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Dealing with a Leash-pulling Dog

For many owners, walking the family dog is a drag – literally. Rather than a pleasant relaxing stroll with Scruffy, owners are pulled left, right, and forward, fighting their canine every inch of the way.

It makes you wonder: are you walking your dog or is he walking you? Teaching your dog not to pull could be one of the tougher tasks that confront you. This is because dogs are always eager to see what’s ahead and walk much faster than we do. Plus, dogs naturally resist any pressure you may exert to slow them down.

Melissa Bussey, a dog trainer, says pulling is its own reward for a dog. “Remember what the reinforcement is for pulling – you move forward.” Bussey owns and operates Training Tracks Canine Learning Station in College Corner, Ohio.

In the past, choke and prong collars were used to discourage pulling (and to teach commands generally), but trainers are increasingly moving away from such devices. While some still use them, the emphasis is not on inflicting discomfort, but instead rewarding desired behavior (positive, rather than negative, reinforcement). Besides being more humane, positive reinforcement is more likely to be used consistently by owners.

Taking the First Step

Training a dog not to pull on the leash requires time, patience and consistency. However, you can help yourself at the outset by buying a head halter. This brilliant device gives you control over your dog much better than a neck collar, which can damage the dog’s trachea if he pulls hard enough against it.

A head halter lets you control your dog’s movement with a minimum of effort because you control his head, and where the head moves, the body will follow. The halter looks like a nylon-strap muzzle because it goes around your dog’s nose, but it isn’t a muzzle. The halter does not affect your dog’s ability to breathe, chew, drink or pick things up with his mouth. The collar part fits behind your dog’s ears with a loop over the nose. The leash is attached to a metal ring below your dog’s chin.

Trainers and veterinarians widely recommend the product Gentle Leader®, introduced in the 1980s. A similar version is called the Halti®. It’s less easily adjusted than the Gentle Leader head halter, but is simpler to fit. You should double connect your leash to the rings on the Halti and your dog’s collar in case he slips his nose out of the loop. This way, you will still remain connected to your dog if he does “slip the noose.”

Your dog will probably require a little time to get used to a head halter, and may even try to pull it off with his paws. Let him get used to it by walking around the house with it on for an evening or two. Then take him out for a short walk. He will soon learn to associate the head halter with the enjoyable prospect of going for a walk.

When your dog pulls, pressure on his nose will painlessly encourage him to slow down and walk with a loose leash. He will soon learn it’s easier to go with the flow rather than fight.

Training Your Dog Not to Pull

This is the hard part – training your dog not to pull on the leash. Bussey says it is important to take away the reinforcement by “being a tree” – refusing to go forward an inch when he is pulling. Only move forward when the leash is slack. (This applies when using head halters, as well.)

This means you shouldn’t expect to cover much ground at first. You may even give “penalty yards.” When the leash is tight, or your dog is too far ahead, take small fast steps backwards until his attention is back on you.

Bussey says you may wind up back at your starting point. That’s fine as long as the dog gets the idea that pulling is getting him nowhere fast. If your dog gets distracted and moves to the side to sniff or grab something, Bussey says keep walking. As soon as your dog comes back to your side, praise him warmly. Better yet, give him a favorite treat. “Timing is crucial,” she says. “The key is to never let your dog get reinforced for tightening the leash.”

Treats can be very helpful in reinforcing a desired behavior. Every time your dog comes to your side, even if only for a moment, give him a treat immediately with the hand closest to your dog. You may want to reinforce the preferred side your dog should walk on – conventionally, the left. If he comes to your left side, give him a treat from your left hand. You may be able to teach the command of “heel” by saying word as you give your dog the treat. You should make sure he has mastered walking without pulling before moving on to “heel.”

At first, give him a treat at every step. When he seems to be getting the idea, give him a treat at every two steps, then three, four, etc. You should alternate when the treat is given – sometimes at two steps, sometimes at four steps and so on – so your dog does not know whether he needs to walk nicely for one step or 10. Take it slow, and don’t ask for too much too soon.

Bussey recommends using distractions to your advantage. For instance, if your dog pulls toward a friend or an object, back up as described earlier, so there is no tension on the leash. Take steps toward the friend or object only when the leash is slack, backing up whenever your dog pulls. Reward your dog by going toward the object of his desire when he is walking obediently by your side.