Pulling on the lead is one of the most common dog training problems. Often by the time people ask for help, it has been going on for some time because it shouldn't be that hard to fix, right? Actually, it is neither an easy skill for your dog to learn or for you to teach and there are lots of reasons why.
So why is it so hard?
Loose lead walking is an advanced skill to learn and teach for lots of reasons.
Dogs have four legs, we have two, so we are teaching them to walk at a speed that doesn’t come naturally and new motor patterns take time to learn.
The timing of our communication and the way we deliver rewards can make a big difference to how easily our dogs understand what we are asking for. Compared to something stationery like a 'sit' there is a lot more going on with lead walking and therefore more opportunity for things to get muddled. Training is a skill that takes practice, practice takes time. Time you might not have had, especially if this is your first dog.
We are asking for a level of impulse control we might not have time to develop or that might be unrealistic for the age or experience of the dog and ‘out there’ is full of exciting sniffs and other temptations.
Very often, the places we are asking them to walk slowly next to us are the places they feel the least safe. These are the places you are most likely to encounter ‘planting’, spinning, lunging, biting the lead and galloping on the return to home or the car.
Street walking is particularly stress inducing for a lot of dogs, young and old. It is sensory overload with a bombardment of scent, sights, sounds and textures. Remember that their primary sense is scent so just because you can’t see anything, it doesn’t mean there isn’t anything around to worry them. An entire dog marking territory, a bitch coming into season, a fearful dog, a human experiencing stress, wildlife and so on, can all leave information which will affect the mood and anxiety levels of your dog and therefore ability to focus.
There are lots of factors which influence the extent to which individual dogs may be affected by different aspects of the environment. The volume, intensity and frequency of things going, some dogs may be more noise sensitive, others may find traffic or other movement hard to deal with. Herding breeds often find busy environments challenging.
It's also important to remember that what the dog anticipates might happen is as relevant as what is actually happening. Anxiety versus fear. I used to work in central London and when I was walking to the station after working late I wasn't stopping to smell the roses! Many dogs feel the same way on a street walk, they are focused on the destination not the process. It's not a frame of mind conducive to learning.
The more control and choice the dog feels they have in a situation over whether to approach or avoid something, the easier they will find it to access impulse control and behaviours needing thought and concentration. On street walks, control and choice is drastically reduced because they are on a lead and boxed into ‘tunnels’ created by the rows of houses and roads.
Much of the time problems with loose lead walking are symptomatic of how the dog is feeling rather than a reflection of the quality or quantity of training.
Why do dogs pull on the lead?
Dogs pull on the lead because it works. It gets them where they want to be, faster whether that is to access something good or avoid something they are anxious about.
We are often very inconsistent when it comes to pulling because sometimes we allow them to pull because we just need to get somewhere or don’t have time to train and then other times, deciding we are going to train. T
To the dog though, there is no difference between 'training' and 'not training', they are learning all the time. If pulling sometimes works, it is always going to be worth a go because that is the least effort, mentally and physically to them.
Won't a harness teach my dog to pull?
Contrary to what you might read on social media, harnesses don’t teach the dog to pull. Harnesses and collars are just clothes with no magical powers of their own, they just make the dog more or less comfortable. They might appear to pull more in a harness but that is only because it doesn’t hurt them to do so. Whether you use a harness or a collar, the behaviour of walking slowly next to us, has to be taught by us, we are the ones with the power of communication not the clothes and the more comfortable the dog is, the greater their ability to concentrate and learn.
Flexi leads might relieve pressure in the short term but will make the job of teaching loose lead walking harder because there is always tension in the lead. Tension in the lead creates tension in the dog, which can also increase the likelihood of reactivity. Furthermore, they have to pull against the tension to release more lead and so pulling is rewarded. Light, responsive handling of the lead is an important part of the process in teaching loose lead but flexi leads make this difficult because the handle is cumbersome and the lead too narrow to hold comfortably and safely.
Some equipment does come with claims to stop pulling. These generally involve pressure, tightening or pinching, making it uncomfortable or painful to pull. This might appear to work initially but the problem is, dogs, like us, habituate to discomfort and once they have got used to it, the behaviour of pulling will resume.
The other problem is that it relies on the motivation to avoid discomfort exceeding the motivation to pull. It doesn’t teach the dog what to do instead. There are always going to be situations when the motivation to pull exceeds the motivation to avoid discomfort or pressure. A squirrel running across your path might induce the reflex to chase, something your dog is scared of will induce the reflex to escape.
If we haven’t developed all the skills and confidence to handle these situations, the dog is going to pull. In addition, if the dog experiences pain or discomfort on their walks, then we may also create or exacerbate reactivity as the dog starts to associate that discomfort with other things in the environment such as dogs or children. This is the same process by which fear of dentists is learnt.
How do I teach my dog to walk to heel?
The quickest way to teach loose lead is slowly! Start in a quiet environment that your dog feels safe in and in which you can reliably keep your dog’s attention. This might be your garden, it might even be your living room. Never mind what the neighbours or friend's dog did, it depends on your individual dog and their history.
Start with no lead on or a long line attached to the harness and trailing (so you need to be somewhere where running off isn’t likely).
Encourage the dog to follow you. Walking backwards can be a good way of starting this off, especially with small dogs or ones with an established history of strong pulling.
As your dog follows and while they are moving, say “Yes” or “Good” and pay them with food (soft, small and stinky works best, think pea sized, or half a pea for small dogs).
Take small steps, changing direction every 2 or 3 steps. .
Don’t ask for too much, too soon. In the beginning you want to be marking and rewarding every 2 or 3 steps, try to pay while your dog is still moving next to you.
Think 'follow me' with a toddler rather then drill sergeant! The key is motivating your dog to want to near you. Remember the lead is for safety not for steering.
Once your dog is engaging in this game in your quiet, safe environment, you can try it somewhere else. Build in distractions thoughtfully. Training in close proximity to other people, dogs, animals, traffic is advanced ninja level loose lead walking and you want to build up to this gradually! The more your dog succeeds, the more they will want to keep playing the game.
Keep training sessions short, quality is better then quantity – 3 x 5 minutes of consistent success is better than 20 minutes of inconsistency and frustration.
Don't train when you are tired, grumpy or in a hurry! So definitely not on the school run!
Give your dog a start and end cue so they know when training is finished. This could be verbal for example “with me” to start and “all done” to finish. Or it could be by clipping the lead to the front of the harness for training and moving it to the back when finished.
Y shaped harnesses with a ring on the chest and the back are good for teaching loose lead (such as Perfect Fit). They allow free movement of shoulders, no pressure on the neck and the 2 points of contact provide added security and safety for big, strong dogs.
If you have a small dog, cream cheese smeared onto a wooden spoon will save your back and prevent creating an accidental jumping up problem resulting from them having to reach up to receive their payment.
Use a lead which is at least 2 metres or a long line. This takes the pressure off both you and your dog, helping to reduce frustration. The more choice your dog feels he/she has, the more cooperative they tend to be (much like us!).