How to Stop a Dog From Pulling on the Leash
As a dog parent, there are few experiences more frustrating and embarrassing than being dragged down the street by your own dog.
Not only does excessive pulling at the leash result in a sore shoulder and a poor experience for you, the constant pressure can also injure your dog’s throat. Not being able to reliably control your dog while walking can even be dangerous; your dog may pull you over, or pull out of your grip and take off.
Pulling on the leash is one of the most common training challenges that many dog parents face — but it’s not without hope! With time, patience and a fanny pack full of treats, you can teach Fido that pulling on the leash won’t get him anywhere.
Why Dogs Pull On the Leash
There are a few reasons why dogs pull on the leash while walking. The simplest explanation is because the world is an exciting place! As Veterinary Centers of America Animal Hospitals explains:
“Dogs pull to get where they are going. Dogs want to engage with the environment, and humans, to a dog, can be slow. Wearing a leash and being tethered to a human is not a “natural” behavior for dogs. Many dogs will naturally “lean in” when they feel pressure on their collars and strain forward. Loose leash walking is a complex skill and it requires patience, planning, and persistence.”
This tendency to “lean in” is also known as an opposition reflex. It’s the same instinct that causes a draft horse to lean forward into the harness and pull a carriage or plow. It’s a helpful tendency if you happen to race sled dogs — not so helpful if you’d prefer a leisurely stroll around the block!
Essentially, dogs pull on the leash because it works. Your dog pulls at the leash…their human moves forward…voilà, they’re walking! In your dog’s mind, it’s a success.
Some pet parents are skeptical of this explanation. How can your pup consider pulling at the leash a “success” when it’s clearly stressful or even painful!?
Unfortunately, even if your dog is clearly coughing and panting as they strain against the leash, it may not have occurred to Fido that there’s an alternative. Your pup considers forward progress — getting to the next corner, the next bush, the next thing to sniff — worth the strain or discomfort.
The only way to change a dog’s behavior so that they don’t pull on the leash is to show them that walking nicely gets them what they want — and pulling doesn’t!
What Works to Stop a Dog From Pulling on the Leash
When it comes to training a dog not to pull on the leash, there are three keys to success.
Have the Right Attitude
The right attitude makes all the difference to dog training success!
Don’t focus on the negatives with thoughts like:
“It’s so embarrassing when my dumb dog drags me down the street.”
“Why is my dog being so naughty and badly behaved?!”
“Changing this behavior feels impossible!”
Try to cultivate an upbeat, positive mindset, with thoughts like:
“It’ll be so nice to go on relaxing walks with my dog!”
“My dog is smart and can totally learn to do this.”
“We’re a team and we can do this together!”
Focusing on the positive also helps you reframe your objective. Instead of trying to stop a behavior (pulling), think of it as trying to teach a behavior (walking nicely).
Don’t Reward Pulling
Up until this point, Fido has been pulling on the leash because you rewarded him for it. You didn’t mean to, but you did!
What your dog wants is to move forward — towards the smells, towards other people, or maybe even he pulls to go home. When you move forward, you give him exactly what he wants, which rewards the behavior he’s doing at the moment: pulling.
Therefore, one of the most important ways to change your dog’s behavior is to never move forward while he’s pulling. You have two options of what to do instead: Stop or change directions.
The stop method is simple. As soon as you feel tension on the leash — when your dog is starting to pull — halt immediately. Do not move forward until the tension on the leash relaxes.
The first time you do this, you’ll likely catch your dog by surprise. He may keep pulling even harder — don’t give in! It may take a few minutes, but eventually, Fido will sit, relax or look up to you for guidance.
As soon as you feel the tension leave the leash, praise your dog so they know they’re doing something right, even if they’re not sure what that is yet. Then, step forward!
When your dog pulls again, stop. Wait. Rinse and repeat.
Yes, it will be confusing for your dog at first. Yes, it may take twenty minutes to reach the end of your driveway, one slow step at a time! But this is the only way for your dog to understand that pulling doesn’t work. Fido doesn't get to explore the neighborhood and sniff all the things he wants to if he pulls.
The other option (and you may find it’s best to use both interchangeably) is to change directions just when you feel your dog starting to pull. The moment there’s tension, say, “Come on!” or “This way!” in a cheerful voice and start walking back the way you came.
Your dog will have to catch up to you, which means there will be slack in the leash for a couple of seconds. If your pup resists the change in direction — (“Silly Mother, we’re supposed to go THIS way!”) — a high-value treat to tempt them may make all the difference.
Remember, don’t yell at your dog for pulling; focus on being fun and exciting so they want to follow you! As professional dog trainer Karen London says:
“Whether the dog is pulling or not, be unpredictable, and reinforce the preferred behavior. Making quick turns, reversing direction, speeding up and slowing down all make you more interesting, which means it’s more likely that your dog will follow you, going where you’re going rather than pulling you where they want to go. True, some of your neighbors will find it amusing, but consider it just another good thing you’re doing for the community!”
Reward Behaviors You Like
The fastest way Fido will learn to do something is if you reward him for it every time. Sometimes this reward may be a treat, or sometimes it’s a happy, “Good boy!”, but there should always be an acknowledgement when your pup is doing something great.
The first behavior you should be rewarding is engagement. Any time your dog makes eye contact with you, even just a glance, reward them with a yummy treat!
If you’re consistent, your dog will learn to stay close to you so they can get an easy snack. Hey, if Fido is hovering around underfoot in hopes of a treat, he’s not pulling you down the street!
Of course, the number one behavior you want to reward is walking without tension on the leash. The moment your dog takes even one step without pulling, reward that like crazy! Give him his favorite treat, tell him he’s amazing, show how excited you are! Make your dog feel like they just won the canine jackpot, so that your pup will think, “Whoa, awesome! What’d I do??”
Continue to make any progress a Big Deal, whether that’s ten individual steps without tension or ten whole minutes. Delicious treats and praise let your dog know just how fantastic this behavior is, and just how happy you are about what they’re doing.
What DOESN’T Work to Train a Dog Not to Pull On Leash
Yelling “NO!” or Scolding Your Dog
You’ve probably already discovered that a sharp “No!” and a yank on the leash does almost nothing to discourage your dog from pulling.
As long as you’re still moving forward, your dog is still getting what they want — even if you’re scolding them the whole time! Fido may not even connect your scolding to his own behavior. (He might be thinking, “Yeah, Mom gets crabby during our walks sometimes. No idea why.”)
In any case, letting your dog know they’ve done something wrong is not nearly as important as letting them know when they’ve done something right. Dog trainer Ali Smith advises:
“We Stop Saying No. Seriously, no is just going to make you more frustrated. Every time you want to say no? Take a deep breath, turn on your heel and go the other way with a chirpy “This way!” and you’ll start getting him back to the right spot.”
Over time, the combination of making pulling boring (because they don’t get anywhere) and making loose-leash walking fun (because they get treats and praise) will encourage your dog to make the correct choice because they want to — not because they’re afraid you’ll yell at them.
Training While Frustrated or Overwhelmed
We get it; life can be a lot, and sometimes the last thing you want to deal with when you get home is your overenthusiastic dog trying to tear your arm out of its socket.
If you find that you’re already in an irritated or grumpy mindset as you head out the door, it may be best to delay your walk. After all, training a dog not to pull on the leash requires patience…a LOT of patience!!
Starting, stopping, constantly changing direction and taking ages just to make it down the driveway can be frustrating enough that many pet parents contemplate giving up. So if you’re already in a bad mood to begin with, that’s a recipe for disaster — and your dog will pick up on your bad mood, too.
Listen to music, read a book or do something else relaxing for a few minutes until you’re feeling more calm and ready to train. Remember, the payoff is worth it: relaxing, gentle walks with your best pal!
Expecting Your Dog to be Perfect
After a few days (or weeks) of start-and-stop, it’ll seem like it’s sinking in. You’ll see the light bulb go off above your pup’s head, and he’ll finally begin to walk nicely.
Great! That means Fido will do it perfectly from now on, no matter what, right?!
Well…not so much. Pulling is often an ingrained habit, and it won’t go away completely until the new habit (walking nicely) is fully established. Plus, change even one factor in the environment — the weather, the location, the birds in the yard — and Fido’s focus may go out the window.
It’s important to understand that if the situation is too stimulating or distracting for your dog, it may be unreasonable to expect perfect behavior. That would be like teaching a kid basic addition and then expecting them to do well on a trigonometry test; they’re just not at that level yet!
So every once in a while, you’re going to have to let it go and forgive your dog for “regressing.” Keep training and don’t give up. Remember, if your dog used to pull all of the time and now he pulls some of the time, that’s still progress!
What to Do if Your Pup Keeps Pulling
If you’ve been trying to train your dog not to pull at the leash for a while and don’t seem to be making progress, there are a few common reasons why.
It’s critical that everyone in the household who walks the dog be on board with the training plan. Too often there will be one person in the house who takes training seriously, only to find out that Fido’s other regular walking buddy hasn’t been consistent with it. This confuses your dog, delays training progress and frustrates everybody!
It’s true that the repeated stopping and turning around that’s involved in loose-leash training takes time and makes a normally brisk walk much longer. If you’re determined to finish walking a full lap of the neighborhood before you have to leave for work, you may decide not to bother with the training.
If this is the case, it’s up to your household to negotiate a solution: either adapt your household schedule and routine to allow sufficient time for training on every walk, or designate the more dedicated trainer as the sole dog walker until the behavior is fully established.
Many other problems that can occur during loose leash training are the result of not exercising your dog beforehand.
“Wait!” you might say. “I thought the walk IS the exercise??”
If you have a small, elderly or low-energy dog, a brisk walk may leave them tired and satisfied. But many dogs (especially young, big, working dogs like retrievers or shepherds) have the energy to just keep going and going and going…
For these high-octane pups, a walk is a mere warm-up! And it’s a universal truth of dog training that your dog can’t concentrate on learning if they’re bursting with energy.
Tire your dog out before your walk through a hearty game of fetch. If you don’t have a yard, try a local park — or heck, chasing your dog up and down the stairs for a while ought to do the trick. You’ll be shocked how much better behaved Fido is when the “edge” has been taken off!
When to Ask a Professional Dog Trainer for Help With a Dog Pulling on the Leash
If you’ve been doing the best you can with your training but aren’t seeing much progress, don’t be embarrassed to admit you need help. It’s much better to get professional training than risk your pup dragging you into a ditch or getting themselves hurt!
It is especially advised to seek professional help from a behavior modification specialist if your dog is showing signs of reactivity while on a walk. Lunging towards other dogs, people or animals or barking excessively at other dogs are some of the biggest signs of reactivity.
Professional dog trainer Pat Miller defines reactivity as when a dog displays “an abnormal level of arousal in response to a normal stimulus.” She also explains that:
“Each time a dog reacting from anxiety or fear goes over threshold and the stimulus moves away, the reactive behavior is reinforced, making it more likely to happen again the next time. Although in many cases the stimulus (dog, person, vehicle) would have gone away anyway, the dog doesn’t know this. She thinks growling, barking, and lunging made it go away and thus believes this is a successful survival strategy. Her reactive behavior is likely to repeat or increase as a result.”
However, fear is not the only reason why a dog may be reactive. As the Veterinary Centers of America Animal Hospital says:
“Some dogs lunge or bark because they are afraid. Others are too excited and have trouble controlling themselves. Still others may have the urge to hunt or chase. Depending upon the severity of the behavior and the underlying motivation, the individual training plan needs to be tailored to the specific dog.”
If you find yourself saying, “My dog normally walks fine, except when she sees [X, Y, or Z],” then it’s time to enlist a trainer’s help.
Many dog owners have resigned themselves to a life of being dragged around by an enthusiastic pooch. They fear that an enjoyable, relaxing stroll with their best buddy may be an unachievable dream.
The good news is, it’s not! By demonstrating to your dog that good things happen if and only if they are walking nicely with a loose leash, your pup can learn to pump the brakes. When that happens, you’ll finally be walking together!