front door and get dragged to the park down the road by an excited dog, don’t start trying to teach a loose lead at the moment you leave the house because your dog will be highly excited and less likely to learn something new. Time your lesson wisely and you will get to the desired point much more quickly. It is wise to begin teaching this lesson during or after a walk, particularly if your dog is high on energy. Trying to teach a loose lead with a dog that’s brimming with energy is unlikely to succeed.
We have already covered a few things that will help with this mission. By this point, your dog should be generally way more engaged with you. Be sure to have plenty of tiny food rewards and your chosen marker at the ready.
Then, it’s just a case of implementing the following steps:
- Ensure your dog is not full of energy. You can do this by giving him a loose run or walk before you begin.
- Have your dog on the lead in an area of no to low distractions. Remember that we need to make this as easy as possible for him, to make your request his easiest choice to make.
- Stand and wait, and if your dog is trying to pull you, wait until the lead goes slack then mark and reward your dog. It could take a while the first few times but if the area is dull enough, your dog will turn and ask what you’re waiting for. This will slacken the lead ready for your marker and reward.
- When your dog gets the idea, he will start to slacken the lead quickly, because it’s rewarding. Great! Keep delivering your marker and reward.
- Lengthen your sessions and practice facilitating a loose lead then marking it by changing direction a few times, using your ‘this way’ cue then ending the session with a game. Put the loose lead on cue too and your dog will start to relax his pulling.
Next, you can build time and distractions by proofing the new choice of walking without dragging you along. You already have a considerable toolkit to help if a big distraction comes along. You can ask for a hand touch, swiftly change direction whilst saying ‘this way’ or ask your dog to watch you until the distraction has passed by.
Another good thing to do — particularly if your dog is focused on things and reacts to them overtly — is to drop a few small bits of food on the ground for him to sniff out. Providing a distraction that overrules the interesting thing in the environment is key to having your dog choose what you want, rather than something else. It’s all about the engagement and how interesting you are at the time.