Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
Dealing With an Unpleasant Habit
Being constrained or restricted is not something that dogs are accustomed to by nature. So their resistance to a leash often comes about as a natural reflex. As soon as the dog is let outside, it switches into discover mode and restraints can mean encumbrance. They would much rather prefer being up and about, wandering, exploring, smelling, or chasing things. Learning how to submit under a leash is not something that develops naturally or instinctively in a pet. It is a discipline that comes with practice.
The fact that your dog tends to pull or tug does not always mean that it is trying to assert its dominance or be rebellious. Switching from the confinement of the home to the open air creates a sense of excitement. Whether it is spotting the movement of a squirrel under a bush, or picking up a curious scent on the other side of the road, there will be occasions when the dog will want to break away from you. It may also be that the dog recognizes as you get closer home and starts tugging in an effort to arrive there quicker.
A dog that has been trained to stay on a leash without pulling or tugging makes for a pleasant outdoor companion. You are not bothered that your enjoyable stroll will be ruined because your dog insists on having its own way. Dogs that pull on the leash can be exhausting and unpleasant to walk with, not to mention the risks they pose to their own handlers. Powerful dogs have been known to throw their owners off-balance, roll them against hard surfaces, or bring them into contact with hazardous barriers like electric fences. This is why some owners prefer leaving their dogs at home, despite the fact that they will miss out on the socialization skills and activities that can enable them to lead constructive lives.
However, with patience and consistency, a dog can be fully leash-trained irrespective of how many distractions present themselves along the route chosen for your walks. Here are some practical tips you can apply to prevent your dog from tugging at the leash.
- Cease motion
- Avoid irregularities
- Use the right harness
- Maintain consistency
1. Cease Motion
As a dog owner, each time you keep walking after your pet tugs at the leash, it reinforces the wrong behavior. The dog starts to believe that it can have its way whenever it wants to by pulling. This is exactly the conditioning you want to avoid. So the owner’s non-responsiveness is one problem.
The other problem is overreacting. Shouting at the dog or yanking back the leash does not provide a proper learning framework for the dog to work with. This only creates confusion. A dog senses when you are desperate. Desperation is not the ideal state to be in if you want to stay in command. To the dog, you are the leader of the pack and if the leader is anxious or fearful, why should it not take matters into its own hands (or paws)? Further, a dog learns by creating associations. Since no logical associations can be drawn in a state of confusion, the dog continues repeating the same behavior.
So the first reaction you should have immediately your dog pulls on the leash is to stop and wait. No matter how long the dog prances about, struggles, lunges or strains at the leash, keep holding your ground until it settles down. Don’t take another step until the leash has gone slack once more.
Your response will help it realize that there is no other option except to calm down. It will learn to associate tugging at the leash with the cessation of motion. It will learn that the only way progress can be made is if there is no tension on the leash. The goal is to teach it that all resistive efforts on its part are ineffective. This treatment applies also to any other unruly behavior the dog may manifest when you are both outdoors.
During these behavior modification sessions, it is not necessary to use commands like the stay or sit command as a way of attempting to bring your dog under control. Not only does this become monotonous and even impractical over time, but it also does not really address the core problem, which is getting your dog used to the leash.
Focus is key here, so the best thing is not to say or do anything that shifts your dog’s attention to something else. Aim at creating a distinct association between the action of the dog and the consequence, which in this case is the cessation of motion.
2. Avoid Irregularities
The objective is clear that the dog needs to be conditioned to the point where it cooperates naturally without having its leash jerked or pulled. This makes a leisurely walk much more pleasant and something to look forward to.
To achieve this, it is necessary for you to work at your own pace as much as your dog’s pace. People walk at different speeds, so if the pace of the handler and dog are not in sync, a pattern of tugging may start developing over time.
Your goal is to curb this habit at the onset as it can be more difficult to undo later on. For this to work, it is essential that you find your own rhythm. Take a walk by yourself along a familiar route. Practice walking at the pace that you find most comfortable. This is the pace that your dog needs to adapt to.
When walking your dog, pay attention not just to its behavior, but to your own pace and body language. Be sensitive to the signals you are sending out as the handler. A dog registers impressions and it may leap forward simply because it senses you are about to accelerate. Remember, it is the dog that must be trained to adjust to your pace and not the other way round.
The key here is consistency. Walking irregularly, or with sudden spurts of speed slows down the adaptation process. You also need to determine beforehand which side you find most convenient to manage your dog when walking, either at your right hand or your left hand.
In the beginning, it is best to practice with your dog along a route with regular terrain. Also, if the dog is not fully leash-trained, avoid routes with potential distractions that may interfere with its ability to master the discipline. If it is the very first time your dog is receiving this training, practice in an environment that is completely undistracted like your backyard or a deserted section of a local park.
It is a process of conditioning. Once the dog has mastered the correct behavior and can walk beside you without tugging, begin to raise the bar by taking it on routes that have more and more distractions. The more distractions, the better the treats. This means your dog walks will take longer initially, but what you will have is a long-term solution.
3. Use the Right Restraint: Head Halter
It is essential to identify the right collar and to ensure it is properly attached. A head halter is very effective because it turns the attention of the dog immediately. Dogs are led by their senses, the main organs being the nose, eyes and ears. The reason why the head halter is superior to the other types of collars and restraints is that it attaches to this part of the head.
As a result, these halters require very little effort to bring your pet under control. The effect is almost instantaneous. A most unruly dog can be brought to submission and led away with nothing more than a finger. This has been proven practically. Moreover, these halters are not as restrictive as ordinary muzzles because your dog still retains the freedom to use its mouth if it wants to.
Whereas one has to exercise much physical force to restrain an undisciplined dog with regular collars, a head halter is a considerable relief. Rather than forcibly compelling the dog to stop tugging or pulling, undesired behavior is simply interrupted by diverting the main sensory receptors. Head halters that are most effective for this type of training include the Haiti Head Halter, the Gentle Leader, the Snoop Loot. if your dog attempts to wander off, you do not have to strain to regain its attention by raising your voice or punishment.
When trying to stop your dog from tugging at the leash, it is best to avoid using electronic collars, prong collars and choke chains which tend to control by punishment. Also, if the dog is uncooperative, a neck collar could make things worse because it means constantly applying pressure on the neck and trachea which can lead to physiological damage.
An excellent solution to this is the Easy Walk Harness which avoids pain and injury by using the dog’s own momentum to correct its movements. The harness is attached to the chest and not to the neck and so there is no risk of choking or injury. The dog senses the shift in the harness and adjusts its pace and direction accordingly, before tension on the leash sets in. The harness uses the martingale loop which allows for flexibility in the strap when walking, so all twisting is avoided. Pulling and tugging are discouraged and the dog is much more comfortable.
4. Be Consistent
One way to ensure the lessons are properly ingrained is to carry a treat pouch with you when you take your dog for a walk. Each time the dog corrects its behavior and moves back to your pace, it receives a reward. Petting, verbally complimenting, or giving the dog a toy are also ways of reinforcing the proper behavior pattern.
Whichever method you find most effective, your main goal is to create a dual association between the slackening of the leash and the reward. You are limiting the dog’s choices to two alternatives: Either it continues making unsuccessful attempts to get away, or settles back to your pace receives its reward. Once the options are clear, your pet will start choosing the latter by default.
As the dog gets more and more cooperative, begin increasing the time intervals between rewards. The more obedient the dog becomes, the less the need for treats and other rewards. In a short while, the dog should be able to complete entire walks without tugging.
In the beginning, it is, therefore, necessary to pay close attention and not to be distracted yourself. The reward conditioning must be consistent to avoid creating an impression of instances where it does not apply. The cause-effect relationship has to be maintained. Once the leash becomes tight, the walk ceases and there is no reward. Once this conditioning is established, your dog will naturally prefer to walk by your side at your pace.
Some dogs tug at the leash even when it is uncomfortable and painful for them. It could be that the animal came from a place where dogs were treated harshly and as a result, is accustomed to discomfort and pain. The leash is seen as an addition to a string of irritations that the dog to contend with. This is one reason why it is not advisable for you to keep yanking at the leash as this can lead to physiological damage.
Pets that manifest aggressive behavior due to such backgrounds need to go through a behavioral process that undoes the effects of the past and sets them upon a new course. Jerking the leash backwards in order to control them is not only counterproductive, it reinforces the aggression the owner is trying to stop.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Michael Duncan (author) from Germany on March 13, 2021:
Thanks for your feedback, Liz. Yes indeed, dogs are wonderful companions, but having descended from grey wolves, their natural instincts can take over and get the better of them if they not well trained.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 25, 2021:
A strong dog can have quite a pull. It’s especially dangerous for older and weaker people, who risk serious injury if they get pulled over. You give useful tips in this interesting article. I shall bear them in mind next time I walk a dog.