Dog Training

Why Your Dog Pulls on Leash & How to Fix it

March 20, 2023

When you got your dog you probably imagined all the fun walks and adventures that you would go on together. Getting outside with our dog is amazing, but not if we’re getting dragged. It’s hard to enjoy a walk when your dog pulls on leash!

As a dog trainer pulling on leash is the most common obedience issue that I’m asked to help with.

In this blog we’re going to cover seven reasons why dogs pull on leash and how to fix them!

If preferred, you can watch the video version of this blog here

Mistake #1: Insufficient exercise

Many dogs are not sufficiently exercised for their breed, and therefore they have a lot of pent up energy.

For example: if you’re only taking a border collie for a 30 minute walk per day as their only chance to exercise, that is not enough. Not even close!

It’s not reasonable to expect your dog to walk nicely beside you if they’re chronically under-exercised.

If you want to successfully train loose leash walking make sure that you burn off some of that excess energy before you go on the walk. Try incorporating short bursts of high intensity exercise such as running in a field, chasing a ball or frisbee, or playing with other dogs before starting training.

Providing adequate exercise is part of being a responsible dog owner. Make sure that you meet your dog’s needs before expecting them to meet yours!

Dog pulls on leash

Mistake #2: Progressing the difficulty too quickly

Many people feel that if their dog can walk nicely on leash in a boring environment, then it should mean that they can walk nicely everywhere. This isn’t true.

The environment majorly affects the difficulty of a skill!

The example that I often give my clients is saying their ABCs. If I asked you to recite the ABCs out loud in your room you could likely do it. When you’re not overwhelmed or distracted saying your ABC’s is a simple task.

Now what if instead I put you on a stage in front of 10,000 people and I asked you to say your ABC’s into a microphone? You’d likely get so overwhelmed or flustered that you’d make a mistake. I know I would.

You KNOW your ABC’s, but where & how you’re asked to execute the task of saying them changes your ability to successfully complete it.

Context matters, a lot!

Dogs are no different. Having your dog walk nicely next to you on boring concrete with no major sounds or distractions around them is dramatically different than walking down a busy road or past another dog. Dogs often pull on leash when they’re put in situations they aren’t ready for (just like we’d mess up our ABC’s in a hard environment!).

For this reason I actually recommend starting loose leash training in your house or in your backyard. Start in situations where your dog can be successful, reward the behavior that you like, and progress the difficulty and distractions slowly. Managing difficulty and threshold is crucial!

How good is a dogs sense of smell?

Mistake #3 is not understanding dog’s sense of smell

Dogs have up to 300 million scent receptors in their nose. How many do we have in comparison? Six million.

The area of a dog’s brain that’s dedicated to processing smells is also 30x larger than ours.

Depending on breed, a dog’s sense of smell is overall about 1000 to 10,000 times better than ours. This might just sound like random trivia, but it has a massive impact on behavior and training!

For dogs, smells can be incredibly distracting on walks AND getting to sniff them is highly rewarding.

I absolutely believe in letting dogs sniff on walks, but we need to be aware of what happens before the sniff. If your dog drags you over to a smell they’ve actually been rewarded for pulling.

Things that get rewarded get repeated!

Make sure when you’re training leash walking you don’t accidentally reward undesired behaviours such as pulling on leash.

how to train dogs not to pull on leash

Mistake 4: Thinking heeling & loose leash walking are the same

It’s still common for people to believe that their dog needs to walk in a perfect heel at all times, otherwise they aren’t good on leash.

I disagree and I feel that there’s two versions of walking politely on leash!

To me, heel means walking perfectly by my side at my pace. It’s intentionally strict with no sniff breaks. It’s essentially all about focused movement. Despite some people in the force-free world being triggered by the term heel, I still think that is a valuable skill to teach. It’s useful for busy sidewalks or for moments when you need to get somewhere quickly.

Next, I define loose leash walking as a dog going anywhere that they want as long as there isn’t leash tension. If they want to sniff, I stop and wait. This is the way that dogs prefer to walk because they get to adjust their own pace, they get to enjoy sniffing, and they aren’t forced to walk in a straight line which is unnatural to them.

It’s normal for your dog to want to break out of a heel sometimes and go sniff things.

Therefore, why not put loose leash walking on cue and teach it as a skill? As long as there’s no tension or pulling then loose leash walking is great!

Remember: dog walks are often the only time that your dog gets to leave the yard that day. They’re typically the highlight of your dog’s day! Please let your dog sniff and have fun πŸ™‚

Mistake #5 is walking too slowly

I often notice that as people try to teach loose leash walking they walk REALLY slowly because they don’t want to get the dog too excited. This will backfire!

One of the reasons that dogs pull on leash in the first place is because we typically walk much slower than they naturally do.

turtle

Imagine taking a turtle for a walk. How long before you get frustrated with their pace? (Hint: we’re the turtle).

Walking really slowly is going to hinder your training, not help it. Try to walk at a decent pace and reward your dog for matching it. You’ll also both get a little bit more exercise!

Do retractable leashes cause dogs to pull on leash?

Mistake #6 is using a retractable leash

I left this one for later in the blog because I suspect that this statement is going to cause a little bit of an uproar: I hate retractable leashes!

Retractable leashes literally require force in order to extend. The dog has to pull in order to get more length.

A flexi or retractable leash reinforces that pulling = more freedom. They’re reinforcing the very behavior that you’re trying to fix!

For neighborhood walks I recommend a six foot leash and for extra sniffy walks I recommend a long line.

Mistake #7 is phasing out treats too quickly (or ever)

It continues to baffle me how strong of aversion some people have to using treats for training.

Every species likes to get a reward for effort. Think about yourself: would you go to work if you didn’t get paid? Do you feel like once you’re good at your job you should just do it for free? So why should your dog work for free?

Not pulling on leash is actually a really difficult skill! Compensate your dog for learning it.

I believe in giving treats lavishly at the beginning of training when we’re trying to build new skills, and then slowly decreasing the amount provided.

Why this obsession with phasing treats out entirely though?

Treats are a way of telling your dog that they’re doing a good job. Reinforcing a desired behavior such as walking nicely on leash encourages the dog to do it again!

Remember: Reward the behaviors that you want repeated!

We’ve covered common mistakes that cause a dog to pull on leash. Now that you know what NOT to do, how do you train loose leash walking?

Stay tuned because next week I’ll be adding a loose leash tutorial video with Charlotte here!

How to train loose leash walking force free

Let me know in the comments: Are you guilty of making any of these common loose leash walking mistakes, and is there anything else that you think should be added to the list?

Happy training πŸ™‚

Disclosure: Happy Hounds uses affiliate links. Purchasing with these links will not cost you any extra, but I get commissions for purchases made through these links. Affiliate links help me to continue to offer free resources & blog posts. I would love if you used them!

Why Your Dog Pulls on Leash & How to Fix it

About the author:

Stephanie Rombough, DBTMc, is a force-free dog trainer in Edmonton, Alberta. She owns Happy Hounds Dog Training, offering private in-person or virtual dog training services. 

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My mission at Happy Hounds is to help owners train their dogs using positive, force-free methods. A trained dog is less likely to end up in a shelter, and a dog trained with positive methods is more likely to be confident & happy. Everyone wins!


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