In my professional dog training opinion, loose leash walking with your dog is one of the most difficult things you might ever have to teach your dog. If there was one key to training a dog well, it’s consistency, of course. Therefore, if you live with any other people in your home (like most of us do!) and those people aren’t 100% on board with your training, this might be a challenge.
Sometimes the even bigger challenge is maintaining consistency with ourselves. Remembering to do the exact same thing over and over and over again can become boring, so we humans like to mix it up sometimes. This may or may not be a good learning technique for certain dogs. Also, as we begin to see success with our dogs, we tend to become more lax in our training criteria and the learning curve in our dogs can begin to slide.
So what’s the point you might ask? Why teach your dog to walk politely with you at all? First of all, it may be at the point in your home where you dog’s pulling has become a safety issue. If you fear falling down when walking your dog, then teaching loose lease walking is an absolute necessity. For most others, it just seems like when life goes at a calmer pace, we live more harmonious lives, and that makes it totally worth the effort!
When we apply these challenges to loose leash walking with our dog, it’s important to first establish your goals. What exactly would you like your dog to do? Is it important that your dog walk at your left side in a formal heel position with every step you take? Or is it less important that your dog be super-glued to your side as long as he’s just not dragging you down the street and pulling your shoulder out of its socket? I would venture to say that the majority of pet owners would prefer the latter.
To be uber-structured and militant isn’t usually as important as being able to enjoy a nice leisurely walk with the family… dog included, of course. With this goal in mind, it’s important to next create a solid training plan. What methods will you use? This is where I have to step on the soap-box just a bit before we begin.
As a positive trainer, I always want to use the least aversive methods, with the least behavioral fallout, in order to train a behavior. Twenty years ago, the standard practice would have been to use a choke chain. To use a choke chain as intended meant using a quick jerk and release motion on the leash to correct the dog for pulling (or other unwanted behavior). This method was popularized by trainers like the Monks of New Skeete and celebrity trainer Barbara Wodehouse.
Still today, many other trainers might also use choke chains, pinch collars, and sadly, shock collars to obtain behavior (or extinguish unwanted behavior). Although these methods could be viewed as quick and effective, in certain dogs, they might also create a certain amount of behavioral fallout or “baggage,” as renowned trainer Terry Ryan might say. Associated side effects of these methods might include mistrust of owners, fearfulness, skittishness, hypervigilance, reactivity or aggressiveness towards other dogs, people or children, or sound sensitivity.
For many, the goal of teaching loose leash walking is to be able to walk their dog on a normal nylon buckle or quick-snap collar. With a lot of training, positive reinforcement, consistency and patience, this is positively an attainable goal. But what about in the meantime? Should you just put up with your dog’s impolite pulling? The answer is absolutely not, and in fact, it’s detrimental to all of your good training if you continue to allow the dog to pull in any situation.
Fortunately, there are lots of different types of tools on the marketplace to help manage pulling. Some of the best tools available come in the form of a no-pull harness. What makes a no-pull harness different from a regular harness? The main difference is that the leash is usually clipped on the front of the harness, as opposed to the back of a more traditional harness.
These harnesses leverage a dog’s natural tendency to shift their body weight in the opposite direction from where tension is applied. Think about a sled dog, for example. A sled dog wears a traditional back-clip harness and the reins are attached. The sled driver sits behind the dog and so there is tension on the reins from behind that the dog can feel. Since the tension from the reins is coming from behind the dog, its natural tendency will be to pull in the opposite direction, or forward. This tendency is called “oppositional reflex.”
There are several brands of no-pull harnesses on the marketplace including the Freedom No-Pull Harness, the Sense-ation Harness, the Halti No-Pull Harness and the Premier Easy Walk Harness. Some of these brands, like the Halti and the Premier, can be found at Petco and Petsmart, whereas the Freedom and the Sense-ation can be found easily online. As long as the harness is fit according to the instructions of each, a dog should acclimate to a no-pull harness very quickly, which makes it both quick and easy to use.
Another anti-pulling tool that may be used for a heavy puller is a head collar, such as the Premier Gentle Leader, the Halti Head Collar, Control Ease Head Collar or the Snoot Loop. These tools act somewhat like a bridle on a horse and fit around over a dogs muzzle and around the back of the head. The leash is then clipped to a ring underneath the dog’s chin. The premise behind a head collar is that wherever the dogs head goes, the body will follow, giving the handler ultimate control.
Although a head collar can be very effective for certain dogs, your dog must progress a thorough acclimation process for about a week in order to willingly accept wearing it. As long as your dog is accepting of wearing a head collar, it can be a very effective tool. Without proper acclimation or the proper fit, a head collar can cause quite a bit of discomfort for a dog, and might even be more aversive than a pinch collar even though you may have had the best of positive intentions at heart.
Lastly, it’s important to have the proper leash. After all, what good is even the best no-pull harness or head collar if you have a leash that slips right through your hands? For me, the winner every time is a quality leather leash. Depending on the size of your dog, a 4 to 6 foot leather leash is one of the standards to maintaining necessary control with any size of dog.
To recap so far, it is absolutely possible and desirable to train a dog to walk politely. However, you might find it helpful at first to equip your heavy-pulling canine with an anti-pull device before you even begin training how to walk nicely on a leash. Don’t think of it as “giving in” to your dog’s bad habits. Think of it as “setting your dog up to succeed,” which should be at the core of any good training plan. Next time, I’ll take you through the most effective method I’ve found to teaching your dog to walk nicely on a leash, as well as some good alternative techniques, too.