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Dog tips: How to stop leash pulling during walks

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DETROIT – Ok.  It looks like it’s time to implement a little tough love.  Sorry folks, but it’s true. If your dog pulls you down the sidewalk when you go for a walk – guess what?  You’re a really great dog trainer: you’ve taught your dog to pull on a leash!

Now, the good news is that because you trained your dog to pull, you can un-train your dog to pull. 
The bad news is – depending on how long your dog has been practicing and perfecting her pulling skills – teaching your dog to walk nicely on a leash can take an extra dose of patience on your part.

Before we dig into tools and techniques, it will help to better understand WHY dogs pull. Dogs, just like people, have what is called an "opposition reflex." Basically that means we (and our dogs) push against a push. 

Here’s the demonstration I do with human students in my dog training classes:

I gently push on the front of a student’s shoulder.  I continue to gently apply pressure until the student feels off balance at which point he instinctively pushes back against my hand.  Certainly they are not going to let me push them over.  So they push back.

That’s opposition reflex.  Push against push.

Now apply that to your dog and her collar.  When your dog pulls forward on a leash, what does the collar do?  It presses into the dog’s neck, right?  Some of our dogs pull so hard they choke themselves! 

While that behavior might seem contradictory, what you’re seeing is her opposition reflex at work. She feels the push of the collar at her neck … and she pushes against it.  Which means she pulls forward. Hard.

But that’s only one part of the equation.

The other part is the “you trained your dog to pull” part.  We can only blame a portion of the pulling on opposition reflex.  The rest, I’m afraid, is on you.

Dogs do what works for them. If the behavior results in a reward, they will undoubtedly repeat the behavior, over and over – in anticipation of a reward.  Dogs pull on leashes because when they pull they get the reward of moving forward. So there you go. Your dog walks ahead of you, the leash gets taut, the collar presses into your dog’s neck and your dog is rewarded by continuing to move forward.  Pretty soon your dog starts to believe that in order to move forward, she needs to feel that pressure of the collar.  That is, she needs to pull. 
Interesting, right?

To “fix” leash pulling, then, our job is to change the behavior/reward pattern.  We need to teach our dogs that pressure on the collar no longer earns them the reward of moving forward. That they only get to move forward if the collar is relaxed around their neck.

And remember, it’s MUCH harder to break a bad habit and replace it with a preferred behavior than it is to start from scratch and teach the good behavior from the beginning. Puppy people: heed this “warning.”  Do not let your puppy pull on leash – ever. Don’t let the bad habit start.

Ok, so that’s all good in theory, but what now?

First, we’ll talk collars/harnesses.  As a dog-friendly trainer, I do not use or recommend any type of collar that causes a dog pain or discomfort.  So pinch collars, choke chains/training collars and shock collars are not in my trainer’s toolbox. We can certainly go over my reasons for this in a future blog … but for this discussion we will focus on pain free training methods.

There are lots of different training tools available to help prevent dogs from pulling on a leash. My favorite is the Easy Walk Harness by PetSafe. The key to successfully using this harness is two-fold: 1) the harness needs to fit quite snugly on the dog. Dogs like my Doberman with fine, short coats can benefit from the Deluxe model that comes with extra padding.  2) note that this particular harness has the leash hook in the front at the dog’s chest.  And that’s important why?  Opposition reflex!  Harnesses that hook in the back promote dogs’ pushing forward against the harness – which we now know equals pulling.  I mean, look at the harnesses sled dogs use, right?

The Easy Walk and other front-hook harnesses use opposition reflex, too.  Except that when a dog pulls forward on a front hook harness, the pressure is felt at the dog’s shoulder.  When the dog pushes back against the pressure on their shoulder they’re not moving forward.  Instead, they’re turning back toward you.

Front hook harnesses are not miracle cures, but I use them for both of my dogs and notice enough of a difference that even without additional training, my walks are more pleasant.

Next, we’ll focus on the reward/behavior part.  The only way your dog will WANT to walk nicely is if she is rewarded for doing so.  One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to take charge of the reward – that is, you control your dog’s ability to walk forward. 

For example, walk until your dog reaches the end of her leash.  The SECOND that leash is taut, you stop walking.  Just stop.  Wait until she stops pulling – better yet, wait until she stops pulling and actually looks back to you as if to say “what gives?”  When the leash is loose, walk forward.  When it gets tight – stop. 

Doing this CONSISTENTLY will teach your dog that a loose leash is rewarded by walking forward.  A tight leash means she is stopped in her tracks.  It works!  And yes, your first 50 or so walks will take a long time and you’ll be frustrated, but once your dog learns the new rules it will be worth it.

I’m not that patient, so I use treats as a supplement to the reward process … and I cheat a little. When my dogs and I go for walks I have a pocket full of really good treats – you know the treats that are worth behaving for. We walk along and they act like goofballs (but are manageable on their Easy Walk Harnesses).  When the leash is loose I praise them and give them a tasty treat. 

My Doberman caught on so well that sometimes we walk an entire mile with him prancing at my side.  We actually had to come up with a “go away” command to get him to walk ahead and enjoy the scents of the neighborhood instead of walking right next to me.

There are lots of variations and practice exercises to help dogs learn to walk politely.  Once you understand why the “wrong” thing happens and you put yourself in control of the reward – you’ve taken the first step (pun intended).