Excessive Leash Pulling: Why, And How To Prevent It

Why do Dogs Pull?

Understanding why your dog pulls is essential to stopping the pulling. While it may seem obvious that a dog pulls because they want to be further from you than the leash will allow, this perspective really simplifies the situation.

Understanding your dog’s motivations in pulling will help you motivate them not to pull. Here are some reasons that dogs pull.

Dogs with Excess Energy or Who Lack Self-Control

Dogs with too much pent-up energy may simply be unable to contain themselves on the leash. Such dogs may obey commands briefly, but they will clearly be barely in control of themselves. They may be able to walk without pulling through extensive training, but it will be an act of extreme self-control every second. It is not practical to try to train an extremely energetic dog to walk well on the leash without first draining their energy.

Dogs Who Pull to Get to Something

Some dogs pull only when they are focused on something. Dogs that walk on a loose leash most of the time but pull intensely when they see another dog, person, or prey item need to be taught self-control around their triggers.

No amount of exercise or leash training will help the behavior around your dog’s triggers if the triggers are not present when you’re training them. It is important to identify what your dog is responding to, so you can train them to respond calmly.

Dogs Who Don’t Know Not to Pull

Dogs that have never worn a leash or never been taught how to walk properly on a leash don’t realize that the pulling sensation on their neck means anything at all.

While it may seem intuitive to you that pressure on your neck should cause you to want to relieve that pressure, this is not necessarily intuitive to dogs at all. In fact, since many dog breeds were originally developed to pull loads, many dogs are predisposed to think that pulling is in fact exactly what you want them to do.

Dogs that pull as if this is simply the way walking is done, regardless of how much exercise they get, need to learn a new way of responding to the leash.

Dog Pulling from Fear or Anxiety

Dogs that are terrified to be in a given environment or out on a leash will pull continuously. This may be because they are trying to bolt away, or it may be because they feel the pressure of the harness or collar as a sort of security in their anxiety. Regardless, dogs that pull because of fear are unlikely to respond to most forms of motivation or correction.

Retractable Leashes, Rubber Leashes, and Tight Leash Walking

Retractable leashes that always put a little bit of pressure on your dog or rubber leashes that pull back against your dog encourage them to pull harder. If you’ve been walking your dog on tools like these, they may have encouraged them to think that pressure is correct.

Walking your dog on a tight leash, regardless of what kind of collar or harness it is attached to, will encourage your dog to think that a tight leash is the appropriate way to walk and they will encourage pulling.

How to Stop Your Dog from Pulling on the Leash

Whatever the reason for your dog’s pulling, you aren’t alone in wanting to stop it. Pulling is one of the most common complaints among dog owners and one of the reasons that dogs end up being surrendered to shelters. Pulling is a serious problem that can result in chronic or sudden injury to you or your dog.

Many people are seriously injured every year when their dog pulls them down. If your dog is aggressive and you lose control of them due to their pulling, other people or pets may be at risk. Your dog’s pulling isn’t just an annoyance – it is a serious problem that you need to address.

But, don’t worry – with a little bit of patience and understanding, you will be able to master your dog’s pulling.

Before You Begin

Regardless of why your dog pulls or what technique you use to resolve the problem, it is essential that you have a plan in place and the proper equipment to set you and your dog up for success. A successful walk may be as simple as using the right tools in the right way or providing the correct before-walk activities for your dog. Here are some things to consider before you begin training your dog to not pull on the leash.

Equipment

Corrective Dog Walking Devices

There are a wide range of products available to help your dog walk on a leash. Since this is such a persistent problem, there are a lot of products claiming to solve it easily. But no product offers a true quick fix. Whatever product you use, you will still need to train your dog to walk properly with it.

What NOT to Use

Products that rely on causing pain or discomfort, like prong collars and choke chains, have no place in positive dog training. Such tools will only encourage your dog to ignore pain and pressure and elevate their reactivity.

Front clip harnesses are sometimes suggested as a good solution to help pulling. Front clip harnesses pull your dog to the side, rather than allowing them to put their weight into the harness. If you have ever walked your dog with a chest clip harness, you may have noticed that when they pull hard, one leg lifts almost entirely off the ground. This is why these harnesses are successful – because they make it impossible for dogs to really dig in and pull.

On the other hand, there are concerns that this kind of pressure and change of gait could result in long-term problems. Some researchers and veterinarians have some concern around using front clip harnesses. Studies have found that dogs wearing a no-pull front clip harness carry their weight differently, even if the harness isn’t attached to a leash.

In this research, when the dog pulled against the no-pull harness, the weight distribution was much more pronounced. It may be better to choose a rear-clip harness, or use a head halter if you need more control over your dog.

What to Use

If you are able to handle your dog’s pulling, a good standard tool with which to walk your dog is a standard back clip harness paired with a Martingale collar. The harness distributes pressure when your dog pulls, so they won’t be hurt, no matter how hard they pull. The martingale collar provides security to keep your dog from slipping out of the harness.

If you are concerned about losing control of your powerful dog on a walk while you are still training, a head halter is a good option. Head halters give you control over your dog’s head and allow you to control even a very powerful dog with minimal effort, without putting pressure on your dog’s sensitive throat.

When used properly, the head halter can give you control over your dog, so you can train them to walk nicely and safely.

Exercise

Most dogs were made for a lot more exercise than a stroll around the block. It takes a lot of self-control for a dog to hold themself in on a walk when all they really want to do is run and exert energy. Give your dog plenty of exercise before they walk, to set them up for success.

Motivating Your Dog Not to Pull

You aren’t always motivated by the same thing and neither is your dog. Sometimes you feel like eating, sometimes like playing, and sometimes you may just feel you need a physical touch from a loved one to help you to feel confident.

Just like us, dogs are motivated by different things at different times. Finding what motivates your dog in any given instant will allow you to reward them for not pulling. Keep treats and toys on hand when walking your dog and remember that freedom to keep walking is also an important reward.

Pulling is NEVER allowed

Even positive tools that reduce pulling, like the no-pull head harness or a head halter, can do damage to a dog if they pull against them in the wrong way or chronically, over time. Dogs will also damage themselves pulling on a flat buckle collar, martingale collar, or any other collar.

The only completely safe containment for dogs who pull is a standard harness that clips in the back and puts pressure on their chest and shoulders, instead of on their neck. Such harnesses will not prevent pulling and, in fact, most dogs enjoy pulling against them.

In order to create a safe and enjoyable walk for you and your dog, it is essential that you create an environment in which pulling is never allowed, regardless of what kind of restraint you use. Stop or change directions whenever your dog pulls. Even if you only occasionally reward pulling by allowing your dog to pull you forward, your dog will remember and be set back in training.

If you want to train your dog to pull under certain circumstances, be very clear about when pulling is appropriate, by using a different kind of harness and a command word.

Patience

Training your dog not to pull takes a lot of patience. Especially at the beginning, you may find it incredibly frustrating to keep having to stop and change directions to encourage your dog not to pull. Letting your dog run out their energy before their walk and making sure that you know how to motivate them once you’re on the walk are good ways to set yourselves up for success.

Even with a careful and methodical plan, you are likely to get frustrated sometimes. Keep your mind open and try new things to motivate your dog and to exercise them and remember that not pulling is not intuitive to your dog and that self-control takes time to learn.

Beginning Leash Training

If you are working with a dog who has never worn a leash before, you should start the process as you would with a puppy. Starting with a long leash, call your dog to you and reward them. As your dog gets the idea that they should follow you, begin leading them into new environments, where you can show them interesting new smells.

In this way, your dog will learn that following you leads to good things. If your dog goes in a direction that you don’t want them to go in, offer very gentle resistance on the leash, as you call them cheerfully. Reward them with the best rewards when they come when you pull.

Stop Pulling for Each Of The Core Reasons

The Steps

Regardless of why your dog pulls, the steps to stopping the pulling when it occurs are the same. This technique is not difficult, but it requires patience and consistency, in order to be effective.

  1. Begin walking with your dog briskly. Slow down and let your dog sniff if they want to sniff.
  2. As soon as your dog puts tension on the leash, stop. Don’t pull back on the leash, but don’t let your dog pull you at all either.
  3. IF your dog relaxes the tension within a couple of seconds, immediately start walking again. IF your dog doesn’t relax the tension within a couple of seconds, walk briskly in another direction, calling your dog to follow you.

That’s it. Simple, right? If your dog has not had a chance to burn off some energy, or if they are very anxious, they may continue to put pressure on the leash, no matter how often you change directions.

If you find yourself walking in erratic circles, you may need to practice this in an environment with less stimulus or let your dog exercise more before you attempt leash training.

Energy

Energetic dogs pull because they want to relieve their excess energy. It is best to allow them to expend as much energy as possible before you begin your walk. These dogs will benefit from a good long game of fetch or tug of war or by being allowed to run around and play with a friend, before you put the leash on. These dogs are also good candidates for skateboarding or other active dogs sports, to wear out their energy before a walk.

Once your energetic dog has had a chance to get their energy out, you may find that they walk better on the leash right away. They may also respond to other motivators, like treats or affection, that previously had no effect on them.

If your energetic dog would still like to go faster, alternate controlled leash walking with jogging or a pulling activity. In this way, you can reward the calm leash walking with the opportunity to expend their energy.

Dogs That Want Something

Dogs that pull because of a desire to get to a particular trigger, like another dog or prey item, must be taught self-control in the presence of that trigger. Regardless of whether your dog wants to play, has an aggressive drive, or isn’t sure what they want to do, it is important that they are able to walk in a calm state and either pass by or interact with other animals and people calmly.

Dogs with a high prey drive, a lot of dog or person reactivity, or aggressive reactions to specific triggers, like bicycles or cars, may take a lot of time to overcome their responses and stop pulling when they see these triggers.

If you are concerned about the safety of yourself, your dog, or others, you should enlist the help of an animal behaviorist or certified trainer or consider muzzle training your dog before leash training.

Start far enough away from the trigger that your dog will not notice it. Ask your dog to walk nicely and reward them as you go, moving increasingly closer to the trigger and waiting for your dog to notice it. As soon as your dog notices the trigger, call them and reward them for their attention.

If your dog has a negative reaction, go back out of sight of the trigger again and walk for some time until your dog is responding to you again. Keep progressing closer and closer to the trigger, continuously rewarding them for their calm and loose leash behavior and going backwards if there is a pull or strong reaction.

Dogs Who Don’t Know Not to Pull

If your dog has always pulled on the leash and never been taught not to, you need to teach them to notice the tension on the leash and relieve it. When your dog pulls against the leash, stop and change direction, so they have to relieve the tension in order to follow you.

As soon as the leash is slack, reward your dog and walk along with them. When the leash goes tight again, do it again. As your dog gets the idea, you will be able to just stop in order to get your dog to relieve the pressure on the leash. When your dog learns that the pressure is unacceptable, they will relieve it themself.

Dogs Who Pull Because of Fear and Anxiety

In order to teach a dog who experiences fear and anxiety not to pull on a walk, you will need to work with them in an environment in which they do not experience fear and anxiety. This may be inside your home, in your backyard, or in a calm area where you often walk. Your dog should be relaxed enough to walk on a loose leash and be interested in rewards from you.

As you walk, give your dog a command, like “lean”, “sit”, or “down”. Reward your dog for performing whatever activity you choose. This will be their calming activity when they are in a stressful environment. Begin increasing the anxiety of the environment by moving from your usual neighborhood into a new one or into a more stressful situation.

Make sure that you can ask your dog to perform the behavior and that they are interested in receiving the reward. If, at any time, your dog is too afraid to perform the behavior or if they perform it but isn’t interested in any kind of reward, pull back into a more comfortable environment and work with them there again for some time.

It may take a long time before your dog feels comfortable enough to respond to their fear by performing the calming behavior you have taught them, instead of trying to bolt or lean on the leash.

Many fearful dogs are helped by having other more confident dogs around them, so consider taking your dog for pack walks, or walking with a friend to help build their confidence. If the fearfulness is very severe, you may want to talk to your veterinarian about calming medication, or try one of the herbal or pheromone calming products on the market.

Body hugging harnesses and thunder jacket type products are also useful for walking nervous dogs.

1 thought on “Excessive Leash Pulling: Why, And How To Prevent It”

  1. Great read!!! So helpful to read about all the reasons why dogs would be pulling and how to address each situation. Thanks Simon!

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