Before you got a puppy, you probably didn’t expect a high-energy dog yanking your arm off and dragging you anywhere and everywhere. If you’re reading this article because you have that dog, don’t worry. Brett Endes is a highly-rated dog trainer in the Palmer, Wasilla, and Mat-Su Valley area with 30 years of experience and has worked with thousands of dogs with leash-pulling problems. Here are his top 5 tips to stop your dog from pulling on the leash.
1. Preparation is Everything:
If you want to stop leash pulling, don’t just put on the leash and go. Take 10-15 minutes (or more) of “lead time” to walk your dog in or around your home to teach them to focus on the moment and your direction rather than on the walk to come. The source of many dogs’ leash-pulling is an over-anticipation of the walk. They project forward, seeing themselves far up ahead where they want to be rather than staying in the present with you. Walking around the home and deliberately not going where your dog thinks you’re going teaches them to listen to you rather than their impulses.
2. Implement Structure in the Home
Being a professional dog trainer in Las Vegas, I’ve observed that leash-pulling is never an isolated issue in dogs. I have seen that most dogs who pull on the leash also suffer from anxiety and reactivity to changes in their home as well. Examples include “tracking” their owners’ movements too closely or obsessively (like following you everywhere nonstop), becoming easily overstimulated (leading to issues like barking), or being pushy by having to “ask” for resources such as food, potty time, and attention. By giving dogs of this reactive nature (which leads to leash pulling) consistent structure and training at home, we teach our dogs to trust us and follow our lead, not follow their impulses.
3. Structure Your Walks
Now, that structure in the home will only help if you also implement structure on your walks. Teaching your dog to obey a strong “Heel!” or “Let’s Go!” type of walking command will reduce the anxiety and over-projection associated with leash-pulling in dogs by giving your dog a “job” to focus on. By having your dog commit to one clearly defined space next to you (ideally one consistent side, and slightly behind you), you give your dog something to focus on instead of constantly thinking ahead! Plus, walking this way simulates how dogs (and many other animal species) align with a pack, herd, pod, etc. rather than the independent over-anticipation that makes your dog react to distractions on walks.
4. Check Your Equipment
Unfortunately, some popular dog training equipment can be counterproductive to teaching your dog to stop leash pulling. The majority of my clients are “re-trains” from “positive-only” trainers who recommended so-called “force-free” equipment, but I have learned from working with these retrains that this kind of equipment, while initially appearing to be helpful, only makes the leash-pulling worse in the long term. Traditional harnesses and even wide flat collars that are worn too low on a dog’s neck, create a broad, dispersed pressure on dogs’ bodies that makes high-energy or highly driven dogs want to pull/push against. This “opposition reflex” is how sled dogs operate! Similar products such as gentle leaders and no-pull harnesses can work a little better at preventing leash pulling physically, but they do not address the underlying root cause of the problem: reactivity and lack of faith in the owner’s guidance. The products, in essence, put a bandaid on the problem (as most overly positive dog training tends to do, unfortunately) and the dog never learns how to organically walk as their natural instincts dictate. Remove the no-pull harness or gentle leader for a more minimal collar, and the problem will immediately return. But train your dog to heel properly with structure and consistency, and you can get your dog to heel off-leash completely. All dogs have this ability!
Instead, you need to show your dog direction and guidance on the walk by communicating with them as closely as you can to how another dog would. A collar worn snug behind a dog’s ears (similar to how show dogs are walked) provides the right type of pressure to help draw focus inward and prevent your dog from over-projecting ahead. “Right behind the ears” is extremely important, as dogs will herd one another by nipping behind each other’s ears, and the collar mimics those pressure points. You can see dogs do this in play as they attempt to herd each other to establish angles and direction. Remember, we are not trying to choke or hurt our dogs (the primary reason dog owners / trainers avoid using a “training” collar in the first place); instead, we are trying to remind our dogs as another dog would to follow the structure of a pack – to follow us, not their impulses.
Now that you’ve learned to implement structure in your everyday life and prepare for the walk, it’s time to socialize your dog. Many dogs have difficulty walking because they are not socialized enough (or to the right stimuli) and become too stimulated and over reactive to things they are unfamiliar with or to which they have learned to react incorrectly. For instance, some young puppies have been “socialized” as puppies with other dogs, but those dogs were out-of-control reactive dogs themselves, thus teaching puppies bad habits. Other puppies were undersocialized, perhaps taken from their mothers when they were too young, or simply not taken outside enough to meet other dogs.
Socializing a dog properly means introducing them to people, dogs, and different environments with as much control of the situation as you can to ensure a calm association between your dog and these stimuli. Implementing structure during these occasions also shows your dog they can trust you to know what you’re doing. Start out small and build your way up to freer situations. For example, if you have an excitable dog who pulls and lunges at other dogs, implement structure in the home and teach them a solid heel before introducing them to other dogs. Instead, while you’re still working on the heel, make them maintain the heel while they walk past other dogs without meeting. Once this can be accomplished successfully, consider walking your dog side-by-side with someone else’s well-behaved dog. Walking dogs together in the same direction invokes a sense of pack, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how dogs walk together in the same direction despite normally being reactive. Once you can trust these two dogs together, practice walking together off the heel. You may even consider finding a group to walk with, then do the same things with those dogs. As your dog grows more calm, neutral, and comfortable around other dogs, you can introduce them to other dogs on walks.
By learning to 1) Prepare for the walk, 2) Implement structure in the home, 3) Implement structure on your walks, 4) check your equipment, and 5) Socialize your dog, you can stop your dog’s leash-pulling, no matter how difficult it may have seemed in the past. Just be consistent and follow these 5 tips! Want to learn more? Here’s an in-depth video on How to Stop Leash-Pulling from my webseries.