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  • Holly Leake

Why Does my Dog Pull on The Lead?

Updated: Apr 24, 2023



Pulling on the lead is one of the most common behavioural issues in dogs, and yet, the internet and social media are host to conflicting advice on why its happening and how to address it. Sadly, dog training is still unregulated, therefore anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, with no legal repercussions. This means there may be online articles or posts circulating myths and offering very poor advice. Thankfully, due to scientific studies in canine behaviour, we can conclude that the following reasons for lead pulling are complete fiction.


- Your dog pulls because they want to be the leader of the pack, top dog or the alpha.


-Your dog pulls because they lack respect for you.


-You are not assertive or firm enough as a leader.


-Harnesses cause pulling.


We hear these myths all the time, so let's debunk them! Firstly, the alpha theory was debunked by the very scientists that introduced it, so the need to be the pack leader, top dog or alpha, is definitely not the reason your dog pulls. Unfortunately, the initial study, performed by Rudolf Schenkel, was conducted on unrelated, captive wolves in a Switzerland zoo. Since they were unrelated, they fought for resources and mates, giving birth to the alpha theory. Years later, the same studies were performed on wild wolves and unsurprisingly, the results were completely different.



When it was discovered that packs actually consisted of one mating pair and their offspring, our understanding of canine behaviour completely changed. Observations showed that packs worked together as a family unit, and the definition of the alpha changed from a lone wolf fighting for dominance, to the only pair permitted to mate in the pack. Biologists, such as David Mech, have long debunked the alpha myth, after spending more than 13 summers studying wolf packs in the wild.


Despite the undisputable wealth of scientific evidence, the alpha myth continues to circulate amongst unqualified trainers with huge followings, and even amateurs on Tik-Tok. When we understand that dogs aren't obsessed with hierarchy, we can recognise that we actually don't need to be an aggressive leader, rather we need to be a loving guardian. While many claim firmness or assertiveness is needed, simply being consistent with training and expectations is enough to establish boundaries, without resorting to force or intimidation.



The myth that harnesses create pulling is one of the most frustrating, because it moves guardians to choose walking equipment that is likely going to be inappropriate and potentially harmful for their dog. Dogs can pull in a harness just the same as they can pull on a flat collar, prong collar or slip lead. The critical difference is that a harness is safer to pull on than the other options mentioned.


A suitable well fitted harness does not put pressure on the dog’s vulnerable body parts, neither does it cause discomfort or pain if fitted correctly. On the other hand, slip leads, prong collars and/or a flat collar are painful to pull on, as their purpose as an aversive is to inflict discomfort/pain to stop the unwanted behaviour.


So a harness may appear to make the pulling worse because the dog can pull pain free, but it's not actually 'causing' the pulling behaviour. Even when using aversive equipment, such as a slip lead, the dog doesn't actually learn not to pull, as the dog would revert back to pulling if their walking equipment was changed. In actual fact, some dogs don't even associate the pain from the collar or slip lead with their pulling, increasing the chances of serious injury and unpredictable behavioural fallout. (For more info on walking equipment please see my blog article: What Walking Equipment is Best for my Dog? A Quick Guide (pawchores.com)



Another common argument, is that harnesses are used for sled pulling, therefore this is seen as proof that harnesses cause pulling. However, it isn't the harness that teaches the dog to perform this behaviour, any more than sportswear would teach you how to lift weights. Rather, sled dogs wear harnesses to protect their bodies and avoid placing any pressure on vulnerable body parts that could result in injury. The dogs are bred for this role and receive actual training to perform this job. The fact is, no piece of equipment can 'teach' skills, without training, so harnesses do not cause pulling.


So why do dogs pull on the lead? There are many possible causes.


-Lead pulling has been permitted and reinforced from an early age.


- Dogs naturally walk a lot faster than we do, so they pull to move ahead quicker.


- Lead pulling may be triggered by certain emotions, such as excitement or anxiety.


-Lead pulling can be caused by pain or illness, as walking faster alleviates pain or pressure on the joints.


-Dogs pull to sniff something interesting.


-Dogs pull because they may know the walking route or know they are nearly home.


-We pull in response to their pulling, causing opposition reflex.


One of the most common reasons for lead pulling is reinforcement history. When you allow your dog to pull and drag you along, you reward the behaviour, because your dog learns that pulling gets them where they want to go. Now imagine how many times you have allowed the pulling. Each time you gave in, the behaviour was reinforced and gradually became a habit.


This usually begins when your dog is a puppy because when they are cute and small, their pulling isn't as inconvenient, and you're usually so focused on socialisation, you let it slide. Unfortunately, dogs don't comprehend that our expectations change as they mature, and so they repeat the behaviours that have benefited them in the past.



Dogs may simply pull because they want to move faster, change direction or go home. In some instances, dogs can pull home because they are not enjoying the walk due to tiredness, weather, anxiety or even pain. These behaviours are often seen in both puppies and senior dogs, when they are having too much exercise. Lead pulling can occur randomly if the dog is experiencing arousal or fear. For instance, your dog may pull towards other dogs or animals if they are excited and eager to interact. If they are nervous, they may pull in desperation to move away from whatever they fear.


Dogs have up to 300 million scent receptors in comparison to our measly 400. Dogs learn and obtain information about the environment through their nose and rely on this sense far more than their sight. Thus, sniffing is an essential part of their walk, so it's no wonder they eagerly pull to sniff that lamppost when it holds so much information. In all honesty, being tethered to a human is not natural, but obviously for safety we have to have them on lead.



Finally, our response to the pulling behaviour can make the pulling worse. When a dog pulls, many will respond with intermittent lead pops/lead corrections or yanks, in order to pull the dog back as a form of punishment. Sadly, this causes opposition reflex, which is basically your dog's instinctive reaction to pull back in the opposite direction when you pull them, in order to balance themselves. Thus, pulling your dog is making them pull back and not teaching them anything, not to mention the potential damage you are inflicting on their body.


So now you know why your dog pulls. I'm sure you're surprised at the list of reasons. The question is how can you effectively address this behaviour?


To find out, check out my next article: How to Stop my Dog from Pulling on the Lead? (pawchores.com)


Need 1-2-1 help now? Check out my 1-2-1 Lead Training workshop, where I give you the skills to train your dog to walk on a loose lead, using ethical and reward based methods. Loose Lead & Recall Workshop | Paw Chores



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