Ask the Trainer:  How can I stop my dog from pulling on the leash

Q: Gracie pulls constantly on her leash, we’ve tried choke collars, harness, and the regular collar, she pulls with all of them.  I’ve tried to stop moving and make her sit when she’s pulling until she’s calmed down, still doesn’t work.  Gracie is an 80 lbs (very strong) American Bulldog, any suggestions?

Q: Whenever I walk my German Short Haired Pointer Homer, he pulls! I cannot ever walk him without the pulling. He has control, and I have little or none.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

A: This might be the most common reason people seek training advice, a dog who pulls them down the street!  You’re not alone.  Pulling makes walking your dog unpleasant at best and, on an icy sidewalk, dangerous.

Let’s Talk about Equipment

There are many types of collars and harnesses available but they all share one thing in common.  They won’t teach your dog not to pull!  While almost all of these have uses, depending on the dog and handler, none of them will work without you training your dog.  Think of equipment as power steering for your car.  Power steering makes driving your two ton vehicle much easier but it doesn’t steer your car.  That part is still up to you.  While every dog and handler is different these are some of the more common pieces of training equipment and the pluses and minuses of using them.  Please check with your veterinarian before using any collar or harness.

  • Buckle or Clip Collar. This is the standard collar many dogs wear.
    +  Comes in lots of colors and patterns
    –   In an emergency it can easily slip over your dog’s head resulting in a loose dog
  • Martingale Collar. This collar looks like two thirds of a snow man, it has two loops-one goes over the dog’s head and the other attaches to the leash.  The second loop can be made of fabric or chain
    +   Properly fitted, the collar can neither slip off or tighten down to choke the dog
    –    Some dogs can chew the second loop so leaving the collar attached to the leash is the best practice.  When the leash goes on, so does the collar.
  • Slip or Choke Collar.   This collar, made out of fabric, leather or chain, has two rings.
    +    The dog, in an emergency, cannot slip out of the collar
    –     Many people put this collar on “upside down” which does not allow the collar to open fully.  It isn’t an appropriate collar for dogs who lean on the collar as it can, over time, cause tracheal damage.  It may break the coat of a dog with long hair.
  • Pinch or Prong Collar. This collar, made out of steel, has removable links which can be subtracted or added to get a proper fit.
    +    Properly fitted, this collar can neither slip off or tighten down to choke the dog.  It should be worn with a “safety” collar, a martingale for example, so if the links separate there will still be a collar on the dog.
    –     Collars with large links are difficult to fit properly.  Public perception of these collars can be negative.  These collars should be fitted by someone experienced with the collar.
  • Standard Harness. This harness may be fabric, leather, webbing or mesh.  The leash clips to the back of the dog’s shoulders.
    +    Comes in many colors and patterns
    –     Harnesses are easy for dogs to get out of if the dog gets frightened.  Back clip harnesses often encourage dogs to “lean in” causing pulling.
  • Front Clip Harness. This harness is made out of fabric and has a place under the dog’s chin to clip the leash
    +     Comes in many colors and patterns.  Can be used effectively by children.  This harness, like all harnesses needs to be used with a “safety collar” like a martingale.
    –      Some harnesses have a loop on the front and some dogs chew on that loop.  If the dog chews another brand without the loop should be used.
  • Head Halter.  This goes around the dog’s muzzle
    +      Comes in many colors and patterns
    –       Many dogs dislike the feel of something on their face and will need to be slowly acclimated to wearing a head halter.   If the dog continues to pull against the head halter, some dogs will rub fur off of the muzzle

Which should I choose?

As each dog and each handler is an individual, no one thing will work for everyone.

If your dog is “reactive”, that is she barks and lunges at other dogs or people, then you may want to avoid using a head halter or prong collar.  Reactive dogs who wear head halters are prevented from seeing what they wish to see as the action of the head halter pulls the dog’s head towards the handler.  Not being able to see what arouses the dog may cause much more arousal.  Think if a scary looking person walked through the door and someone covered your eyes – most of us would not be very happy with that at all, we would want to be able to see the person.   Your dog feels the same way.

Reactive dogs who wear prong collars, especially poorly fitted collars, may lunge towards the person or dog and receive a correction from the collar.  Since prong collars mimic the correction an adult dog gives a puppy, a dog who lunges towards another dog or person may perceive that correction as coming from the person or dog it is lunging towards.  “That dog bit me!” is what she may be thinking.  This can make matters worse.

Most dogs and handlers do well with a martingale style collar.  If you cannot stand still with your dog on a martingale collar, you may need the “power steering” of a front clip harness or prong collar to prevent your dog from pulling you over.  Regardless, the technique for loose lead walking is the same.

Some Things to Consider

There are several things you can do with any behavior your dog exhibits and for pulling we’re going to limit the behavior, replace the behavior and reward the new behavior.  This process takes time.  Remember how long your dog has been pulling!  It’s a bad habit and habits take time to change.  Try this:  Tomorrow morning pick up your toothbrush with the opposite hand.  Keep a log and see how long it takes you to remember to do this rather than switch hands once you’ve made the mistake!  Habits take time and practice to change.  To go from a pulling dog to one who doesn’t pull will take time, practice and patience.

Why do Dogs Pull?

Many dogs pull.  And most do for the following reasons:

  • Dogs pull because it gets them where they want to go … faster. So long as the dog gets what he wants, to go in the direction he pulls, he will continue to pull.  Why wouldn’t he?  He’s getting exactly what he wants.
  • Dogs pull because we pull back. When your dog pulls, you lean back on your heels and tighten your grip which upsets your dog’s center of balance.  So he pushes forward.  Which upsets your center of balance so you lean back.  Which upsets his center of balance.  And so on.  Pretty soon, your dog’s chest is inches off the ground and you look like you are water skiing.  The leash is tight and everyone is pulling.
  • Dogs pull because they can’t figure out how long the leash is. Pretend you tied your dog to a tree (I know you wouldn’t really do that) on a ten foot piece of rope.  Your dog might run to the end of the rope a few times and then she’d figure it out and stop before she hit the end.  Now pretend you put her out the next day on a twenty foot piece of rope – she’d do the same thing.  But if you change the length of the rope every day she would have no choice but to hit the end in order to figure out how long the rope is today.   So now, picture your dog walking on a four foot lead.  How long is the leash?  Four feet, right?  Well, what if your arm is extended towards your dog?  What if your arm is behind you?  What if your arm is over your head?  See the problem?  Sometimes your leash is four feet long, sometimes six feet and sometimes three feet.

So Let’s Walk a Dog!

You will need:

  • One pulling dog
  • A four foot leash
  • A martingale collarLots of high value treats (cheese, chicken, liver and so on)
  •  *Optional:  A bait bag or fanny pack to hold the treats

Step One:  Put Your Martingale Collar and Leash on the Dog
Don’t forget to put your treats in a pocket or bait bag on your left side

Step Two: Put the Loop of the Leash over your Right Hand and put your Right Thumb in your Pocket
This will keep you from moving your hand and changing the length of your leash

If your dog is very tall, you may need to make the leash shorter by folding it over your right thumb and grabbing both sides with your hand.  Don’t forget to put your hand in your pocket!

The leash will be draped across your legs.  When your dog is standing next to your left leg the clip on the leash should be facing the ground with no tension at all.

Step Three: Remember the Three Rules of Walking:

  1. Don’t go in the direction the dog pulls
  2. Don’t pull back
  3. Don’t change the length of the leash

Step Four:  Say “Let’s Go” and Start Walking

  • Walk forward briskly (it’s easier for your dog)
  • As soon as you feel any tension on the lead:
  • STOP
  • Turn to your right, go completely around (180%), and start walking back the way you came.
  • When your leash goes loose, tell your dog “Yes!” in an enthusiastic voice and feed your dog a  yummy treat with your left hand touching your pants seam.

Really, that’s it.  If your dog puts tension on the lead pulling to the left – STOP, Turn to your right one quarter turn (90%) and walk.  If your dog puts tension on the lead by lagging behind, move forward faster.  Whichever way your dog puts tension on the lead, STOP and go the opposite way.

Some Things to Remember

  • Don’t touch the leash with your left hand – it’s for feeding your dog only.  Otherwise, when you use your left hand on the leash, you will make the leash shorter.
  •  Say “YES” when your dog keeps all tension off the lead, feed a great treat with your left hand touching your left leg.
  • Keep the food in your pocket or bait bag until after you say “YES”.  Your dog will wait for you to fish out the treat!
  • Keep moving – don’t stop to give the treat or your dog will equate stopping with the treat rather than equating the treat with a loose leash.
  •  If you have a very small dog, you may want to use cream cheese or peanut butter on a spoon or chop stick so you don’t have to bend over.  Remember to keep the spoon/stick up in the air, by your shoulder, until after you say “YES”.
  • If you have more than one dog, please work each dog separately before you try and work them together.
  • If your dog shows aggression towards other dogs or people please consult with a qualified trainer.                                

Step Five: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat.
Try to remember your dog has been pulling for awhile and it will take time to establish a new habit.  Your dog cannot learn this if sometimes you let your dog pull.  The rule needs to be “no tension on the leash – ever”.  That means no tension when your dog is going out to urinate or defecate, when she sees a squirrel, when she sees another dog or someone she knows.  No pulling even when on a long line.                                        

How Long Will it Take?

Changing a habit takes time and, depending on how long your dog has been “practicing” the pulling behavior, it may take quite a few repetitions.  You may find your dog does very well on your own street in just a few days but it may take longer in new places.    Or maybe your dog does great almost all the time but sometimes seems to lose his mind when he sees another dog – all of this is normal.  If you are 100% consistent, and practice every day, you will have much more control in one to three weeks; which isn’t too bad.  Remember, your dog has been pulling a lot longer than that!

A dog who is a pleasure to walk is worth the effort.  Your dog will go more places with you, and you will walk more with your dog – it’s good for both of you!  Thanks for asking your question and let us know how you do.  Train your dog, enjoy your dog.
(c) Copyright 2012 Susan D. Greenbaum

Pulling on the Leash
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