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Why Your Dog Pulls On The Lead (and how to address it)

Holly Leake
Sharing walks with your dog should be an opportunity for you both to spend quality time together, however, when your dog pulls on the lead, walks can become stressful and even painful. Why do dogs pull on the lead and how can you address it? This blog considers the answers. 

There are many myths surrounding the reasons your dog pulls on the lead, one of which states that your dog is trying to be pack leader or the alpha, however, the alpha theory was debunked long ago by the very scientists that introduced it. You will be relieved to know that your dog is not obsessed with hierarchy, in fact the reasons behind lead pulling are pretty simple.

Firstly, dogs naturally walk a lot faster than humans do, so they pull towards things, especially when there’s something interesting in the environment, like a dog or a lamppost. Secondly, walking equipment can encourage pulling, for example extendable leads can cause pulling because the length is always inconsistent. Dogs become accustomed to walking a certain distance away from us, so when the distance is suddenly reduced, dogs begin to pull in confusion.

Thirdly, pulling often works because it is reinforced by their guardian. The dog wants to get somewhere faster and so they pull and we reluctantly drag behind, inadvertently rewarding the behaviour. This reinforcement usually begins during puppyhood, when the dog was small and the pulling didn’t seem much of an issue. Finally, dogs that pull likely haven’t received adequate lead training during puppyhood, therefore they have been permitted to pull and it’s become a habit.

No matter the reason behind pulling, it can be really frustrating to walk a dog that pulls on the lead, however, it’s still important to know why your dog pulls, so you can address the behaviour appropriately. Believing a dog pulls because they want to be top dog or because they are naughty misleads many to punish or correct their dog. Many call this lead checks or lead corrections, which involves suddenly yanking the dog back when they pull. This doesn’t teach a dog how to walk on lead but just creates discomfort and potential damage to the dog’s trachea. In fact, the dog doesn’t associate the discomfort with his pulling but will likely associate it with you.

So called “training aids” such as no pull harnesses, choke chains and slip leads, all promote themselves as magic quick fixes for lead pulling. Truth be told, if these do stop pulling, it’s for a very sad reason. It causes so much pain and discomfort, the dog stops pulling to avoid this horrible consequence. While many are satisfied to use cruel methods if it “works”, it should be emphasised that the dog still doesn’t learn not to pull and will continue pulling once the equipment is removed. This means that the tools have to be used long term and rather than so called “obedient behaviour”. you are achieving avoidance behaviours.

Such “quick fixes” are never without a catch, as such tools are proven to trigger or worsen aggressive behaviours and can cause anxiety, depression and phobias. Why use such horrible methods, that have observable behavioural fallout, when ethical and kind training can achieve better results?

How can you address lead pulling using kind and ethical methods? Firstly, ensure your dog has a comfortable fitting harness and a fabric lead. We recommend a Y-shaped harness to ensure free movement and a lead with two contact points, in order to clip the lead in a loop. Having the lead attached to the harness on the chest and back ensures the dog is physically balanced.

Secondly, you need to teach your dog the heel position. Dogs don’t generalise well, therefore it is recommended to pick one side to walk your dog on and remain consistent to avoid confusion. So start by repeatedly using a treat to lure your dog to a consistent side, adding the word “heel” and practice until you can say the word and your dog understands the cue without the lure. Avoid repeating the cue “heel” over and over as a way to address pulling and use the following training instead.

Once your dog understands heel, you can start walking and using trickle feeding to keep your dog in the heel position, introducing a new cue such as “let’s go”. Trickle feeding simply involves having a handful of treats and consistently rolling them out with your thumb into your dog’s mouth to keep them in the correct position. In order to do this, its best to use the hand closest to your dog to dispense the treats and the other hand to hold the lead. Remember that wherever you hold your treat hand, is where your dog will stand, so avoid having the hand in front of you, otherwise your dog will cross in front of you.

At first, you won’t be able to move far, so practice in the garden before moving onto your street etc. Once, you have practiced this, you will be able to reduce the treats and move further before rewarding them. If your dog pulls in front of you at any time, stop and ground your feet but remain calm and avoid yanking the lead as this causes “opposition reflex”, meaning when you pull, your dog will pull back in response, in order to steady themselves.

Try using your heel cue (once) and showing your dog a treat to lure them back into the heel position before resuming your trickle feeding to keep them in the heel position. As you move on to more distracting environments, you may need to use higher value treats to keep your dog engaged.

The key is consistency and patience. Lead training isn’t accomplished overnight and there are no true quick fixes, however, if you consistently stop when your dog pulls and practice the training steps, your dog will soon learn that walking near you is the most rewarding place to be.

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