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As a reader posed this question and it’s a common one, rather than write out a number of super long comment replies to this reader, I’m simply making a blog post out of it.

The comment/question that sparked this post:

“I’ve been trying to teach my dog not to pull on the leash pretty much the whole 8 ish months that I’ve had her. She’s good about heeling, but I don’t want her in a strict heel all the time, I want her to sniff things and be a dog, but without pulling. The main things I’ve tried are the things you always hear: first, turning around and going the other way when she pulls, and now, stopping and waiting for her to release the tension on the leash every time she pulls, then continuing when she does. I’ve tried both of these things for a good amount of time, (like I said, I’ve had 8 ish months,) and neither have made any impact. Currently she wears a halter, which she doesn’t mind, and it helps me out a bit. It’s not that she’s a crazy hard puller, but enough to be annoying, and I kinda feel like this is a basic thing she needs to learn or else I’ve sort of failed as a dog owner.   Unless I have her in a heel, she’s free to sniff around. I know she’s still young and I wonder if maybe my expectations are too high? ”


Duffy the Border Terrier walking at heel beside his owner.

First let me start with if your dog pulls on leash, I don’t care if it’s for the rest of her life, you aren’t by default a failure of a dog owner.  If your dog was emaciated, starving, matted, tied to a tree in a raging blizzard with an empty or frozen water dish, shivering, half frozen while you sat inside in your nice warm house without a care in the world about your dog AND your dog pulled on leash, then ok I’d say you failed as a dog owner.  But if your dog is well fed, clean, enjoying a nice warm place to sleep and pulls on the leash, yea not a failure.

Second, expectations have nothing to do with dog training.  As the old adage goes, “Train the dog in front of you.”  You can set goals and things you would like to train to the point of actually being, but simply expecting something to happen or not (especially when reality is showing it’s not working) isn’t usually very fruitful.  I know it’s really hard to set aside what you WANT to have happen in a training session or a walk and instead embrace what actually IS happening in that moment and work within that to set the stage for the chance that what you want might actually happen.  But as hard as it is, it does work.   Understanding where your dog is on a developmental level is important, but more important regardless of the age or experience level of your dog is working within the bounds of what that dog is telling you they are capable of in that very moment.  In my experience, leash walking is one of the if not the hardest thing the average pet dog owner will ever try to teach their dog.  You are asking a dog to care about where they are in relation to you no matter what the environment bounded by a piece of string attached to their body.  That’s a tall order.  And yes, it takes loads of time, consistency, training and patience.  I don’t anticipate most of the dogs in my life to have the skills and mental maturity to do it consistently, across a variety of environments, with minimal support from me until probably close to around 2 years of age.  Before then they are able to do it with a tremendous amount of support, environmental management, and the like from me.

Third, I would like to comment on ‘unless she’s in heel, she’s free to sniff around.’  Many clients have come to me saying such.  But reality is, if you want your dog to remain on a slack leash your dog really isn’t free to sniff around.  As free to sniff around implies freedom of movement and ability to fully engage in the sniffing activity if they so choose.  You are asking her to sniff with inhibition ie: awareness of her relationship and position to you and the leash as she sniffs, which is not freedom to sniff.  The ability to have split attention is hard, it’s an advanced skill.  Think of how hard it is for many adults.  Asking a dog to split her attention and remain environmentally aware enough to think of her position relative to you and the leash without doing it the easy way (which from her perspective is keeping tension on the leash.  If there is tension on the leash she always knows where you are and so can more fully engage in sniffing, she doesn’t have to think so much as she can feel where you are) is asking a lot.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have in your criteria as long as you recognize it is part of the equation.  For me, ‘free to sniff around’ means dog has the freedom to fully engage in the sniffing activity if they so choose.  So in those situations where I want my dogs to have the freedom to sniff, I manage the environment so they can do that ie fence or really long leash (like 30-50′) and I do my own thing like gardening.  I provide an environment where the dog doesn’t have to split their attention unless they want to on their own.  As even when off leash in an unfenced area my dogs aren’t really ‘free to sniff around’ sure they can and do sniff around and run, but they also need to keep part of their brains on me and where I am.

Ok so now that we’ve established that, let’s get to leash walking!

When I talk and work with clients who express their dog pulls on lead, my first step is to ask questions to try to better establish what the client has already tried, how if at all for better or worse what they tried changed the behavior, and what background training for leash walking prep the client has already done, if any.  As this is a blog post and not a direct consultation, here are a few of the points I encourage many clients to ponder.

  1.  What length of leash have you been using?

For many dogs and owners, simply increasing the length of leash when on informal leash walks can make a world of positive difference.  If you are wanting, training and asking your dog to walk at your side in some approximation of heel position and maintain a steady pace as you walk a 4 or 6′ leash is often sufficient (though also is often not). But if you are wanting, training and asking your dog to sniff, wander, investigate the environment as you move forward at a relaxed amble, 4 or 6′ leash is rarely sufficient.  Try a lead anywhere from 8-15′ long, experiment with different lengths based on the environment around you.  Please don’t use a retractable or flexi leash especially if you goal is to have your dog not walk with leash tension (as retractable leashes by design always have tension), instead use a nylon, leather or biothane long line, check cord, or piece of sturdy rope with a leash clip.

2. Where and how are you rewarding your dog when they are on leash?

Remember when we talk about behavior, you know what you are doing is ‘working’ if the behavior you want increased is actually increasing, and/or the behavior you want decreased is actually decreasing.  So if you think moving forward is reinforcing for a slack leash, but your dog is still pulling you at the same rate and/or frequency, you’d be wrong.  Reinforcement by definition means the behavior is increasing in frequency.  If slack leash isn’t increasing in frequency despite you moving forward when you dog does it, then you need to do something different that will increase the slack leash.

So what could that be?  You could try to make staying within leash range more enticing to your dog.  How could you do that?  Try tossing some treats on the ground within leash range.  Give your dog enticement to sniff within the bounds of the leash.  If you notice your dog approaching close to the boundary of the leash, toss a treat within the boundary before they get tight on the leash.  The sniff and snuffle for the treat, no tension on the leash.

If you want to move forward, toss a treat or a couple on the ground then as your dog is sniffing around for them, you move forward past your dog, staying within the boundary of the slack leash.  As your dog finishes finding the treats, verbally encourage them to move forward with you, as your dog reaches your heel, toss another treat or few.  Again as your dog snuffles for the treats, you start walking forward staying within the bounds of slack leash.  As your dog finishes finding the treats, verbally encourage them forward, as they reach your heel, toss some more and so on and so forth.  Hansel and Gretel and all.

3.  Have you actually taught your dog what you do want them to do when the feel tension on their lead?

Most people haven’t.  But it can make a huge positive difference.  Actually sit down and teach as a structured exercise to your dog how you would like them to respond when they feel pressure on their collar/harness and leash.

So how do you do that?  Well here is one option:  have your dog on leash, and have some yummy treats at the ready.  Go somewhere quiet and small, bathrooms are good to start with, with your dog.  Hold the leash rather short, and wait for your dog to put tension on it.  When they do, make a silly sound, (do NOT pull back on the leash!!!!), and without pausing after you make the sound, with a treat in your fingers put the treat to your dog’s nose then lure your dog toward you.  As the dog moves towards you following the treat, the leash will slack, praise and reward dog with treat.  After you do this with the food lure a few times, pause a little after you make the sound.  Does your dog immediately turn and start moving toward you?  If they do, AWESOME!  Reward them with the treat as they move towards you.  Or do they still need more help?  If so, go back to luring a couple more times.  Next stage is when the dog puts tension on the leash, don’t make the silly sound.  When they feel tension, do they turn and move towards you?  If yes, AWESOME!!!  Reward that!!  If they don’t, go back and add the sound and/or lure again, help your dog be right!

From there progress out of the bathroom, and into more distracting environments.  Gradually increasing in difficulty until your dog immediately turns to find you when they feel any kind of pressure on their collar.  Pressure on collar has now become a cue to turn and find you!  Instead of pull harder.  Pretty neat, right?!

Another exercise you can do to help with this, especially if you have a dog that likes to retrieve, is gently and loosely hold your dog’s collar or harness.  Toss a toy or treat a bit in front of them, then wait.  Wait until the dog removes the pressure from the collar/harness then let go of the collar/harness and cue dog to get the toy or treat.  This exercise by itself done without the top exercise isn’t really my favorite as it communicates to dogs that if you focus on what is ahead without tension you will get it, where I prefer the dog learn as a default ‘if you want something out of range, come find me’ but this exercise is a good one to have in your toolbox as there are times in retrieving especially when you do want the dog to be able to get what is ahead.

4.  How do you communicate to your dog when you are ok with them noodling around sniffing vs walking at heel with attention on you?

Most clients when I ask that look at me a bit stumped, “What?”  Or they tell me, “well I use my release from stay cue, ‘okay.'”  As with everything increasing clarity in communication with our dogs makes things better.  For me personally, I don’t use my release from stay cue in this context.  Instead I train a cue that by definition is ‘stay within leash range, stay attentive to me, but I don’t need your undivided attention’.  My cues for this involve the leash I’m using, the side my dog is walking on, my hand positions, and the verbal cue I’m using.  For formal heeling my cue is “Strut” it’s on my left side, my hand is in a specific position at my waist and we use a certain leash, for loose leash walk with me it’s “With me,” I pat my leg once usually and it’s most often on my right side, and for go ahead and range a bit within the bounds of the leash it’s “Go sniff” and I flick my hand out pointing to a general clump of grass or area.  The consistent clarity of my cues and criteria makes a difference.  There is no guess work needed from my dogs.  They can be right.

Training dogs and their people is a very individual experience, each team has their own history, personalities, and relationship. Dog training isn’t one size fits all.  So if you and your dog are struggling with leash walking, these tips might get you started, or at least help you think about leash walking in different ways, but please reach out for more individualized coaching.  Learn more about the services I offer visit Maplewood Dog including remote private sessions.  All the best and happy training!  🙂