Why do people teach their dogs to pull on the leash?

There are some good reasons, but mostly, people train leash pulling by accident. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it often does, that leash pulling is not a “natural” behavior. It’s a learned behavior.

Okay, how do you teach a dog to pull on a leash? You see something that the dog wants to investigate or reach, put the dog on the leash and then hold some tension on the leash as the dog charges to the prize. Over time, each practice session you should hold more and more tension in the leash as the dog runs, now dragging you, to the prize! Well done! Dogs will learn to drag almost any amount of weight to get to a prize.

What’s the prize? Well, where does the dog “arrive” when he pulls you? Where’s he going? Often, my dog is in a hurry to poop. Or to smell where a dog or mouse or interesting event has occurred. Dogs are frequently attempt to drag their handler through the main gate, entering Whole Dog Camp.

If you actually DON’T want to train your dog to be a world class leash puller, practice loose leash walking indoors, grow your early “loose” leash walking skills in environments where most of the reinforcement is associated with YOU, around with lower intensity distractions. Train the head halter and loose leash walk on the head halter from one “pot o gold” (that YOU find and hand to the dog) to another. I leave high value kibble in tiny piles on window sills, up over the door frame or shelves etc. So I walk around holding my dog’s leash sort of like I’m dragging a beach towel in the sand on a lovely afternoon. No tension in the leash. And just wander around, giving your pup a prize, sort of plucking it out of the air! “Oh Barney! Look what I found!” Your dog will think you are amazing!

You’re relaxed, but make sure you are leading Barney and not the other way around. So, make it fun and interesting for Barney to keep his eyes on you, and see what you’re up to! You find treats in the darndest places! Make sure Barney thinks you’re a laugh riot and is having a good time on this head halter tour of the house.

Good at it? Sometimes, no offense, it takes some practice to learn to not be an asshole when holding a leash. Sometimes we all pull the leash, but far better to use our words, or give the dog a little poke if he gets distracted, “Hey, we’re going this way!” And then trot away! If your dog is disinterested in you, and disengaging to do his own thing, try moving a bit faster and making it more interesting. Just running with your dog, laughing and playing like a dog might play, delivering treat-surprises, can help your dog engage and discover, oh, we’re on a journey about finding treats.

Then take the gear off and rest. When you’re good at these indoor walks, practice the same walk around the outside of the house. Hide treats in the crotch of the trees, in the mailbox, on the car, etc. Lead your dog from one cool discovery, to the next.

The most common resource that reinforces dogs’ leash-pulling behaviors is the opportunity to sniff or visit. So instead of just mindlessly letting the dog sniff or visit in ways that reinforce the behavior of leash pulling, we can more consciously deliver “sniff” opportunities as a prize for displays of self control.

Every time we leash walk, I have a plan for how I will reinforce his “loose leash” behavior. At the park,, we practice loose leash walking all over the parking lot and if he isn’t doing a good job, I can put him back in the car. Dogs learn to earn that walk! Practice and reinforce highly, all around the parking lot, into and out of the car, and if they make a mistake, they go back in the car! But then when they are quiet in the car, they respond to a “sit,” well, come on out then! It’s a game.

If you’re trying to go somewhere, that’s fine, but that’s not a good time to train a dog to walk on a loose leash. Practice makes perfect and you don’t want to practice the wrong behavior. When you are training a dog to walk nicely on a leash — and you should, a little bit, every day– it’s about training, and you shouldn’t be actually trying to go anywhere.

Put some treats on top of your car, and walk around the car, around the parking lot. When your dog is focused on you and heeling perfectly, say, “lets go!” And run with your dog! That’s the best reward! And run back to the car and deliver a treat. And every 10 to 30 steps, have the dog sit as you position yourself close to a tree or a lightpole, or a well peed-on rock (you can food reinforce the sit if you like) and then say, “go sniff!”

Don’t walk further, nor let your dog drag you to a new location, but do give the full leash length, and a few minutes to get a really satisfying snoot-full of just that one location, and then call the dog to walk on.

Sometimes I pull along a drag toy, or I have a couple of popped soccer balls and kick them to keep my dog focused on me. I give him carrot to crunch when a dog is walking by, but I definitely can’t forget to deliver lots of “go sniff!” cues. On a thirty minute walk when my dog is a beginner, I will easily deliver “go sniff” as a cue 30 times. I mean, that’s what a walk is all about, right? But I don’t deliver it for nothing. On a long line walk, I can cue a hand target, a recall, or a sit and then “go sniff!” in a moving “sniff!” As the dogs learn to trust that you really aren’t a big meannie, with-holding the sniff opportunities, but that instead you are delivering them, at a satisfying rate, then they relax more on leash. They trust you and your awesome itinerary. It might be the most challenging thing we train, but also the best rewards!

Published by

Jenny Ruth Yasi

author, sailor, animal trainer,rally, agility and freestyle competitor, owner/proprietor Whole Dog Camp, now located in Freeport, Maine. For 31 years we lived on Peaks Island Maine. Now we are sailing with our 2 dogs in the Bahamas, and will return to Maine in 2017

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