One of the most common behavioral problems that people complain about is that the dog pulls on the leash. Many dog owners admit they do not enjoy walking their dog because of this problem; some dog owners don't walk their dogs at all because of this problem. Being dragged around by your dog is not only unpleasant but it can be dangerous as well if you hit some ice or get dragged out in front of a car. Or just have your shoulder dislocated.
Why do dogs pull?
Many people are mystified as to why their dog pulls so relentlessly. It looks so very uncomfortable to be half-choked by the collar yet the dog will not stop. Easy answer: people are really slow. Dogs naturally walk much faster than people do, so a normal dog will rapidly hit the end of the leash. Most dogs quickly figure out that if they pull, they can make their owner move faster and the dog can get to where he wants to go faster. People are also not interested in the important things in life, namely the heavenly smells everywhere. Many dogs rapidly learn that the only way they can get over to the smells is to pull, hard. Pulling is also fun for dogs- many dogs love to pull scooters and carts around. To a dog, pulling has no downsides at all. It's nothing but fun.
The strategy: make pulling no fun
To convince your dog to not pull, you have to teach him that pulling gets him nothing fun, and not-pulling gets him all of the fun. We're going to play the basic trade game with the dog: if you do what I want, you will get what you want. Identify what the dog wants: the dog wants to move forward. You want the dog to not pull. So all you have to do is never move forward unless the dog isn't pulling.
Of course that sounds ridiculous to most people. It is, however, the basic strategy for stopping a dog from pulling. This strategy works incredibly well with young puppies- if from day one you never, ever move forward when the puppy is pulling the puppy will rapidly figure out that pulling gets him nowhere, literally.
This is a good point to talk about leashes. We strongly feel that all leashes for walking dogs be a nice sturdy six-foot-long leash. Do not ever even consider using one of those retractable devices. They encourage and teach dogs to pull. You can't control a dog on a retractable leash. They aren't legally considered to be leashes, either- you can get ticketed. If your dog needs to be leashed, he needs a real leash. If you want him to "run around" teach him some solid obedience and find somewhere he can be off-leash.
If you have a puppy (younger than 6 months of age) or a new dog of any age, we suggest simply trying the "we don't move if you pull." If you are very consistent with this strategy most dogs will rapidly learn to stop pulling. If you have an older dog who has spent months or years dragging people around, it will take much longer to reform the dog. Re-training bad habits always takes longer than training the dog right in the first place. If you have a confirmed ADULT puller, we suggest using some equipment to help you.
Our favorite piece of no-pull equipment for adult dogs is the prong collar. It looks barbaric but it is actually a very humane piece of equipment if used correctly. The correct way to use it is to not do anything. Yes, really. We love prong collars because they don't require that the owner learn how to do collar pops or anything at all. You put the prong collar on the dog, attach the leash, and just go for a walk like normal. Do the "we don't move if you pull" strategy, except now whenever the dog tries to pull the collar pinches his neck so pulling becomes even less fun. Dog learns that pulling= neck hurts and also we don't move forward. Pulling is no fun!
Of course there are all sorts of no-pull harnesses and head-halters out there for sale. Certainly you can try one. They may be helpful to you. We have never noticed that these items work to teach a dog to not-pull: as soon as you remove the harness, the dog goes right back to pulling. Not so with a prong collar- dogs well-schooled in not-pulling with a combination of prong collar and "we don't move if you pull" will at some point soon no longer need the prong collar. They will continue to not-pull even in a regular collar.
Choke chains don't help at all with pulling. If used correctly they can be used to teach a dog to heel. It requires a lot of practice to be able to use a choke chain correctly. We do not think they are appropriate pieces of equipment for walking a dog. They can cause severe neck damage.
What about treats?
We are all about using rewards for training dogs, but we think that in the real world you get better results with training doggy manners if you use real-life rewards whenever possible. We find that you will get a much more reliable behavior if you trade a real-life reward your dog naturally wants, like moving forward, for a behavior you want. It never hurts to shower a good dog with good stuff, though, so go right ahead and praise the heck out of your dog when he doesn't pull. Offer that good dog a treat now and again for not-pulling.
What about heeling?
It never hurts to train your dog to heel. Go right ahead and do so if you want to. However, just because a dog knows how to heel doesn't mean he won't pull on the leash. We have seen winning competition obedience dogs dragging their owners around on leash whenever they were released from heel position. We have never noticed that a typical pet owner has any need for their dog to learn how to heel.
Don't dogs need to walk behind their owners?
You may have heard some people claim that if a dog is allowed to walk in front of his owner the dog will think he's the boss, will take over the household and start a terrorist group. Or something along those lines. Let us assure you that dogs really don't think that way. For most people, the easiest way for us to walk dogs is to let them walk out in front of us, where we can see them. As long as they don't pull it's all good. If your dog is slinking along behind you, how can you see if he's about to grab something gross and eat it, stop to poop, or make a sudden effort to commit suicide by flinging himself out in front of a car?
If you're still worried about your dog thinking he's the boss because he's walking in front of you, keep in mind that YOU are still in control of every aspect of the walk. You're controlling how fast you and the dog are moving, you're controlling the direction of the walk, and the dog is being careful to follow your rule about not pulling. Who is the boss here? Not the dog, that's for sure.
We also suggest letting your dog sniff when and where he wants to, at least some of the time. Particularly if he's being really good about not-pulling let him have a life-reward of sniffing. You enjoy the view on the walk, the dog enjoys the smells. Dogs who aren't allowed to sniff don't get much out of their walks, and whose walk is it anyway? We use a warning word when we have had enough of sniffing- say "that's enough, let's go" or whatever words you prefer, and move off briskly.
- Always use a regular 6-foot leash
- Don't move if your dog is pulling
- Add a prong collar if necessary (adult dogs only)
- Trade what you want (no pulling) for what the dog wants (to move forward)