Why do dogs pull on leash? To get to whatever is out ahead: Great smells, other dogs, open spaces, fun and adventure. Pulling gets dogs to what they want faster. As a strategy, it works. This is why it is best to teach dogs loose-leash walking as early as possible. Pulling is rewarding to the dog, so the more he does it, the harder it is for him to give it up. Teaching your pup loose leash walking right from the beginning establishes a winning pattern of behavior so your puppy learns they get to things faster by working with you, instead of against you!
Leash walking is a strange custom if you look at it from your dog’s point of view. We place a bunch of equipment on them that they would never wear naturally, and then expect them to understand that they must walk right next to us in this scenario – when we probably shoo them away from being underfoot at home! With a little bit of empathy, you can see why it’s so important that we help our dogs learn how to walk on leash properly by teaching them step-by-step what is expected of them.
It’s also important to understand opposition reflex when teaching your dog leash walking. It is normal for any dog or human to resist being pulled or pushed. If someone were to pull on your arm, you would resist their pull because your body is trying to maintain your balance. Avoid pulling on the leash to get your dog to come with you, your dog will naturally respond by resisting the pulling to keep their balance. They are not being defiant, they are being natural.
Step 1: Your dog learns to stand calmly next to you without pulling away.
- Load one hand with treats. Stand still.
- Praise and treat at your side (level with your dog’s head) when your dog is calm and/or looking at you
- If your dog pulls away from you, don’t pull on the leash. Stand still and wait until he returns to you. If he is very distracted, call his name and pat your leg.
- When he comes back to you, praise and treat at your side again.
Step 2: Your dog learns to stay close to you while walking.
- With your dog standing calmly next to you, say his name and, “Let’s go.”
- Praise and treat at your side after the first step, whether your dog moves with you or not. If your dog doesn’t move immediately, he will be encouraged to move to your side via the offered treat, and if he moves past you he will be reoriented to your side to get the treat.
- Keep walking and praise/treat at your side for every step until your dog is lingering at your side waiting for you to take another step.
- Gradually increase the number of steps between rewards, one step at a time. If your dog starts pulling, stop and wait until there is some slack in the leash again. You can call him to you if he seems focused or distracted by something. Then take a step with him and reward him at your side quickly for walking near you. Reduce the number of steps between rewards again to where the dog was last successful.
- Now that your dog is walking with you on loose leash consistently, vary your treat schedule to keep your dog engaged with you. Sometimes reward after 1 step, sometimes after 3, then again after 2, then after 5.
- Next, try changing directions. Give them a cue like “let’s go” or “with me” and change direction, mark and reward for a loose leash. This tactic also can be used if they start getting ahead of you – when you switch direction, they’ll be behind you again, so you can build up the reinforcers again.
Since you’ll be practicing these walking skills in your house or backyard at first, it can be helpful to practice without the leash first. Leashes sometimes cue the dog to pull if there is already a history of leash pulling on walks, and it can also be easier for you as the handler to focus on your marking/treating behaviors instead of worrying about which hand the leash should be in.
Is your dog crossing in front of you to get the treat? Make sure you are delivering the treat at your side and not holding it out for the dog. Try treating behind your leg sometimes too to keep your dog from jumping in front in anticipation of the treat delivery.
Small dogs can be wary of being near feet (after being stepped on one too many times!) – give your dog time to acclimate to this new version of walking with you by practicing without the leash first so they can move freely and get comfortable.
U-turns can also be helpful if your dog is continuing to pull in front of you even after you stop
When you need to get your dog’s attention, don’t pull them toward you with the leash. Instead, move toward your dog slowly while walking up the leash with your hands until you are right next to your dog.