Leash walking, as I watch handlers work with their dogs, seems to be one of the hardest behaviors to establish. I have thought a lot about this and my theory is that it is difficult because there is nothing natural about leash walking. Dogs in the wild sit, down, and stay, but in the wild there is never a rope attached to them.
Why do dogs pull?
Overly simple answer is because we follow. Even as puppies they pull toward something and we are tired because of a hard day at work or maybe we feel guilty because we have been gone all day at work and the leash time is “time for them” and say oh okay Sparky you can go see whatever that is you’re pulling to and then we are dragged behind.
A common thing taught in the dog world by trainers is to pop (or snap) the leash when your dog starts to pull. First of all, if you have a puppy or a dog that you’ve never taught this new behavior, doing this I believe is unfair. Can you imagine learning a new skill on the job and every single time (before your trainer explained) you did something incorrect so the on the job training person slapped your hand. I think that stress would kick in and thus you will not be in the optimal mind for learning.
What has worked for me?
Premack Principle simply stated is you give me what I want and then I will give you what you want. So in other words, Sparky if you walk on a loose leash I will allow you to sniff the hydrant that I see you desire to sniff.
Being patient. If you start out on a walk in a hurry you will give in and just let your dog pull because you want to hurry up and get home anyway.
Establishing focus. The leash attached to your dog doesn’t make him great on a leash. You as a team learning how to pay attention to each other make for great leash walking. When walking with my golden retriever chow mix I decided that every time she looked up at me I would praise and treat, thus reinforcing the behavior of attention. I ended up training a heel with a watch!
Not reinforcing the pull. It’s important as a handler that you aren’t walking in autopilot mode. You must be sure that you are aware on a walk. Am I struggling with my dog? Are we playing “tug of war” with the leash? Am I walking without struggle? Does this feel comfortable to me? And make adjustments accordingly.
Working towards polite leash walking is not an easy task, but well worth being patient as you establish focus, build your team relationship, and continue to reinforce what you want (loose leash) rather than what you don’t want. Keep with it!
Michelle Huntting, CPDT-KA, ABCDT
Certified Pet Dog Trainer