How To Teach A Dog To Stop Pulling On Leash

It’s as easy as it is to train a dog to pull! If we consider that the dog understands that the easiest way to reach what he wants is to pull as hard as he can and, when this is not working, to pull when the owner starts to relax or stops paying attention, or when the children or women of the family walk him.  
We all know strong, young dogs that fit this profile, right?

(Editor's Note: Catherine is Dog Star Daily's French correspondent and English is her second language and she does a great job explaining regardless! For the most part I've left her work in it's original form to embrace the essence of her sentiments and thoughts because I believe the meaning and lessons come through as well.)

My first advice would be to use an Easy Walk Harness®. I’ve found them to be very useful for many reasons: 1) they give the smile back to the owners by helping them to manage their dog easily, 2) they make the dogs feel better with no more traction on their neck, 3) they give less work to the trainer on explanations.

The second step, not the easiest one, is to teach the owner how to get rid of the bad habit of driving the dog with the arms, pulling as a jerk on the leash, and to replace this bad habit by driving the dog with the legs – this will ease the tensions on the top of the owner’s body. The deal is, without a word, to focus on driving the dog towards the direction we chose and, if he pulls, we put all our strength in our legs not in our arms to give the opportunity to the dog to follow us.

At this stage of the work, most dogs already stop pulling and they start looking at us as somebody worth paying attention to, instead of someone to drag around. It is best to execute these first 2 steps not saying a word to the dog. He must understand by himself that there is no need to pull, because pulling won’t get him anywhere. It usually takes a dog about 5 minutes to get this. But as soon as he looks at us as somebody, immediately we give him his first reward: a social one – « Nice dog, smile » – and a pat. If that reward is understood by the dog as permission to pull again, our legs are ready – our legs must always be ready.

These 2 steps are very important, for they make the owner realize that if a dog pulls on leash it is because the dog taught the owner to follow him! Most of the owners think they should punish the bad behavior by pulling hard on the leash, but they don’t realize that in the meantime they’ve also reward it by stepping in the dog’s direction, so pulling “works” for the dog.

Because all the owner’s strength lies in his arms, it is very easy for his dog to drag him – « Where the head goes, the body goes ». If owners could understand why their dogs are pulling, they would be able even without any accessory or food reward, to manage their dogs and they would be mad at themselves instead of being mad after their dogs when things don’t work the way they planned.

Now, in order to build a good cooperation, we teach the dog that following the direction of his owner can be a good idea, and also that it can be done with pleasure. I always practice this exercise in a place with few distractions.

To start, I walk the dog on a long leash and the dog walks ahead. I change direction, he turns his head, I click and reward. Sometimes, I say his name to help him and to make a good association with his name (that will help for the recall too), he turns his head, I click and reward.

Then, after a few steps, I change direction without saying a word, and if the dog turns before the leash is tight (this means my body starts to become a cue for the dog) or moves towards me, I click and reward.
It is forbidden to give one single traction (jerk) on the leash – the leash can be tight, but no traction. My body must show to the dog that I invite him to be friends, I’ll present the side of my body and sometimes if needed I can kneel down to encourage the dog to get it right. When the dog comes, I click and reward.

I never lure the dog; I reward his good decisions – even the tiniest progress. The training must be very nice and stress-free. In this first stage always give him the opportunity to cooperate and I work with very high-value food reward. I build in him the desire to be back in contact with human beings.

Then, and this is maybe the hardest part, it’s time to go for a walk in the countryside, with lots of smells and lots of stimulation (distractions!). The rules are: if the dog stops and sniffs around, you do not stop but keep going at the same speed and, if needed, you encourage him to follow you (make kissy noises, pat your leg, etc). If he starts to walk too fast, you slow down, if he slows down, you walk faster.

If he pulls and jerks you, slow down saying « Slow down » just before he reaches the end of the leash and you stop, standing firmly on your feet in one place. When (eventually) he stops pulling, you start walking again. Sometimes, as soon as you start again, some dogs will pull hard the same way, immediately you say « SLOW DOWN » and you stop.
After a few exercises, the dog should slow down when you say so. If he does, reward him by increasing your speed, encourage him to go on this way.

The main difficulty of this work is that you must imagine you are talking with the dog, so as to make him understand what you say… yet with the dog you use no words, instead you work on giving the right feedback via body language at the right moment – that’s why timing must be perfect.

The goal of this training is to teach the dog to walk on a loose leash. He can sniff, he can pee, but the leash must never be tight, you never wait for him, never feel any tension on your arm and neither does he on his neck or chest.

Usually, if you respect your dog as an individual with his own speed and if you respect these different steps, you will have a dog that looks at you, that slows down when you ask him to and tries with real effort to respect your speed in less then 30 minutes. Even a strong puller will do so.

Another important point is to understand the dog you’re training and not ask too much of him. If the dog is fast, don’t ask him to walk too slowly at first, reward him by walking at the speed he likes, and use a long leash, never use a short leash.

To finish, you must teach to the dog that he cannot reward himself by pulling anymore, you are the one who’s rewarding him and you never forget to do it. You adapt your speed to the dog’s speed in the first place, and then you make him like to follow your speed.

When the dog understands that your never put traction on his neck, that he cannot reward himself anymore, that you cooperate by not asking him too much and you give him what he wants when he shows self-control, the dog will begin to look at you and come closer and closer to you over time.

At this point it is time to teach him to like to heel. I use clicker training because I like to ask to the dog to memorize and to see him doing things because he « decided » to, but all positives techniques are good because the dog learns to like training and being near the owner. When we train a dog not to pull anymore with good associations, usually the owner starts to have a better recall as well.

Sometimes, to finish, I work on good association by holding the dog’s collar, I click and reward in the same time than the second part, I reach out and touch the collar and I click and reward. The progression of this exercise must be adjusted in relation to any past bad associations the dog had about collar grabs or reaches.

Always keep in mind that the goal is not train our dog to walk on leash but to walk side by side with his friend/owner. The leash must stay a fashion accessory only. In a way, walking side by side can be understood as an invitation to dance with your favorite partner.

Catherine Collignon
French Dog Trainer and Behaviorist