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How to stop your dog from pulling on the lead

Jack Russell pulling on a lead held by little boy

Positive reinforcement training helps your dog learn to walk nicely by your side.

© alexei_tm - Shutterstock

Tired of being dragged down the road by your dog? Here we look at why dogs pull on the lead and the steps you can take to train loose lead walking.

By Greta Inglis

Updated on the 16/03/2021, 11:26

Walking a dog that pulls on the lead is stressful and tiring, as any dog owner who has experienced this knows. The constant pulling is uncomfortable for you and for your dog, not to mention dangerous if they make a sudden move in the wrong direction. Pulling can also add pressure to your dog’s hips, neck and throat.

Taking a dog for a walk is extremely important, but of course you want this moment to be enjoyable for you and your dog. This is why teaching a dog not to pull on the lead is necessary. Here, you will learn how to teach your dog to walk on a lead. If your dog is already a puller, read on, as we also look at how to get your dog to stop pulling on the lead.

Why do dogs pull on the lead?

Dogs that pull on the lead typically only do so because they have never been taught otherwise. The world is full of smells and sounds that are fascinating to your dog and wanting to investigate them is just normal canine curiosity. If your dog has never been taught to walk next to you, pulling is natural behaviour. Unless shown otherwise, dogs learn that by pulling, you follow, and they ultimately reach where they want to go.

By nature, dogs tend to move quickly and in varying directions. Have you ever watched your dog’s behaviour on walks? Try this next time you’re out with your dog. You’ll notice how they move quickly and in lots of different directions, exploring from one side of the path to another. Walking in a straight line, unless your dog has been trained to do so, is not a natural behaviour for your dog.

Dogs also experience a factor known as ‘oppositional reflex’. This is a response of the body to lean away from the direction it’s being pulled in, in order to maintain balance.

How to stop your dog pulling on the lead- Step by Step

A dog that pulls on the lead is not trying to be ‘top dog’. Walking is exciting and stimulating, and they’re just trying to enjoy the experience as quickly as possible.

Step one to stop your dog pulling: positive reinforcement for walking by your side

Begin this stage of the training process at home, or in non-exciting areas. For consistency, pick the side you’d like train your dog to walk on. Use treats to encourage your dog into position on the side you choose, holding the remaining treats and lead in the opposite hand.

With a loose lead, take a step forward, and reward your dog immediately for walking forward with you. Offer treats for each consecutive step initially, and make sure the dog receives their reward immediately.

Hold the treats slightly behind you during training sessions. If you hold them in front of you, your dog may pull forward or cross over in front of you to try and get to them!

Initially, reward each step your dog takes by your side. Your dog will learn that walking in this zone equals tasty treats. As they get the hang of the game, you can reduce the rewards gradually, increasing the number of steps between walking and reward. If you reduce this too quickly or without variation to the pattern of reward, your dog may stop offering this behaviour. As your dog gets more consistent with walking on a loose lead, you can increase distractions in the environment.

Step two: staying still teaches your dog pulling gets them nowhere

If your dog starts pulling outside of the loose leash zone, stop as soon as there is tension on the lead.  Stand totally still, and wait for your dog to wonder what’s going on. As soon as they look back or move towards you, reward any slack on the lead with a treat from behind your leg, and move forward. This offers two forms of reinforcement, as your dog not only receives food, but also the opportunity to move forward, which was their intention all along.

You are teaching your dog that walking next to you results in only good things!

Step three: dictating direction to encourage loose lead walking

Direction can be very helpful if you feel your dog is getting overexcited and pulling forward. As your dog moves outside of the loose leash zone, turn and call your dog to you. ‘This way’ or ‘with me’ can work well. As your dog comes to catch up with you, reward them just behind your left or right knee, depending on the side you choose, and continue reinforcing their manners on lead.

Choosing direction for your dog and leading them to interesting spots to explore and sniff, can also work as a strong reinforcer. Your dog isn’t being prevented from the exciting moments of a walk, they just need to be walking next to you to get to them.

Now we’ve covered why dogs pull, here’s how you can help teach your dog to walk on a loose lead.

Lead training your dog: what’s important to remember?  

Consistency is key. It can be frustrating to practice loose-lead walking when you’re in a hurry. Try to remember, consistency really is key when training your dog. Behaviours that are reinforced, even intermittently, will be remembered by your crafty canine.

Tire your dog out before training. This may sound counterintuitive but tiring your dog out before any lead training can actually be a huge help. Exercise and brain games will result in a calmer companion, making it easier to reinforce good behaviour and maintain focus during training.

Observe your dog: check the function of behaviour. Your dog pulling on the lead may be an indication of stress and anxiety or reactivity. If your dog lunges forward or pulls back in fear, addressing these issues before training is essential for their welfare.

What equipment works for loose lead training? 

Ensuring your dog is wearing the right walking equipment for them, can go a long way with loose leash walking. Whether you choose a collar or harness for your dog, it is important to make sure this is comfortable and not too tight.

Prong collars and choke chains stop your dog from pulling by punishing the behaviour. They can cause pain and frustration and do not teach the dog how to walk nicely on a lead. Dogs that stop pulling when wearing one of these, often revert straight back to the behaviour as soon as it’s removed. Teaching your dog through positive reinforcement, will build a bond and avoid discomfort.

If a harness is your equipment of choice, work on building positive associations for your dog. You can do this by encouraging their engagement with the harness through food rewards and verbal praise, gradually building up the amount of contact your dog has with the harness.

A chest-led harness can be a great tool for very strong dogs, as this works to distribute the pressure evenly. The front and back rings can both be attached to a lead, offering you more control. The front ring guides the dog around when pulling on the leash, which makes this a good piece of equipment in conjunction with training techniques. Safety is important, and if your dog is big and strong, this may be an option worth considering.

Flexi and extendable leads can reinforce the act of pulling, as the dog gets further freedom when they pull the lead forward. A flat lead is the best option for lead training.

Teaching your dog to walk nicely by your side will take time and patience, particularly if they have been used to pulling to get where they want for some time. Practice does make perfect, and never more so than with this kind of training. Keep up the consistency, build on distractions slowly, and reward your dog when they walk without pulling on the lead. You’ll find the fun of walks returns quickly, and your dog (and your arms) will thank you for it.

Frequently asked questions

Should I use a harness or a collar for my dog?

How can I get my dog to come back when called?

How often should I walk my puppy?