Many adolescent dogs pull on their leashes because they were allowed to pull as puppies. Once the leash is tightened, your dog no longer has to pay attention to you, since they have a taut telegraph wire through which they may sense your every move and even your very intentions, thus freeing their nose, ears, and eyes to ‘scope the ‘hood.
Also, it would appear that pulling on leash is intrinsically enjoyable and self-reinforcing for many dogs. It’s as if most dogs view a trip to post a letter at Shattuck and Vine as a work-out for the Iditarod.
Whatever the reason, leash-pulling is usually unacceptable and often dangerous. Once the leash is tightened, you can no longer control your dog — that’s just elementary physics! Here are some tips for getting on-leash behavior under control.
Start Training In Puppyhood
It’s considerably easier and smarter to first practice all of your walk training exercises with a young puppy on-leash indoors. Also, have a simple rule that no one, that is no one, is allowed to walk the pup on-leash outdoors, not even a single step, unless they can walk the puppy dog without them pulling.
It’s utterly unfair to let a puppy develop a leash-pulling habit, knowing full well they will be punished for the same habit as an adolescent. It’s so much easier to establish an acceptable status quo from the outset.
Just bear in mind, the dog weight-pulling record is in the region of 10,000 pounds — i.e., in just a few months time, your average dog may have the power to pull the entire Cowboys’ defensive line backwards.
From the get-go, never permit leash pulling to get moving.
Stay Calm, Don’t Jerk
Using a leash to walk the puppy is necessary as a safety precaution, and leashing the dog is mandatory when leash laws are in effect.
However, once a novice pet parent and an adolescent dog are connected with a leash, the dog will pull. And to stop the dog from pulling, usually (but not always) the human pulls back, i.e., they jerk the leash. Most dog lovers find this unpleasant. And it isn’t much fun for dogs either.
Since we don’t want the dog to associate walking and heeling with numerous physical leash corrections, we must first make sure the dog can stand calmly on-leash before further exciting the dog by moving.
Before You Start, Get Comfortable
Firstly, before even considering leash training, make sure that you can get your pup to follow you around the house and garden, and that they will happily sit-stay in front of you for a good 30 seconds.
Surely you would want to check to see that your puppy feels good about following and staying close before you physically restrain their activity with a leash. After all, leash-pulling does advertise the fact your dog wants to get away from you.
So, give your dog a reason to stick around. Lighten up, brighten up, and maybe offer the dog an occasional kind word, pat, or treat.
Beginners Should Start Indoors
Secondly, before going anywhere, let’s make sure that your dog knows how to stand around on-leash without pulling.
Initially, let’s practice indoors because:
- 1) You may start training well before your pup has completed their shots
- 2) There are fewer distractions
- 3) It avoids the embarrassment of making a spectacle of oneself on the street
Red Light Green Light
Put your pup on leash. Firmly grasp the end loop with both hands held close to your body. Stand perfectly still, and pay absolute attention to your pup, but ignore all antics at the other end of the leash. Eventually, your pup will sit or lie down. Yes, they will. Just be patient and wait and see.
When they do so, immediately say “Good dog,” offer a treat, say “Let’s Go,” take one step forwards and then stand still again. Be prepared; taking a single step will energize your pup, and they will lunge with vengeance. Again, ignore the puppy’s antics, and wait until they sit once more. Then, reward your dog, take another step, and stand still again.
With successive trials, have your dog sit for progressively longer periods before praising them and taking another step. Once it is possible to alternate single steps with standstills without the pup pulling, try taking two steps at a time before standing still. Then try three steps, four steps and so on.
As with off-leash heeling, think of it in short sequences. Once the sequences have expanded to six or seven steps, you are now walking your pup on-leash without them pulling, and they will sit automatically by your side whenever you stop. If your puppy ever tightens the leash when you are walking, immediately stand still and wait for them to sit again before moving on.
Basically, this technique is a variation of “red light-green light,” and as with all effective training methods, you have duped your puppy into believing that they’re training you. Perhaps your canine companion muses, “My humans are so easy to train. Just barely tighten the leash, and they stand stay. Sit down, and they move ahead.” Your dog’s happy, and so are you.
Practice walking your pup on-leash around the house and garden, interspersed with many stops. Say “Rover, Let’s Go” or “Come Along” each time before you walk (again, the precise words do not matter — you choose), and instruct the pup to “Sit” each time you stop.
When your puppy is old enough to walk on the sidewalks, first try walking in the hallway with the front door open, then practice leaving and entering the house.
Dogs commonly tend to lunge at doorways, and so this is worth a little extra special practice. Leave and return several times in a row, and soon your pup will be picture perfect.
Have your puppy sit both before and after going through the door. Then, walk back and forth in front of the house. Walk and standstill in sequences, and keep repeating the sequences over and over.
Remember, it’s always the hardest the first time you try. If the dog pulls, say “Steady” and stand still. Once the pup sits, go back and repeat the sequence. It will be much easier the next time.
Now, you are ready for several laps round the block. Much like horses, dogs will tend to forge when leaving home but lag when coming back. If the puppy pulls on the way out, say “Steady,” about turn, and frog-march the pup back home and start again.
The first trip around the block may take a long time, but the second and third laps are progressively easier, and thereafter, it’s a breeze.
Stay In Control
Basically, dogs pull because:
- 1) Pulling is enjoyable
- 2) The human lets the dog pull
- 3) The human follows
The same basic principles for teaching dogs to follow off-leash may be used to teach a dog to walk on-leash.
Hold the leash with both hands close to the left side of your body, so as to give the puppy just a couple of inches of slack, then start walking and keep walking. Whatever the puppy does to improvise on your intended direction, do the opposite.
If the puppy lunges ahead, just do a smooth right-about turn and head off in the opposite direction. If the puppy pulls left, turn right — if the puppy drifts right behind you, turn left — if the puppy drifts right in front of you, speed up to cut-off the pup, and then turn left in front of it.
When the puppy slows down to sniff or pee, that’s fine — this is usually the reason we are walking the dog — slow down and wait for the pup.
Of course, if you want your pup to come along, say “Come Along” and/or “Hustle,” and off you go. This method works well when practiced at home with young puppies or in the park with older puppies, adolescent and adult dogs.
Pulling On Command
Some pet parents might consider allowing the dog to pull when convenient. Look, if the dog has got a bee in their bonnet about pulling, if pulling on-leash is such a thrill, why be a killjoy? Why not let the draught doggie pull at acceptable times? Only of course, when given the okay by the human — “Rover, Pull,” “Mush,” “Hike” or whatever.
Personally, I appreciate Phoenix’s tractor beam up the Rose Walk steps and the “Pull” command is a boon when we harness her to our sled in the Sierra: “Phoenie, Pull!” Whoooshhhhh. Yea! Way to go!
Do you have any tips for teaching a dog to walk properly on a leash? Have you trained your own dog to behave on walks? Let us know in the comments below!
Excerpted and editorially re-formatted from How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks, by Ian Dunbar.
Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.