Follow this one rule:
Don’t follow your dog.
Loose leash walking really is that simple but if it was that easy, no one would have invented the choke chain–and your dog wouldn’t still be pulling. It is easier to teach a dog to fetch beer from the fridge than to remain at heel while a cat runs across the street but it is well worth the effort, and here’s why:
- Collars can damage the trachea when a dog lunges and will damage the trachea over time spent pulling on leash.
- A dog that pulls on leash won’t look back to their owner as much and will continue to move forward if the leash is dropped.
- A dog who pulls on leash is much more likely to break or destroy their collar or leash and is much more likely to run away.
Not only is it not safe, it sucks:
- Your dog doesn’t care for the crying about your shoulder injury. This was supposed to be a nice walk in the park.
- Your dog doesn’t understand why you are pulling on their leash either. It is especially confusing when they are trying to relate to other dogs and people. A dog that greets with tension in the leash and a tense owner will grow tense, anxious, and ultimately reactive.
- Yes, I just said that. Dogs that pull on leash are more likely to have other problem behaviours, including the dreaded ‘aggression,’ and the ever un-popular ‘OMG is that a (insert chicken bone, anti-freeze, condom, or otherwise disgusting thing) your dog pulled you off your feet to gulp down?’ -Yes, that too.
- Your walks will be less frequent. It isn’t pleasant and your friends and family don’t want to walk them either. This lack of stimulation completes the cycle and here we are again, at the end of our rope.
Always follow the rule; never follow your dog. From now on, each step you take will be together.
“Let’s Go!” Teach Walking On A Loose Leash
Step 1: Increase Exercise
This is step 1, no matter what behaviour problem you may have. Increase exercise in general, and also just prior to training sessions to ensure the dog isn’t climbing the walls when we want to work on a skill that requires self control. Balance physical exercise with mental stimulation. Teach something new, go somewhere new, make a treasure hunt; train them! Tricks aren’t just a great way to give your dog the one-on-one attention they deserve, it is time well spent; 10 minutes is equal to 30 minutes of physical exercise when your goal is to create a calm, biddable dog. Try playing fetch or working on a fun trick before trying the exercises below.
Step 2: Practice Walking
- Walk around the house or yard and say “Yes!” when your dog happens to look at you, in the eye.
- Pair “Yes!” with a treat, delivered right next to your leg
- Name this command – “Let’s go!”
Practice giving the treat as you walk, with your fingers glued to your leg, at your dog’s shoulder height. Even if you dog jumps up or forges ahead between your perfectly timed ‘yes’ and when they came to that perfect heel position to eat the treat, you will still be rewarding the eye contact and 4 paws on the floor that occurred at the moment you said ‘yes,’ so make sure your timing is good and make sure your treat delivery is in the right place. If you dog is on your left side, you should use your left hand to deliver the treat.
Treat delivery options
If your dog is snapping at your fingers, simply place the treats right next to your heel as you walk. Continue to say ‘yes’ for eye contact, then place the treat on the ground next to your heel. You might need to point the treats out at first, but soon they will focus downward–making this “hansel and gretel method” helpful in distracting environments. If you have a particularly athletic or fast dog, you can bowl an extra treat even farther away and they can have fun racing back to the heel position. If your dog is slow or not paying very much attention to you–be more animated and interesting.
Step 3: Practice Stopping
- Say “yes!” and reward your dog for stopping with you
- Or say “whoops’” (to mark ‘no reward) as your dog passes you
- Turn, and repeat
- Don’t forget to release them when you’re done
Note: If you are training your dog for public access, you’ll want to practice the automatic sit instead of the stopping exercise above.
Introducing the leash
Getting the hang of it? Dog glued to your side as you walk around the house or yard? Let’s introduce the leash. I want you to use a 4-6ft leash, and a secure collar or harness. Wrap your leash around your thumb, and then hold the rest tightly in your grip, keeping your hand held at your right hip if your dog is on your left. There should be enough slack to create a J shape. Soon, you’ll have your other hand free to hold the leash and you’ll swing that arm naturally as you walk, but for now you need to hold treats and it will actually be helpful to hold the leash across your body. The length of the leash should remain relatively constant, resist the urge to gather up the leash or wrap it around your wrist. You’ll end up walking your dog like a marionette, with constant tension in the leash and zero leverage to fall back on should your dog lunge powerfully.
Cut out Crossing in behind
When your dog moves to cross behind you, keep holding the leash at your hip and ensure your dog learns that crossing behind you is like walking on the wrong side of a pole–it doesn’t work–the leash gets in the way and they end up having to come back around. When needed, move your dog to your other side by having them cross in front of you, never behind you.
‘Better Hurry’ Teach the sniff cue
Stop to smell the roses–no, really stop–and stop often. Don’t expect your dog to walk too far before you stop dead and tell them to sniff here. There ought to be a very clear release to your ‘let’s go/heel’ cue. Make sure your dog knows when to stop and sniff and pee. Your dog might stare up at you at first, but soon they will learn that this is the pattern of the walk–we walk together–and then we stop to sniff. If they try to pull you off your spot, keep your leash at your waist and your weight back in your heels. Sit back and don’t let that dog pull you one measly step. Hopefully, if you aren’t in a hurry, you can let your dog sniff each spot for as long as they want. You’ll find yourself covering far less ground than you might expect, especially at first. It is important to keep walks short and to stop often for sniff breaks so that it is easy for you to keep your dog’s attention and for your dog’s energy to last you all the way home. Your dog must also come to realize that looking you in the eye leads them to all the places they were pulling you to before. Soon, your dog will come to realize that simply going and pulling to somewhere they want doesn’t work, but looking at you does, your dog will think that they are training you! You’ll get more attention, not less, when faced with distractions. It sound like a magical miracle but it is possible, it is just not easy at first, so take it easy on yourself, take it one tree at a time.
Go back and forth on your block until they get it, then move on toward the park but never, ever get lazy and let them pull you, not one measly step. If your dog won’t follow you, you need a hungrier dog, a happier voice, a boring environment, and a better treat. You’ll need to put in a lot of (sometimes embarrassing) effort to keep your dog interested in where YOU are going. Can you be more exciting than the grass and the hydrant? Can you be hotter than the scent of a female in heat? Than a cat running across the street!?
Practice turning suddenly and often. Make tight 360 turns, especially toward the dog–cutting them off as they think of forging ahead. Make your voice as animated as possible, changing tone and volume as often as you change speed and direction. Keep the conversation going the whole way between this tree and the fire hydrant 1/3 of the way down the block. Make it your goal to reward more, not less. Give as many treats as you can. At first you might just get a second of eye contact at a time before your dog looks at the environment again. Say ‘yes!’ and reward each and every glance up with real, stinky meat in that sweet spot at your side. Soon, your dog will hold your gaze for many seconds, then it will become easy to hold their attention the entire way to this spot and the next, and the sniff spot itself will have always been the real “treat” your dog was working for.
The reason your dog pulls is because they are getting rewards. It certainly isn’t because you’re back there jerking their chain, yelling ‘no pulling!’ every few steps. They want to sniff, to explore, to meet and greet, and to pee and play. They may have had many years of practice and received many wonderful rewards for pulling in the past, so this will not stop over night. So don’t be shocked when they ‘pull’ this stunt again and again and again. Your job is to always keep your cool and always follow the rule, not your dog.
If I can’t follow my dog, then what can I do?
You must answer this question for your dog: If pulling won’t work–what does?
Other than following your dog, you can do almost anything else:
Go the other way, just stand there, call them back, talk excitedly, and keep the rewards coming once you get them with you. Your dog needs to know that wonderful things are waiting for them right next to you, where the leash is loose. That is where the magic happens. You could say ‘no!’ every single time your dog pulled and that would be all well and good but wouldn’t teach your dog what they need to know. They need to know how to get rewards. Try giving a treat, a pet, whip out a toy and play tug, take a step toward their favourite pee spot, pick up a stick if they’re into it…whatever you think they might want! Every dog is unique, figure out what your dog wants and have it in hand.
What about the ‘anti-pull miracle’ contraptions at the pet store?
Always follow the rule; don’t follow your dog.
No matter what type of collar, martingale, harness, halter, leash, choke chain or Caesar Milan signature set up you may be using, no matter what the reason your dog is pulling, no matter what. I would rather you carry or drive them somewhere than allow them to take another step pulling you on a leash.
Anti-pull harnesses and head halters can be useful tools if you are struggling with your pulling dog. I recommend a front-clip harness if your dog can pull you off balance, and in extreme cases of mismatch between dog and handler strength, you may require a head-halter. Ruffwear sells a great front-clip harness that tends to fit snuggly, if the harness does not fit properly it will not work to turn the dog back toward you and prevent their full body weight from lunging forward and pulling you off balance. Get help from a trainer and make sure that no matter what equipment you use, you never follow your dog, especially if you choose to use special equipment. To apply punishment when the rules are confusing is cruel. In addition, your dog is associating your punishments with you and/or the dogs/people that they pull towards. I would never recommend a prong or choke style collar. Even the front-clip harnesses and head-halters have greater risks and absolutely require that you follow the training protocols lined out here. Simply slapping any of these on and allowing the dog to still forge ahead at the end of a tight leash looking for something to lunge for will undoubtedly lead to pain at the end of the leash and possibly injury.
Follow the rule. The only thing your dog has ever needed to understand was for the message to be clear. Even if your dog looks like they will finally take a poo if you just let them pull you just one foot to the left. Nope. They can try at the next spot, on a loose leash. It will happen. You can do this. I believe in you! Remember that walking along next to you is a very high level skill for most dogs, this will take months to master.
Do not give up. You and your dog deserve to have that nice long walk on the beach together.