January 18, 2023

What To Do When Your Dog Pulls on the Leash

Using specific leash training activities can teach your dog to walk by your side without pulling. Front-attachment harnesses can also improve your dog’s training.

Beagle pulling hard on harness while on a walk

Why do dogs pull on the leash?

Most dogs have a natural walking pace that is faster than our pace. They also prefer to zig-zag around to follow their noses and eyes while checking out interesting things in the environment. Sidewalks or trails have only two obvious directions, and dogs can anticipate which way you are going. Walking calmly at your side for an extended period of time isn’t as fun for dogs as running around on their own. 

Some dogs pull on their leash because you have accidentally trained them to pull. When a dog or puppy is curious and moves towards something, you might follow with leash tension. The dog is learning to pull to get closer to what he wants to see or smell. Sometimes, you might try to stand still and a dog might surprise you and get you off balance. All of these moments can reinforce a dog pulling on its leash.

How to stop a dog from pulling on leash

You can use specific leash training activities to teach your dog to walk at your side without pulling. There are two aspects to learning this skill. One aspect is teaching your dog what to do. Another aspect is making sure you do not reward pulling. This is easier said than done, but it is something you can accomplish.

If you are serious about addressing your dog’s walking skills, you may want to plan on taking a temporary break from normal walks. Your dog will still need bathroom breaks and exercise, but you can temporarily meet exercise needs in other ways with play, trick training, or finding safe locations to run off leash. 

If you are sometimes working on walking training and sometimes letting a dog pull on the leash “because he needs a walk,” then he will continue to test whether today is a pulling day or loose leash walking day. One way you can provide both options is to use different equipment. You could use a sled dog style harness for situations where you will allow pulling, and use a regular collar or front-attachment harness when it is time to do walking training. 

Harness for dogs who pull

There are many products designed to reduce pulling. Some of these work by being physically uncomfortable to the dog when he pulls on the leash. Other products are designed to not give the dog as much leverage if he is pulling. No device will reliably stop pulling for all dogs without additional training. Dogs can learn to pull, even through discomfort, if you are continuing forward when there is tension on the leash. 

Front-attachment style harnesses, where the leash clips to the chest of the dog instead of his back, can give you a leverage advantage and are usually tolerated by most dogs. If a dog does start pulling hard, you can use the leash and turn the dog away from the distraction to minimize the environmental reinforcement he experiences. When a leash is clipped to the back, a dog can continue facing the distraction while you pull him away.  

Combining a front-attachment harness with training can be a good option for many excitable dogs. 

Prepare for training

Exercising your dog prior to a training session can make the training session more efficient. For some dogs, this might be a hiking trip, a visit to the dog park, or tug/fetch games in the house.

Select 2-3 types of small, high value treats. These should be pea-sized—small even for a small dog. You can keep the treats in a training-specific treat pouch or a jacket pocket. This will allow the treats to be easily accessible during the training session. 

Choose your initial training environment. This might be the backyard, a hallway in your house, or your driveway. You will intentionally work in a smaller area to begin with. This limits the amount of new sights, sounds, and smells your dog will experience in this lesson. 

A Drill To Minimize Leash Pulling

Move backwards and encourage your dog to follow you. Reward your dog close to your knees, initially every 1-2 steps. This will look like one step, treat, one step, treat, one step, treat. If your dog is consistently following you, increase the number of steps until your dog can follow you for 5 steps in a row. 

Now, you can rotate so that your dog is at your side. You can choose the left side or the right side, and you can train your dog for both options. Initially, feed your dog for every one step at your side. The treat location can be right next to your knee. If your dog walks on your left, use your left hand to reward him by your left knee. If your dog is walking on your right side, use your right hand to reward him by your right knee.

Like before, gradually increase the number of steps between treats.  

Once your dog is comfortable with this, there are additional training steps to add in new environments, passing distractions, and fading out the rewards. This foundation stage is a great starting point for your dog to learn how to move with you as a team.