Help, my dog always pulls on a walk!

Dogs pull on leash to get where they want to go, when it works it reinforces the pulling behavior.

Dogs pull on leash to get to where they are going. If pulling didn't work, they wouldn't perform the behavior. We must assume then that getting to where they would like to go is a potent reinforcer.

Avoid walking your dog on a retractable leash, aside from retractable leashes being incredibly dangerous for both you and your dog, they tend to hold a constant pressure. This will make it harder for your dog to tell the difference between when they are pulling and when they are not. To teach your dog to walk on a loose leash, you will need a plain leash that can go slack.

One of the big concerns I hear is "I need to walk X amount of miles for my dog to get tired!" Walking in circles in your driveway and working with your dog to problem solve will tire him just as much as an impolite marathon. When exercising your dog's body alone, your dog may build a tolerance, and with time you have to add more and more physical exercise to tire your dog. However combining training and mental stimulation into your exercise routine can relieve both mental and physical energy leading to a calmer dog and a better relationship for the both of you. 

Consistency is key to training, to communicate effectively with your dog the rules must always be the same.  

Walking on a loose leash is a multi-dimensional skill. We are asking our dogs to perform many different tasks, to create a complex behavior, including; focusing attention on the handler, ignoring distractions, reorienting attention when it is lost, and self-positioning. To be successful, we must make sure that the dog fully understands the foundational skills necessary to succeed.

First, teach the skills your dog needs to understand walking on a leash politely. That starts at the most basic part, paying attention. Because we want the dog to learn to offer attention, without being asked for it, we are going to teach the behavior without giving it a cue. In essence the dog learns that when in doubt they should look at you, and it will pay off. We start by frequently rewarding, and as the strength of the habit is built we reduce the reinforcement. To start, we are going to teach your dog the concept of rewards for checking in with you.

Foundational Attention:
1. Start by standing still while holding the leash.

2. Click when the dog “checks-in” with you by offering you their attention. (Be careful not to prompt your dog’s attention, we want this to become a reflexive habit, not one your dog relies on a cue for.)

3. Give your dog a treat, take a few steps, stop and repeat! The more you practice, the more frequently your dog will “check-in” and will stay engaged for longer durations.

The benefit of this exercise is that is also providing information to your dog about how to get you moving using appropriate behavior. They learn that attention causes movement as well as a reward.

The next step toward loose leash walking is teaching the dog what to do when they make a mistake and feel tension on the leash. Ultimately this will give the dog important feedback juxtaposing which behaviors are most advantageous to the dog, vs. the behaviors that are not as we teach the dog that pulling only leads to restricted freedom.

Release Tension Exercise:

1. Toss something that captures the dog’s attention out of reach while holding the leash such as a toy or treat. The dog will pull in the direction of the distraction. Hold the leash steady so that the dog cannot get any closer to the distraction but do not pull the dog away. It is extremely important that the dog is in control of how much pressure he or she applies to the leash, not the other way around. Stand still, and wait for the dog to problem solve.

2. Mark the moment the dog disengages and looks away from the treat or toy with a click or verbal marker such as “yes!”.
3. Without moving towards your dog, offer a treat at your side, so your dog develops a habit of returning to you when they hit the end of the leash.
4. Repeat until your dog no longer pulls at the end of the leash, then work on either getting closer to the distraction, or adding more distractions.

As your dog progresses, they learn that pulling on the leash is unproductive, it does not get them closer to the things that they desire, and instead provides value in being close to you. Conversely, we want to teach the dog how to get closer to the things they desire in an appropriate and polite way.

After all walks are meant for the dog, it should be an enriching experience filled with sniffing and exploration.

The trick is to pay close attention to when you move, and in what direction. If your dog is pulling you towards the tree 20 ft. down the sidewalk, there is likely something highly rewarding to sniff there. Rather than walking along with a pulling dog, we are going to teach the dog’s that there are rules to getting what they want out of the walk. You work as a team to reach everyone’s goals. The rule is very simple, if the dog is meeting your criteria of walking on a loose leash, move forward, if they are not, stop walking until they reset.

We’re going to start by using the food bowl as your “end goal”, pretend this bowl is the neighbor your pup is anxious to greet, or the tree they are dying to sniff. We are going to start across the room from the bowl, and work our way towards it as a team. To teach your dog that work happens even when the treats aren’t clearly visible, leave your bag or container of treats back by your chair. Remember that your dog will be rewarded by getting closer to the object of their desire, and eventually will receive a “jackpot” of a few treats when they finally reach their goal.

Putting it all together:

1. Place a few treats in the food bowl and put it across the room. Then return to your start line and wait.
2. With your dog at your side, wait for them to check in with you, the moment they acknowledge you begin moving toward the food bowl across the room SLOWLY.
3. The moment your dog STOPS paying attention to you, a precursor to pulling, stop moving and stand very still, if your dog is pulling wait, if they are not pulling but not in position, use your prevention cue, and when you have their attention, reposition them by pointing to where you would like them to be before continuing forward.
4. When you get close to the bowl, use a release cue like “Free!” to let your pet know that they have been released to enjoy their reward and can leave position.
5. Repeat, until your dog is paying attention to you for the entire stroll to the food bowl.

Implement this strategy on your walks and be consistent, the more consistent you are the more quickly your dog will learn to cooperate with you so that you can both enjoy the walk together. A 15 minute stroll up and down your driveway, adding more distance as your dog pays attention to you, will wear your pup out just as much as a 15 minute stroll through the neighborhood.

Need more help? Join our loose leash walking class, or consult with one of our trainers! 

Sara Richter, CPDT-KA

Sara Richter, CPDT-KA Founder of Simply Animal Training LLC, began her professional training career in 2008 after 11 years as a student in the equestrian world. Sara began as an assistant horse trainer and horseback riding instructor for JGarvey Horsemanship. During the following 4 years she learned the ins and outs of positive reinforcement training, behaviorism, and operant conditioning. In 2013 Sara formed an equine training business known as Equestrianism. In 2014 Sara became a leader with the Local 4H where she taught children to use clicker training with numerous other animals including pigs, sheep, chickens, and even small animals. In 2014 Sara Joined forces with Root Dog Training LLC as a dog trainer, where she learned to translate her knowledge of learning theory and behaviorism, to the unique behaviors of canines. Sara is proud to continue offering Animal-friendly Force-Free services to pets and owners of all kinds. Sara is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed from the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers, and a Canine Life and Social Skills Evaluator with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Sara is constantly advancing her education in animal training and behavior through continuing education, certification, and college courses.