Handle Common Leash-Walking Challenges

by Marilyn Peterson, CPDT-KA, Behavior and Training Manager

Dogs straining on their leashes, pulling their owners across the neighborhood terrain is a common challenge.

Thankfully, it’s not a challenge you’re required to endure passively. With a few commonsense steps, you can help build better behaviors for your dog on the go. 

Why Do Dogs Pull?

Dogs can often travel much faster than humans. Pulling allows our dogs to access what they want – they pull to run, sniff tantalizing scents, chase things, and interact with fascinating stuff they encounter in the environment. 

Here’s an experiment. Watch an off-leash dog in a field. Does their behavior mimic a dog slowly plodding alongside its handler, creeping along the sidewalk from point A to B in a straight line?

Prepare for Your Walk

Dogs, especially the larger breeds, can be strong and determined in their pulling attempts. When we tolerate pulling, our dog learns that towing us takes them to their desires, and pulling becomes an entrenched habit. 

An abundance of energy is a primary factor in straining against the leash. If your dog is exploding with excitement and energy, it will struggle to walk calmly with you. Allow your dog some rigorous play in your backyard and a brief time to settle again before heading out your front door on a leash. 

Pick the Right Equipment

Choosing appropriate walking gear can make for less stressful outings with your canine friend.

Dogs who need refinement in their leash walking skills tend to pull against flat and martingale collars, putting pressure on their tracheas as they gasp and cough through their morning walk. 

Choke, prong, and electric collars can increase fear and reactivity and erode your dog’s willingness to engage with you while walking. 

Though back clip harnesses are comfortable for dogs, if your dog tends to pull, it is very convenient for them to lean into a back-clip harness, dragging you behind in their pursuit of doggy adventure. 

A front-clip harness with a ring at your dog’s chest to attach the leash is an excellent management tool. Most dogs are tolerant of wearing a harness. When your dog pulls on the leash in a front-clip harness, the tension tends to bring your dog toward you. If the harness pulls a bit to the side, clipping the harness ring to the collar with a carabiner will give a bit more stability. 

If your dog is gradually desensitized and acclimated to wearing one, head halters can humanely and effectively manage large, energetic dogs on walks.

A round or flat four to six foot leash allows your dog freedom to move away from your side when appropriate while allowing you ease in adjusting the leash length. Avoid retractable and stretching leashes, which teach your dog that pulling on their leash rewards them with more freedom. 

Once you and your dog have a grasp on the foundations of leash work, you can graduate to a long line, allowing your dog more freedom to move about and explore its surroundings. 

How to Hold the Leash

Good leash skills help you and your dog to coordinate your walks as a team. 

Hold the leash with both hands held at your waist or stomach with your arms relaxed at your sides. You won’t unintentionally pull on the leash, creating tension. 

Slide the hand nearest the dog down the leash and fold the extra leash in accordion pleats with your other hand to adjust your leash length quickly. It isn’t safe or efficient to wrap the leash around your wrist. 

Ensure that the end of the leash clipped to your dog’s gear is “smiling” when your dog isn’t pulling. It isn’t necessary to give your dog the entire length of the leash, but allow slack.

Communicate with steady and gentle resistance when your dog pulls on the leash, rather than jerking and popping the leash. 

A Training Game

In the early stages of training, view walks as training games rather than exercise or destination goals. Keep your training sessions short and light-hearted.

I leash-train without a leash to teach my dog to follow my movement. Equipped with a clicker and treats in an easily accessible pouch, apron, or pockets, take your dog to a spot with few distractions – a room in your house or a quiet fenced area outside. Begin walking around. Click and treat every time your dog comes near you. 

Feed the treat at the seam of your pants. If your dog is on your left, treat from your left hand. If your dog doesn’t anticipate that the treat will come from across your body, it will not cross in front of you. The seam of your pants becomes like the delivery window at McDonald’s. If I want my Happy Meal, I need to drive my car up to the window. My dog arrives at my side for rewards when we walk because the food appears there.

Your dog will soon yearn to check in at your side. Start changing direction, especially when your dog moves ahead of you. When you turn around and go the other way, your dog is behind you. When it catches back up to you, click and treat. 

Once your dog understands this game, you may add the leash. Continue to practice in low distraction settings to help your dog succeed, venturing gradually into more exciting environments.

Reinforce the Behaviors You Want

Dogs perform the behaviors that pay them. Reward your dog when it isn’t pulling.  

Dogs are designed to run, sniff, stop, and play. Some dogs adjust their preferences quickly, based on consistent feedback from their people. Others need a little more help.

If you don’t enjoy your walks with your dog, don’t give up. A good walk exercises your dog’s body and mind, and often, dogs and humans that walk strengthen their bonds too. 

We can help you with common dog-walking challenges. We have plenty of classes available here in the shelter, and we offer personalized training sessions too. See a list of our classes here. We’d love to see you!