How to Stop my Dog from Pulling on the Lead?
The first question should always be why? So if you haven't read the first part to this article, check it out here. Why Does my Dog Pull on The Lead? (pawchores.com)
Due to running my own dog walking business, I understand the stress and frustration of walking a dog that pulls on the lead. It is no wonder so many dog guardians want a quick fix, but does such a thing exist for lead pulling? Well many will resort to "training tools" advertised as a magic fix. It is undeniable that aversives do work in stopping unwanted behaviours.
If you use an E-collar, prong collar, slip lead, no pull harness, head halti or choke chain and you inflict force/corrections when your dog pulls, chances are your dog will stop pulling. However, the only reason the aversive stops the unwanted behaviour, is because your dog finds it extremely unpleasant and doesn't want to experience that same pain/discomfort again.
Although the behaviour has stopped, this method is actually behaviour suppression, because you aren't addressing the source of the problem or teaching them the behaviour you want. While some of these so called "tools" seem to be a simple and quick solution, they come with a whole host of side effects. Many studies have proven that training with aversives can cause and contribute to, fear, anxiety, reactivity and even aggression. Not to mention injury to your dog's internal structures in their neck & throat.
You may reason that you will just use the aversive temporarily, until your dog is walking nicely on the lead. Unfortunately you will likely need to continue using the aversive, because your dog will revert back to pulling on the lead, as soon as the aversive is removed, because it was only pain that was stopping the pulling, not training.
You may also promise yourself that you will only use these tools on the “lowest settings”, but some dogs can actually habituate to the discomfort, meaning it no longer stops the pulling behaviour, because they have grown accustomed to it. Thus, you have to escalate the punishment to achieve the same result, causing more pain and fear. Obviously, there's only so far you can escalate it, and at what point do you admit it is animal abuse?
So aversives are definitely not the solution to pulling behaviour. They are not ethical, nor do they magically teach your dog. This means that yanking them back on the lead when they pull, is not going to teach them loose lead skills either.
Even though there is no piece of walking equipment that can teach your dog to walk nicely, there is walking equipment that we would recommend - in addition to training - that would ensure your dog is both comfortable and secure on their walks. (for more info check out my article What Walking Equipment is Best for my Dog? A Quick Guide (pawchores.com)
So how do you stop pulling on the lead? The real question is, what do you want your dog to do instead? Walk loosely on the lead of course!
Prevent Pulling from Being Practiced
Reinforcement history is the biggest contributing factor to this behaviour issue. In other words, many will allow their dog to drag them on their walk, either to sniff things or to walk faster. When they get to where they want to go via pulling, the behaviour is positively reinforced.
So you need to remove that reinforcement, by no longer allowing your dog to walk forwards if they pull. So any time there's tension on the lead, calmly stop and turn away, without yanking the lead. Then, wait patiently. The moment your dog returns to your side, praise and reward them. It's paramount to be very consistent, in order for the behaviour to become extinct.
Teach Walking Cues
In conjunction to this training, it is important to regularly reward a loose lead. To do this, take a handful of treats and intermittently praise and reward your dog for walking by your heel and offering eye contact (check ins) Make sure you either drop the treats in the heel position or place them straight into your dog’s mouth, so they don't leave the heel position. You may have to reward every single step at the start, and then gradually add more steps before rewarding your dog.
You can add a walking forward cue, such as "let's go", as well as a change of direction or emergency U-turn cue, such as "this way". Unfortunately, “heel” is not a magical cue which your dog is pre-programmed to understand, so shouting “heel” at your dog doesn't teach them anything. While you can use the word “heel”, it needs to be paired with the heel position and a reward, and then regularly practiced.
Many dogs pull because they know the route or they are pulling to get somewhere specific. This is where the "this way" cue also comes in handy. When changing direction, make sure you offer a treat for the turn and start changing direction regularly, so your dog can't anticipate the direction you are walking.
Many dogs pull on lead because they feel anxious or excited about something in the environment. This could be squirrels, people, cyclists or other dogs etc. Therefore, they would require behaviour modification with a qualified force free trainer, to address the underlying emotions before even addressing the pulling behaviour.
That being said, I have had lots of success using pattern games with anxious dogs, reactive dogs and overly aroused and / or excited dogs, as a part of their behaviour modification. For some reason, the repetitiveness of these pattern games can help dogs to focus and can actually ground them.
One of these games involves repeatedly walking in a figure of eight with your dog on a loose lead and rewarding them with treats, when changing direction and when they offer eye contact. Changing direction (U-turn) will teach your dog that they can move away from whatever is worrying them and just watch from a safe distance. Excited dogs will learn to engage with you instead of fixating on something in the environment.
Other games/training for lead skills include 1, 2, 3 game, drunk walking, rally, magic hand, shaky waters and heel work to music, so there's plenty to research and practice with your dog.
There may be other reasons for pulling that need a different approach. For example, your dog may be pulling due to pain, as walking faster can alleviate pain and/or pressure on the joints. If you notice changes in your dog's health, gait, activity levels and/or behaviour, it's crucial to have them checked at the vets. This is especially important, if the pulling behaviour is a sudden behavioural change.
If you have a young puppy or an elderly dog, they may pull because they are tired and want to go home. Rather than attempting to train them, you should adjust your dog's walking routine to take into account their age, needs and health, which do change throughout your dog's life.
Your dog may be great at walking on a loose lead, until they smell something interesting. In these cases, you likely get dragged into a lamppost or bush. It is really important that your dog is allowed to sniff as much as much as possible, because it's how they see the world around them.
However, you need your training to remain consistent, so rather than allowing your dog to drag you to sniff, practice your stop and change direction, remembering to reward them when they join your side, and then allow them to walk to that interesting scent as an extra reward. (provided they don't drag you over a second time)
This is known as a functional reward, meaning giving your dog the reward they want in that moment. Another example of a functional reward, is giving your dog something to chase when they pull on the lead to chase a squirrel. Using treats won’t work if your dog wants to chase in that moment, so instead provide them with something else to chase, such as a Tug E Nuff toy, and that will provide your dog with a positive outlet, whilst keeping them calm on the lead. Dog Chaser Toys | Stimulating Dog Toys | Tug-E-Nuff
Even though you are eager to see results, make sure your expectations of your dog are reasonable. If your dog has been pulling for some years, it is reasonable to conclude that training is going to take time and effort, just like it would if we personally tried to quit a bad habit. Finally, please remember your dog is not a robot and shouldn't be expected to be in the heel position for their entire walk. It doesn't come naturally to them and they need the freedom to sniff, play and ‘Be a dog!’
If you would like help with your dog now, feel free to check out my 1-2-1 Loose Lead workshop, which gives you all the skills you need to teach your dog to walk on a loose lead. Loose Lead & Recall Workshop | Paw Chores
For more info, check out this free course with Canine Principles Stop Your Dog Pulling - Free Online Workshop. (canineprinciples.com)