Stand on any street corner and you’ll likely see the same sight over and over again: a dog held tight on a leash by their owner, gagging and straining as they go for a walk together. (Or you’ll just see this…)
Leash-pulling is an epidemic that in many cases can lead to frustration-based aggression and sometimes even physical damage to the dog’s neck. It’s also a sad situation for owners who just want to enjoy a stroll with their dogs.
Most owners try hard to fix the problem. They try to teach their dog that pulling is wrong by pulling back on the on the leash.
The problem is that pulling begets pulling, and it actually makes the situation worse. It’s easy to think that most dogs would stop pulling when the collar presses tightly into their neck, making them gag, choke and cough, yet no progress is made. In fact the dog just strains harder.
There is actually a very simple reason for this. The reason that pulling on a dog’s leash encourages pulling is a process called the “oppositional reflex.” Not “oppositional” in a continuous, emotional, defiant sort of way, but instead regarding a subconscious physical reflex.
Oppositional reflex means that when something is pulled in one direction, the body will lean or even strain in the opposing direction to maintain balance. Therefore when an owner pulls on the leash the dog reflexively pulls in the other direction to maintain balance. Even if that means choking, gagging and pulling their owner’s arm out of the socket. If the dogs owner keeps pulling this eventually turns into a tug of war leaving no winners. Instead just a frustrated dog and owner.
Certain leashes can make the problem even worse.
The final contributor to this problem is the old fashioned training principle of holding a dog close to your side to teach them to walk with you. This training style is going the way of the dodo but most owners have not gotten the memo.
When holding a dog tight and close, instead of teaching the dog that this is the position they’re supposed to walk in, it learns that a leash should always be tight when it walks. Picture a toy car that you pull back on and when it is released it takes off. Dogs taught leash-walking this way have the same problem. The minute they are given some slack, they yank to the end of the leash and start pulling. That’s because they’ve learned to seek leash tension, not how to walk nicely.
Luckily there are some great solutions to this problem and all owners can enjoy walking their dog by employing some simple training and patience.
1) Set both you and your dog up for success. Stop taking walks over great distances. Master shorts jaunts first. This means start by masting your driveway or your block. Don’t shorten the duration of your walk, just spend the hour helping your dog learn how to walk properly, surrounded by familiar smells and distractions. You wouldn’t ask a new driver to drive on the Interstate immediately. Do the same for your dog and let them master locations one at a time.
2) Stop pulling! It sounds simple but this is the hardest part for people to learn. Just like the dog has an oppositional reflex, you have one too. This means that when the dog pulls, you will reflexively pull back. But the difference is you’re conscious enough to break the cycle. Instead of pulling your dog, stop, say your dog’s name or otherwise engage with them, then continue on when the leash is slack. It is important that your dog make no forward progress if they’re pulling.
3) Turn around. If they don’t get the idea after a couple of repetitions, you can turn around and encourage your dog to follow you in the apposing direction. Then when they catchup to you, return to the direction you were originally going. This teaches the dog that they only get to go in that direction if they go with you on a loose leash. Also walking at a brisk pace will encourage your dog to tag along.
4) Some dogs need a little more room to work. In areas where a dog has more room than a skinny sidewalk, try a longer leash to help you with the above methods. Leashes that are 10-15ft in length (non-retractable) allow the dog to move around and get used to a loose leash. Then when your dog comes closer to you, feed them a treat to reward them for finding the proper location for leash walking.
5) Reward proper leash walking! Some dogs crave praise but the vast majority love treats, petting ,and toys. If your dog walks by your side reward that! Give them a treat, or a few seconds of play and petting before moving on. Don’t be stingy. A generous owner can easily create a very obedient dog.
6) Shop smart. Avoid training collars like prongs, chokes, slips, etc are designed to make pulling hurt. The problem with this is that it does not teach a dog how to walk properly and in most cases dogs just learn to tolerate the pain and pull through it. This can learn to significant behavioral problems later on. Also who want’s going for a walk to hurt? Instead if you need a little help, try a front attach harness or a face halter to help control pulling. Remember though that these tools are meant to assist in training. They are not a solution and you will still need to teach your dog to walk nicely.
7) Be patient! This will take time. Pick areas without huge distractions at first. Also don’t be in a hurry or you’ll be very frustrated. When you can’t practice, park closer to your destination or carry your dog. You have to be consistent! Don’t give up and don’t cut corners just because you’re in a hurry. If you go back to pulling with your dog, it will get worse. You will have reaffirmed to your dog that pulling is the way to progress on a walk and it will be even harder to fix later.
Remember, don’t be a contributor to your dog’s leash pulling habit. Instead be a solution, and the envy of all other dog owners on your block.