There are various reasons a dog might pull on the lead, mostly it boils down to being rewarding, and it works. Here are three reasons why dogs pull on the lead, and what you can do about it!
Reason one: It’s instinctive
For most puppies, the first 8 weeks of their life is spent roaming free. The same goes for some street dogs. No one has tried to control where they go before. So it can come as quite a shock when a lead is clipped to their collar for the first time. It is instinctive to try to get away when you suddenly feel restricted. This means that when a dog or puppy feels tension on the lead for the first time, they immediately try to get away from it. So you end you with a puppy throwing themselves around on the end of the lead. In no time they will get used to it, and a new habit has been formed.
Reason two: We encourage them to do it!
Once they get used to the tension they stop minding it, so a little pulling quickly becomes normal. We don’t like it though, so we try to find ways to give our dogs freedom without getting pulled. This often comes in the form of an extendable lead. A dog has to pull on the lead to make it extend from the handle, so these leads teach our dogs to pull even more. Pulling leads to freedom, they already don’t mind the tension, so why wouldn’t they pull even harder?
Reason three: It is rewarding
Many dogs pull on the lead because they are trying to get to something. It could be another dog, a sniff, a person, discarded food, home, or the park. Whatever it is, as long as they make progress they will keep doing it. And, if they succeed, and get where they want to go, they will feel extra rewarded. Clearly if they are finding it effective they aren’t going to stop so the problem grows. Remember they got used to tension when they were little, so discomfort isn’t going to hold them back.
So, where do we start?
To stop a dog from pulling on the lead we must first stop the behaviour from having any benefit. We must also make them think of it as a problem. To do this we must simply stop moving.
Next, we must change the way they feel about the tension. The dog has got used to tension and barely notices it anymore, stopping will help them regain awareness. But we can also start making them feel good about a loose lead by introducing a reward for loosening the lead. I do with this with a marker word or clicker. They are so precise that you can pinpoint the exact moment the lead goes loose, plus you don’t need to keep stopping to hand out treats.
Once you get going you’ll use your marker to promise a reward. This means you’ll be able to keep walking, and benefit from the movement as an additional reward. One of the reasons your dog pulls is to move forward. We already know that was rewarding enough to encourage them to pull. So it really doesn’t make sense to keep stopping to give your dog a treat as part of loose lead training. If you can keep going, your dog gets two rewards for the price of one!
How to solve it
I start with a normal, fixed length lead, and hold it in the middle of the lead so it is halved in length. Depending on the size of the dog you might need to adjust this. But you’ll need it to be long enough that your dog has enough room to move beside you loosely, but not long enough that they can swing about, and walk across you.
Once you’ve got the lead at a reasonable length, bring your dog beside you and stand with the lead loose. Use your marker/clicker and step forward, very slowly. If the lead remains loose, click again and take another step. It probably won’t stay loose, so be prepared to stop the exact moment the lead tightens. Doing this slowly allows you to react more precisely to the lead tightening. If you go quickly, you might end up travelling a few steps before you stop, and your dog will have no idea what went wrong.
Be consistent and precise
The trick to this is to be extremely precise and consistent. Your dog has no idea what you want, and the only clues he gets are when you stop and start. If you are too slow, or not consistent he will not be able to connect your actions with his. If you get this right, he will be able to spot a pattern and know that tight lead = stop, and loose lead = go. Figuring this rule out is the only way he’ll ever make any progress, so don’t rush this. If you aren’t consistent, he won’t ever know what you want and you’ll be doing all this work for nothing.
You don’t have to an entire walk like this though. I suggest just five or ten minutes a day, separate to your walks, until he gets the hang of it. If you are going to do separate sessions, it will help to do something different in your training sessions. So, for example, I suggest using a different harness, or letting your dog use the full lead on their normal walks, then switch to the shorter lead and a collar for the training sessions. This way, he’ll know there is a difference, and when he is good at it on the collar you can introduce that to all his walks.
While you are working on loose lead, I suggest also working on recall. Part of the reason your dog pulls on the lead is to get to things he likes. Whether it’s sniffs or other dogs; those needs will always be more important than their training. So they need to be fulfilled too. Getting off lead allows a dog to explore, play, make friends, and run. Once he’s exercised those needs, he’ll be more content to walk beside you. Think about all the rules people were prepared to break during lockdown, because our own socialisation needs weren’t being met. But, he’ll need a good recall first!
How can I help you with your dogs lead and recall training?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!