By Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot TTouch llc
Pulling is a very common complaint—and it comes from both ends of the leash. Yes, dogs would rather walk on a loose leash too! When pulling causes annoyance, frustration, pain, and fear of falling, “pully” dogs often get shorter and fewer walks. And then, inadequate exercise and exploration time can give rise to new behavior issues.
Many people (including some trainers) believe the answer is more physical control by jerking (“corrections”) and/or maintaining a tight leash. Some try to make their dog heel obediently and Watch Me. After seven years of TTouch and other expert training, plus experience, I say Heel no! Being tightly restricted, especially on the throat, simply makes a dog feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and more edgy. That’s why the command-and-control approach can make things even worse.
The solution is to help your dog control himself by using these tools and principles—which conveniently all begin with C:
Here’s what’s missing from the usual approach to pulling.
Balance = Safety and Calm
Being balanced makes dogs feel safe, which is their first priority. Physiology links balance to calmness and thinking, so then they become less inclined to pull, more able to pay attention and respond to you.
Picture a dog who is throwing his weight forward, struggling against the pressure of the leash, muscles straining, maybe gasping for breath. The dog—and probably the handler too—is way off balance and full of physical and mental tension. What’s more, they are in conflict with each other.
In dogs, tension and imbalance quickly lead to over-arousal, especially in the presence of his triggers. (See my April 2016 post on reactivity on leash). And consider that a tight leash also communicates that YOU are tense, escalating your dog’s stress.
Contrast that picture with this one: The leash hangs (dips) between dog and handler. There is no tension, no pressure to resist. Both immediately feel calmer and more relaxed because they are now able to stand in balance and walk naturally. They are walking together in a connected way.
Some say that they tried a harness and it “didn’t work.” Balance is a function of how the harness fits and how you use the leash. A well-designed harness fits above the shoulders, below the throat, and does not cut into the armpits.
The most effective harness for a strong or chronic puller has two leash rings: on the front of the chest and on top of the shoulders, providing two points of contact. Dogs who are heavier and stronger than their owners may also benefit from a Calming Band or head halter.
Using two points of contact—with either two leashes or a double-clip leash (a clip at each end)—makes it much easier to keep your dog balanced, calm, and able to focus more on you and less on the environment.
Connection = Calm and Focus
Dogs who chronically pull are paying no attention at all to the person at the other end of the leash. This is partly because they are off balance, but also too full of energy, excited, fearful, or over-stimulated by the environment. It is absolutely not because they are “blowing you off,” trying to control the walk or control you.
Having a mental connection with each other means your dog is always aware of your presence and frequently checking in (making eye contact). He cannot do that if he is choking on a tight collar or 15-20 feet ahead of you on a retractable leash. But he is very likely to do so if you reinforce that desirable behavior with smiles, praise, and a treat whenever he does look at you.
You can start getting this behavior by practicing walking together, starting indoors or in your yard, and using a sound that immediately snaps your dog’s head around to look up at you, like the kissy sound or a whistle. (Rapid tongue clicks, which some people use to get attention, was found by noted ethologist and author Patricia McConnell) to encourage horses and dogs to speed up!) The more you reinforce that look, the more he will do it voluntarily.
Changing what your dog wears, focusing on physical balance and mental connection, and practicing a gentle brake-and-release may be all you need to make leash walks a pleasure instead of a chore.
Here’s what’s going wrong with leash walks that actually cause or contribute to pulling.
Top Five Mistakes
1. Using the wrong equipment
a. attaching the leash to the collar
b. poorly designed harness
c. retractable leash
d. choke and prong collars
a. & d. Steady pressure increases stress, tension, and arousal. And pressure on the throat can cause serious neck injuries and chronic health issues—not to mention dog frustration and possibly aggression. (See Dogmantics's Is it harmful to attach a leash to your dog's neck? and Peter Dobias's One Jerk Can Cause A Lot of Damage)
b. Meaning that it presses on the throat, restricts the shoulders, and/or cuts into the armpits—or it is easy to back out of.
c. Seems like a good idea, but actually very dangerous and reinforces pulling! See Mercola's Healthy Pets' Retractable Dog Leash
d. These are designed to cause pain to reduce pulling, but many dogs learn to override the pain, causing terrible injuries. Prong or pinch collars are outlawed in some countries. Also, the pain becomes associated with whatever he is focused on when he feels it.
2. Going out the door in an over-aroused state of mind
Starting out with calmness and connection (meaning able to stand quietly and look around, then look at you) can improve the walk dramatically. Don’t nag, just wait for your dog to disengage and reconnect with you. You may need to sit down just outside the door, to let your dog know nothing is happening until he calms down. This is an important life lesson.
3. Inconsistent Reinforcement and Cues
a. sometimes (or always!) following when the dog drags their person along
b. keeping pressure on constantly, giving the dog a very mixed message
c. nagging or unclear cues
a. Pulling is reinforced when the dog gets to go faster or reach something interesting
b. Think of tightening the leash as braking—and don’t drive with the brakes on. After stopping, let out a bit of slack so the dog can stand in balance. Exhale. Then either (1) wait for him to look back at you, (2) encourage him back to your side before proceeding, or (3) turn in the opposite direction and offer a treat when he catches up with you.
c. Clear, consistent cues work better.
4. Rough and unsafe leash handling
a. pulling to steer or yanking on it
b. dog is stopped suddenly by hitting end of leash, causing whiplash effect
c. holding leash arm fully extended, like a water skier
d. winding the whole leash around one hand to get the dog at your side (uh-oh!)
If using a regular 6-ft. leash, hold it in both hands. Let’s assume you are right-handed and walk your dog on your left side. Put the loop over the right wrist and close that hand down on the leash. Now hold the leash loosely in your left hand, palm up, so it can slide through to signal Slow Down. If your harness has a top-of-shoulders attachment, just lift that hand to apply light pressure, signaling Stop. Ease off the pressure after stopping. A big exhale at this point will likely get your dog’s attention and help both of you relax. Your posture and breathing affect your dog, positively and negatively.
5. Ignoring when the dog does walk on a loose leash and reconnects with you
Always take small, tempting treats with you, and be prepared to notice and reward for these desirable behaviors! I promise, you will get more of both and therefore less pulling. Some dogs would be rather be rewarded by permission to Go Sniff or Go Say Hi to a friend. Just go with him so the leash remains loose.
If you need extra help to learn and teach your dog to walk nicely, find a positive trainer who knows several gentle methods. Don’t listen to anyone (even a trainer) who tells you to jerk the leash or use aversive equipment to control your dog.
Most of these tools are available from the online store at TTouch.com, including double-clip leashes and sliding handles. And I have most of this equipment in most sizes.
I’m not a fan of head halters because nearly every model has the clip hanging under the dog’s face, because most dogs hate them at first, and because it can hurt the neck if the handler pulls on the leash to steer or stop the dog. It’s safer and gentler to also use a body harness. One model that’s different is the Perfect Pace by Bold Lead Designs, but I am still testing it.
Lisa serves on our Board and is instrumental in helping keep our animals happy!