9 Reasons Why Dogs Pull on Leash (Part 1 of 2)


If you spend any amount of time observing pet owners with their dog you will notice quickly that very few dogs actually walk along side their owners. Some owners are annoyed and fight the process with very little success, if any. Others finally submit to the fact that they will forever be pulled by their dog and end up willingly going along with the process.

I know what it’s like to be frustrated with leash walking. I know how embarrassing it is when your dog is that dog. I know what it’s like trying to checkout at the pet store or vet office and you are holding three dogs on the leash as you are attempting to make a legible signature on your debit card transaction— it’s not easy.

This week I am going to give nine reasons why dogs pull on the leash and for my next blog I will write about my own training method for leash walking.

1. Reflex

If I pushed you, you would push back. This is a natural human reflex. Dog’s have the same reflex. If they feel pressure, they will immediately apply pressure. We put their collar on, attach the leash, and now we’ve assembled the best combination to create bad habits.

2. If It Feels Right, We Do It

I have been going to the batting cages the last few weekends just to have fun and relax with my friends. I haven’t had a bat in my hands since I was 10, which was 10 years ago, or maybe 20.  Okay it’s been around 20 years since I’ve had a bat in my hands, but immediately I knew what to do. I played fast pitch softball in the “little leagues.” It was during that time that my coach, my sisters, and my dad were always instructing me about my position and swing.


(Now you can criticize my batting stance, haha)

During my batting cage fun, my friend made a recommendation that I change the way I hold the bat. I tried, but it just didn’t feel right and I was incredibly uncomfortable. I realized that I had been so conditioned 20 years ago that I had to do “what felt right.” Dogs do the same with pressure on the leash. For weeks, months, or even years the dog has become accustomed to the pressure when on a walk and then the pressure just starts to “feel right.” He will continue to walk with pressure until you condition a different response. Just like it will take time to change my batting stance, it will take time to recondition a different “feel” for your dog when he’s leashed.

3. Nothing Natural About the Leash

As a trainer, I can easily teach dogs to “sit” or “lie down” on cue fairly quickly, but leash walking is another story. I truly believe that a large part of this is because there is nothing natural about the leash in a dog’s world. In my group classes, I will often hold the leash and “be the dog” so the students can practice the training methods. I don’t really enjoy “being the dog.” I think a big reason is because I don’t know where I am going and when I decide to move one direction, my student decide to move in another. I can see how this could be frustrating for a dog.

4. Handling Skills

In addition to getting pulled in places I don’t want to go when we do the leash exercise, I usually get a yank or come to a quick halt at the end of the leash because the handler doesn’t check in with me or communicate directly with me.  I am sure that dogs feel the same frustration that I experienced.

A lack of handling skills is another reason why dogs pull. The skills of the handler (human) are crucial with the leash. The way the handler applies and releases pressure to the leash communicates to the dog. This is certainly a learned skill. Some people naturally know how to use this tool and others must put some elbow grease into learning it.

The way the handler applies and releases
pressure to the leash communicates to the dog.

5. Lateral Movement is Unnatural

Adult human’s natural desire is to walk in a straight line (lateral). Children and dogs, however, don’t. They are all over the place! A mom of two 3 year olds writing here!!


In the dog world, walking laterally towards another “being” (dog, human, etc) is seen as a threatening move. It’s interesting to me when observing dogs in group class, I typically see a slight curve when the dogs recall across the room or lawn to their owner as they are demonstrating “dog etiquette” to their owner.

6. Stress From the Owner

One of the jokes among dog trainers is “keep your butt cheeks loose.”  I know my mom is probably blushing that I even wrote this on a public blog, but there’s truth (and humor) in it. When we are tense, our muscles are also tense. Staying in tune or checking in with your body is always a good thing for you to do while leash walking. I have been training almost a decade and still have to do this. It happens to the best of us. We hold our breath as well, so make sure your breath touches the bottom of your lungs before you let it out.

Most dogs don’t have a regular job, so they have taken it upon themselves to making you their full time job. They study you and they are very good students. The slightest movement from you can communicate a million things. This is why it’s important for you to breathe because tense muscles or holding your breath will concern your dog and in return raise his stress level.

I think you know what it’s like when you are relaxed and a friend either talks you into a level of stress or because of their body language and tone of voice you begin to become stressed yourself.

Stay aware of your body as it will gauge your stress level.

7. Lack of Reinforcement of What You Want

When students first start training with me, I have them bring a lot of food. I share with them that they need to view their food as money. Every time the dog does exactly what we want, we put a “coin” in the bank account of that behavior. The more money we put in that account of behavior, the stronger the behavior will be. Once your bank account is strong and built you don’t have to continue adding as much money, it’s established and now bringing in interest for you.


Once you’ve established a strong behavior with your dog you will then randomly reinforce with food or other things. There must be a significant amount of time where the behavior is reinforced for you to see the behavior that you want. To learn more about reinforcement check out my blog “Food, Money, and Motivation.

8. Inability to Focus

Many times I hear people talk about their lack of leadership because their dog doesn’t focus when on walks. They are frustrated because their dog doesn’t listen at all when outside, but he does inside. A simple reason for this is because the environment is so rich, stimulating, or stressful that he honestly cannot focus on you. He needs more training to teach him the ability to use his own body to calm himself and think through his excitability.

So for a moment let’s imagine that I go bungee jumping (this would only happen in our imaginations, by the way). While the professionals are suiting me and a friend up for this crazy event, my friend is sharing with me all about the date she had the previous night.  I can almost guarantee that although I would have loved to hear about her experience I wouldn’t remember anything from that conversation. My adrenal glands would be in overdrive and my mind would be stuck on the fact that I was about to jump off a bridge. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to listen to my dear friend; I really wanted to hear about her life, but wasn’t able to in that moment.

In my book Control On Leash I wrote a Protocol for Focus and Relaxation that will help. For a limited time this protocol will be available for free. Click here for protocol.

9. Because You Reinforced What You Didn’t Want

“But once she gets to the person she stops pulling.” Oh, if I could earn a $1 every time I heard this comment!!  My immediate thought is, “Um, yes, it worked.” This behavior served your dog and now you have just reinforced the dog pulling to something she wanted which means it is more likely to occur.

Dog wants to get to person –> pulls on leash to person –> owner follows –> Dog greets person (reinforced for pulling)


Blog written by: Michelle Huntting

Some Tips on Leash Walking


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!
Happy Training,

Michelle Huntting, CPDT-KA, ABCDT
Certified Pet Dog Trainer