We’ve all had that moment when you’re walking your dog and you’re not really paying attention to him and he’s not really paying attention to you. Then all of sudden, your dog rushes over to smell something, pulling hard on the leash and nearly taking your arm off with him. A friend of mine was simply trying to get out her front door to take her dog on a walk when the dog saw something (probably a squirrel) and bolted out the door on leash. My friend got spun around in a circle, was pulled out the front door and fell. She broke her nose, the orbital bone around her eye and a section of her sinus passage way. End result: three days in the hospital and reconstructive surgery. So is it a big problem, having a dog that pulls on leash? Yes, yes it is.
Why Dogs Pull
Let’s start off right at the beginning and ask a really important question: What is the reward of going on a walk for your dog? Well, it is the walk itself. The dog wants to be out and exploring, seeing all those outside things that break up the monotony of his day. That means you need to do something to become just as important as those things. In other words, the dog needs to be paying attention to you more than the environment around you two.
Here are a few reasons why dogs pull on the leash:
- They have four legs and you only have two, so it does kind of make sense they will move faster than we do.
- Your leisurely pace is slower than the over-the-top, holy-moly, let’s-get-this-party-started pace your dog wants to walk at.
- They want to get to the next sight, sound and smell. Since you are simply interested in walking, the dog has learned the quickest way to get to those things is to, well, drag you along for the ride.
- Because it works. The dog practices this behavior every time you are on a walk, and it gets him what he wants. So why on earth would you expect him to change?
- Finally, dogs pull because you have not taught him that paying attention to you is more rewarding than the environment around him.
Putting An End To The Pulling
Walking on a leash is really not all that hard to teach or do, but it does take time. Many folks fail because they simply do not practice enough or they practice the wrong thing. Before you even set foot outside, you must put in the foundation work to allow your dog to learn the skills necessary to be a good walker. The time you spend now will determine your success going forward.
To stop a dog from pulling on the leash, first you need to train him to pay attention to you. (Dogs have got to be paying attention before we teach them anything, right?) You’ll do this by hand feeding your dog for 30 days. When I say hand feeding, I’m not suggesting you give your dog a handful of food as a meal. You work with your dog one piece of food (or treat) at a time using specific cues. These hand feeding training sessions should take about 10-15 minutes during which you’ll work on three techniques for about 3-5 minutes each. You’ll start this process inside the house where there are limited distractions, and then work your way up to areas outdoors that are more distracting, such as the driveway.
Hand Feeding Part 1: Easy and Wait
Basically, you want to teach your dog to take food from a human hand gently (thus the “easy” cue) and to wait until he is released to take the food (thus the “wait” cue). These skills are the foundation to the entire idea of keeping your dog focused on you and not the environment. Watch this video of me working with one of my dogs so you can see it in action:
Hand Feeding Part 2: Sit, Down and Watch Me With Thank You and All Done
Now we’re going to add the commands “sit,” “down” and “watch me,” along with the positive mark “thank you” (how we let them know they got it right) and the release words “all done” (how they know they are done working). Again, these skills will help your dog learn to pay attention to you instead of everything else when we get to the actual walking.
For sit, hold the treat right above your dog’s nose then move your hand back toward his behind. Where the nose goes, the butt goes, and you’ll get a sit. You can use the word sit, but I also recommend using a hand signal. Once the dog is sitting, bring your hand (with treat still in it) down between his front legs for a down command. For watch me, take the treat, hold it out toward your dog’s nose and then bring it up to your face.
When your dog obeys a command, immediately say “thank you,” so he knows he got it right. Wait a few seconds before saying “all done,” to let the dog knows the work is done. Then reward him for a job well done.
Watch this video so you can see this in action:
Hand Feeding Part 3: Don’t Turn Your Back On Me
This part is really the first step to loose-leash walking. Each time your dog obeys a “watch me” and a “sit” command, you simply reward him and walk away, turning your back on your dog. As you progress, your dog should run around to face you (this may take some luring). Once you dog is facing you, give the “watch me” and “sit” command, reward and turn away again. Repeat.
You are teaching Fido that whenever you stop, his job is to come to the front of you, look at you and wait for the next cue or command. This one can be a little hard to explain, but once you watch the video a time or two it will be crystal clear.
Once you have mastered these three techniques, start working with your dog on the leash and up the distractions:
- Hand feed only on the back porch until it is perfect.
- Move to the driveway and work until it is perfect.
- Go one driveway further every two days, until your pooch understands the game!
Go slow and quit pushing so hard. Just let the dog learn what it is you want.
Teaching Loose-Leash Walking
Once your dog has mastered the hand feeding skills while on a leash, you are finally ready to start walking your dog. I hope you see how much prep work is necessary for your dog to actually learn the skills he will need to know in order to understand what you, the human, wants. Up until now, you have been allowing all the wrong things to take place on the walk and then getting frustrated as Fido has seemingly perfected bad walking behavior on the leash. Now we have to start over with actual skills to teach good leash behavior. So yes, your work is just beginning, but with some time and practice, you can replace the bad behaviors with good ones that are more rewarding to your dog.
The way to teach loose-leash walking is fairly simple. If the leash is loose, you keep walking and rewarding. If the leash is tight, you stop and have your dog come back, sit and do a watch me while patiently waiting. Then we try again.
Put simply, give your dog a choice: Pull equals not walking (moving forward), and staying with you (loose leash or slack leash) equals treats and moving forward. Trust me, they will figure out what behaviors get them what they want. Your job is to just set the routine and reward for success.
Below are three short videos of me working with a client that illustrate the process. This was our third session together and it was the first time we were walking the neighborhood, so we had not perfected walking on a leash just yet.
You may notice that I am using a hands-free leash in the video. These are great tools and I LOVE THEM, but depending on the level of pulling you are dealing with, they might be hard to use or even dangerous. Always consult a professional trainer on any tool you decide to use.
If you have any doubts about your skill level or ability, getting the help of someone who has been there and done that will help a ton. That being said, if you go through all the steps in order and only progress when you have mastered the previous skill, I have seen this method work time and time again. I believe in you and know you can do it. Make sure to review the videos and just get out there and do it. Just remember to make the dog want what you want and you can’t go wrong!