I fielded a call today from a gentleman whose 3 month old Doberman pup was pulling – hard – on leash. This is a common complaint for large breed dog owners. The truth is that small breeds also like to pull, but most of us are strong enough that it doesn’t bother us enough to worry about it! However, pulling does pose hazards to large and small breed dogs alike, as well as their owners.
Where does this pulling come from?
Dogs have a strong “opposition reflex”. This means that they pull into pressure. For example, flex your bicep. Now have someone pull on your forearm. This is when your opposition reflex kicks in, and you naturally pull against that pressure. Even as humans, we have to consciously allow our bodies to be moved by outside forces, otherwise we resist. Dogs are very much the same in this regard. In fact, some dogs really enjoy the pressure. After all, what kind of sled dogs or cart-pulling dogs would we have if they didn’t like to pull?
This natural inclination to pull presents a number of issues:
Damage to your dog’s soft tissue and trachea, causing coughing or gagging (especially in small breeds)
Fatigue and strain for the owner, thus decreasing the likelihood of going for walks
Degradation of the relationship between owner and dog – are you a leader or an anchor?
Increasing tension, anxiety, or frustration in reactive dogs.
The more a dog pulls against the collar or harness, and gets where he intends to go (i.e. reinforcing himself), the more it becomes a way of life. Older dogs who have pulled their whole life can learn to walk nicely, but they will need lots of support and feedback to break out of that “rut” and learn a new way to enjoy walks!
Whether you have a new pup, or are teaching your old dog some “new tricks”, here are some tips to make walking on leash a better experience for you both!
Eye contact is the foundation for communication in your relationship with your dog. Encourage and reinforce your dog for looking to you for direction or to ask permission! A dog who is looking to you for direction can’t be out at the end of the leash! This is a basic skill that can be learned and practiced on and off leash, inside and outside. The more you practice it, the more likely your dog will be to offer eye contact.
Don’t be a Control Freak
As humans, we have a tendency to try to control the things around us. When walking our dog, this manifests in the owner attempting to “steer” their dog with the leash. When you tighten the leash to “steer” your dog, that is his cue to pull! Once he feels that pressure, he knows exactly where you are – like an umbilical cord – and no longer has to pay attention. The moral is: loosen your leash! Allow there to be slack in the leash, and you will find that your dog has to check in more frequently to see where you are. Additionally, when your dog actually hits the end of the leash, it becomes more significant to him.
Reinforce for Proximity
Rather than thinking of a strict “heel” position, consider loose-leash walking as your goal. This allows your dog some “wiggle room”, as long as she is in your general vicinity (left side, right side, slightly behind or slightly in front). Whenever your dog is within this area, she can be reinforced with food or with petting. Especially be sure to acknowledge eye contact and reinforce it! Even if your dog is 2 foot in front of you, if she is walking on a loose leash and checking in with eye contact regularly, consider it a win!
Open Your Toolbox
There are a variety of different “tools” available for dogs that pull. Head collars, which are similar to a horse halter, give you added control of your dog’s head. If your dog pulls, it literally turns his head towards you, making it uncomfortable to continue pulling forward. No-pull harnesses, which are specifically designed to reduce pulling, typically clip to the leash in the front, over the dog’s chest. When your dog pulls in this special harness, it shifts the pressure or constricts to make it uncomfortable to pull forward. Either of these options can be great tools to help you work towards loose-leash walking. However, it is possible for dogs to learn to pull in these products as well, which could eventually cause injury. It is very important to allow the leash to be loose, and do not attempt to “steer” your dog!
These four tips can be used in conjunction with many different training exercises (such as “Do the Opposite”) to begin cultivating a relationship with your dog based on communication and trust. So relax your grip, grab a pocket full of really yummy treats, and go out with the intention of building that relationship instead of just “going for a walk”!