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Dog Behaviour >>PULLING ON THE LEASH

Is this how it looks when you walk your dog.. OK well maybe not quite that bad but you get the picture

I would suggest watching the video clip that I’ve linked to at the end.  It will show you a problem dog and a very similar rehabilitation process.  Then the text will just serve as a step by step to do list!

When people decide to get a dog it is often for the companionship and relaxation that they imagine the dog will bring into their life.  We picture walking in a park with the leash dangling at our side and our canine companion walking beside us. Unfortunately, dogs don’t come with a walk nice button.  I found that out when I adopted my dog Buddy.  Our first walk was more like the picture above than the mental imaginings I had hoped for.  He was pulling me here and there with no real interest in me…  just the smell on the next bush, or the other dog across the street.  Not only that, he was pulling so hard he was choking himself with the collar.  I had to wrap the leash in my hand so he wouldn’t get away and work hard not to get pulled off my feet.  Needless to say, things needed to change.  I had to train him to walk nicely with a loose leash.

Pulling is not only annoying, it is dangerous.  The choking can create problems with the dog’s windpipe and put unnecessary strain on their joints and muscles.  They might get away and end up in traffic, in fights with other dogs, or even lost.  Dogs can injure owners by pulling them off their feet or tripping them.  From a veterinary point of view, if your dog has to be hospitalized or becomes injured, it may be difficult to walk the dog without creating stress or even worsening injuries.  But, don’t despair, dogs are extremely trainable.  Everyone can have the experience of a calm, relaxing walk with their canine companion!  Old or young, your dog can learn to walk on a leash without pulling.  Old dogs can learn new tricks… 

Walking has many benefits for you and your dog.  It is a wonderful bonding experience with your dog and will reinforce your position as a great boss.  It is, of course, super exercise and hopefully it will soon be relaxing.  It is also important for the mental health of your dog.  Although it takes a long walk to tire a dog, the steady pace has the same relaxing benefit for your dog as it has for you.  It can also help dogs with behaviour problems resulting from boredom and lack of exercise.  Increased exercise is often the first step in treating any behaviour problem.

Why do dogs pull?

Most dogs have a lot of energy and may not be getting enough exercise.  So, when it is walk time they are overly excited to get out and go somewhere.  Generally, if your dog has not been taught to heel, he/she will want to take the leadership role and be out front.  The dog pulls, the owner follows and the dog simply thinks he/she has to pull the owner around to get somewhere.  So, the pulling is rewarded by the owner following and on it goes. 

What are your options:

  • Consult your veterinarian and ask for referral to a behaviourist.
  • Formal obedience or manners classes (classes that are not dominance and punishment based) are suggested.  Having a trainer to help you and a safe environment to practice in is very beneficial but you'll still need to practice at home.
  • Do it yourself folloiwng the suggestions below.

THE RETRAINING PROCESS:

I would highly recommend getting your dog a head collar.  I found it to be extremely useful in training my dog.  The “Introduction to Head Collars Article” discusses how to get your dog used to a head collar.

The benefit of the head collar is that its takes the power away from the dog. They can’t get their shoulders behind it like they can with a harness or collar.  It also allows you to turn the dog’s head so you can make eye contact and does not put any pressure on the windpipe so it stops the choking that occurs on a regular leash. Any collar used incorrectly can be dangerous and you can hurt their neck if you pull too hard or let them get a lot of slack and then pull suddenly.  Keep this in mind and only use with a 4-5 foot leash and be kind and fair with it.  Most head collars come with directions and sometimes even a video that should be followed carefully.  Also make sure that the head collar has a safety strap so that if the dog removes the collar, it will still be attached to a flat collar.

Do not use extendable leashes or regular harnesses as both encourage pulling.  Some harnesses are designed to stop pulling and this is an option but I still prefer the head halter since you can also use it to get the dog to focus on you.

During the first part of the training period, find an alternate way of exercising the dog vigorously for 20 – 40 minutes before your lesson followed by a 10 - 15 minute calming down period. This will ensure your dog is in a good learning frame of mind and reduce any pent up energy the dog may have. This could be a good game of fetch, a play in the back yard, a swim in a pool etc.  If your dog doesn’t seem to tire out or settle down with the exercise session, then delay the training for a little while after the session until a time when the dog is calmer and more relaxed.

Also, make sure the dog is hungry before the session so that he/she will be motivated to do what you ask to get the treats. So this might mean a small change in your feeding schedule.

Keep training sessions short and fun. I would suggest no longer than 10 minutes at first. This will help keep the dog focussed. Once the dog is heeling well, the goal would be to work up to 20 – 40 minute walks twice per day. For puppies less than 6 months, try 5 – 10 minutes two or three times per day for best results as their attention span will be quite short. 

Training dogs not to pull:

You will need training treats. Because you will be using a lot of treats at first, a moist treat of any kind less than ½ the size of a thumb nail works best. Any time the dog does walks in the proper position you will give verbal praise and a treat (or use a clicker and click then treat).  Proper position is with his/her head at your knee and facing forward just like his/her human.

  • Start in the house with your head collar and leash on.  Traditionally, the dog would be encouraged to walk on your left side but if you have no ambition to do formal obedience it doesn’t really matter which side the dog goes on.
  • Start walking forward with a treat in a closed fist at your side so the dog can smell it but can’t take it. 
  • Move forward and say ‘let’s go’ or ‘heel’ in a friendly happy voice while pulling gently on the leash.
  • If your dog follows even just a step, praise and give a treat. 
  • If your dog doesn’t follow or pulls, just keep gently pulling the leash and encouraging the dog to move into position.  Once the dog is in heel position with his head at your knee, give a treat and praise.
  • If the dog goes ahead of you, turn around and walk the other direction and encourage the dog to catch up to heel position and then give him/her a treat.
  • Every time the dog gets out front, do a large circle or change in direction and reward when the dog gets back into position.
  • After the dog understands the game then hide the treats and give a reward every 5 – 10 steps. Rewards should be given from the hand on the side the dog is on. So, if the dog is on the left, the reward comes from the left hand. The leash should be held in the right hand draped across the front of your body.
  • Any time the dog is pulling, just pull the leash off to the side a little and wait for the dog to release and follow and give a treat when in position.
  • Keep progressing until you can walk a route all through the house and maybe even up and down some stairs before they get a treat. 
  • Once this is really good, go for a walk in the yard at a time when there is likely to be few distractions.  Follow the same routine as above.  If the dog gets distracted, just keep walking and when the dog comes back into position, praise and treat as above. 
  • If the dog is getting distracted a lot, try a quicker pace, changing directions and/or zig zags to get things back on track. Try not to get frustrated and don’t ask for too much too soon!  Hang in there and it will come together.
  • Once this is good in the yard then start walks outside the yard.  At first pick times and routes where there will be little distraction and then progress to more challenging routes.  The final challenge would be to walk beside a dog park fence or by a yard or area where you have had difficulties in the past. 
  • At times, your dog may find some distraction overwhelming and things might seem to be going backward.  If this happens, give a small firm tug on the leash (just enough pressure to get the dog’s attention) and turn and walk the other direction continuing to pull gently until the dog catches up.  Once the dog catches up…. give a treat. This is using a correction along with a positive reward and tends to speed the process greatly. Be firm and fair and if you find yourself loosing patience just keep telling yourself that this is what you need to do to help your dog be happy!  The leash should be dangling between corrections, i.e. don’t make the dog heel by keeping the leash short just keep following the process until the dog chooses to heel.  Dogs will tend to pull against pressure until you prove to him/her that your way has benefits!
  • Once the dog is performing very consistently then you can do the intermittent rewards and keep spacing them out until you don’t even need them.  Start using praise more and more.
  • If you are finding that you aren’t successful then seek the help of a behaviourist, professional trainer and/or obedience class.  If you give in and give up when the dog is behaving badly, you will make the dog worse!
  • Do not expect to start every session where you left off yesterday.  I found that things would progress quite nicely but every once in a while Buddy would have a bad day.  If that happens, go back to more frequent treats and easier exercise and work your way back up.
  • End every session with your dog’s favourite thing… whether that is his/her favourite toy, scratching session, game he/she likes etc.  Lots of praise and a positive learning environment goes a long way!

If you are opposed to using treats, your dog cannot have treats, or your dog is not really interested in treats, then use lots of praise and the correction process described above.  The key is to be consistent.

Occasionally a dog that is stubborn or fearful will lock up and put on the brakes and even pull back and tug on the leash.  Just hold the leash firmly or even pull off to one side gently and continue to encourage the dog to come with you.  If you give in, you will have rewarded the dog for struggling and taught him/her to pull harder.  So in this situation, I might start by giving the treat if the dog releases the pressure on the leash even a little bit.  Then work from that point until he/she releases the pressure and takes a step or two.

Keep in mind that the dog may have been in charge on the walk for years so he/she may be a little stressed and unhappy that the rules are changing at first.  This is normal.  It is like events in your life that were difficult or obstacles you had to work hard to overcome.   At first these situations are stressful but in the end you learn and grow from them immensely and you are glad they happened.  Help your dog through this so he/she will be happier and healthier and you can enjoy walks and go more places together.  The sense of satisfaction and pride in your dog will be enormous.  Your relationship with your dog will improve and you will be pleased at how he/she still loves to go for walks!

Happy walking to you and your pet.

Dr. Liana Mawer

Other sources:

This video shows a dog which pulls because it is aggressive towards other dogs.  It shows how to use the head halter and also shows the progression of the training.  Dr. Yin is a behaviourist and has perfect timing and a very calm manner throughout.   She is not yelling or jerking but patiently persisting.  Watch this video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUCl6ndLN7Q