“Help! My Arm’s About to Fall Off!” – Teaching Loose-leash Walking

The reason dogs pull on the leash is not because they are being stubborn or “dominant.” They do it because it works. What do you do when your dog pulls on the leash? Chances are your arm lifts from your side, giving him that extra couple of feet. “Success,” he thinks. “Pulling on the leash got me closer to where I want to go!” Then you probably let him drag you along, and he’s learning that if he continues to pull, more often than not, he continues to get where he wants to go – even if the strain of the collar against his neck is uncomfortable. When teaching loose-leash walking, the idea is to teach the dog that pulling will not get him where he wants to go. In fact, it will take him farther from where he wants to go. There are two components to teaching loose-leash walking:

  •     When your dog’s pulling toward something that interests him, the split second he hits the end of the leash and pulls, immediately stop and “be a tree.” Plant yourself and anchor the leash at your waist so he can’t move any farther. The punishment for pulling is revoking his privilege of getting to go where he wants. When he stops pulling and there is some slack in the leash, you can reward that by continuing the walk. Chances are when you first start out it’s going to be very stop and go. It’s a very difficult habit to break.
  •     When the dog is walking nicely at your side, even for a second, immediately reward him with a treat. Using a clicker can help mark this position more clearly for your dog by clicking the exact moment he’s in the correct position (obviously he should know what the clicker means first). No clicker? Use a marker word such as “YES!” Always feed him the treat at your side in the position you want him to help reinforce it.

He should eventually make the connection that good things happen when walking at your side, yet pulling on the leash will get him nowhere. Keep in mind, however, this walk is for him! It should be fun! Walking nicely at our side is incredibly boring to most dogs. It’s not a natural behavior. They should be allowed to sniff around and explore – and you can use this to reinforce walking nicely on leash. For example, let’s say there’s a bush your dog would really like to go sniff. If he’s walking nicely beside you, tell him “go sniff!” and allow him enough leash to do just that. You can do this with anything the dog finds rewarding. This is the Premack principle – better known as “you have to eat your veggies before you can have dessert.”

Pulling on the leash can be a very difficult habit to break, especially if the dog has been practicing it for years, but as with any training, it’s very important to stay consistent. The more the dog gets reinforced for pulling by getting any closer to where he wants to go, the more ingrained the habit becomes.

I absolutely do not recommend prong collars, choke chains, back-clip harnesses, or retractable leashes for pullers. 

I avoid prong collars and choke chains because:

  • They carry the potential to cause considerably more damage to the dog’s throat than a flat collar.
  • They do not focus on teaching your dog that walking at your side can be rewarding.
  • They can, and often do, actually worsen some issues such as fear-based aggression and leash-reactivity.
  • I’ve known many dogs who don’t find the pain and discomfort aversive enough to stop them from pulling.

As for retractable leashes, they can actually encourage pulling – your dog knows when he pulls on the leash, it extends to give him more freedom. Not only that, but they’re dangerous for other reasons (see my post on training tools). And though they are a good tool in other cases, back-clip harnesses also encourage some dogs to pull, as it is easier for them to pull with their upper body than with their neck. But I would rather have your dog pulling on a harness than a collar since it’s much less damaging and painful.

So what should you use?

I definitely recommend front-clip harnesses. Examples include the Freedom, SENSE-ation, and Easy Walk harnesses. With these harnesses, you clip the leash to the front so it’s much harder for the dog to pull. When he hits the end of the leash it tends to just steer him right back around to you. These are great if you’re a petite person with a big, strong dog.

I also recommend head halters. My favorite is the New Trix. They work on the same principle as a halter on a horse; if you steer the head the body will follow. There are two downsides to these, though. The first is that you’re going to have to get used to explaining to people that it’s not a muzzle. The second is that you do have to condition a dog to enjoy wearing them since most are, understandably, not fond of having some contraption on their face. Here is an excellent video on how to condition your dog to enjoy wearing a head halter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wakterNyUg

I know breaking this habit can be tedious and frustrating, but be patient and consistent!