By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA

Consider this: when our dogs are pulling us down the street, strangling at the end of their leash, they are just as uncomfortable and frustrated as we are.

Neither dog nor person in this situation is having any fun. However, the dog may not realize that there is an easier way to walk down the street. It is our job, as the person, to show the dog just what that better way is.

Pulling on leash is one of the common complaints dogs owners have. In fact, this phenomenon is so common that it has spawned hundreds of different pieces of equipment in the form of special leashes, collars, and harnesses all claiming to be just what you need to get your dog to stop pulling and start walking politely on leash.

Unfortunately, when it comes to walking on leash, there is no magic bullet, and good old fashioned training and consistency are necessary if you are ever to achieve reliable results.

One of the biggest problems with teaching a dog to walk politely on leash is that is something that the dog simply would not naturally choose to do. When we are teaching things like ‘sit’ or ‘down’, they are easy because these are behaviors that the dog normally does everyday, we are simply putting them on cue.

Walking slowly in a straight line from point A to point B is a human behavior; one that is not natural or sensical to a dog. When you watch a dog walking off- leash with his human, the human walks in a straight line. The dog runs around the human, circling, zig-zagging, weaving, looping…He is busy using all of his senses to investigate the world around him. For a dog, life is about the journey, not the destination!

It is certainly achievable to teach our dogs to walk without pulling on the leash, but we must give them a reason to do so, and be calmly consistent on our insistence that they not pull. This is where the training comes in. There are numerous ways to teach your dog what you want, and I regularly employ several to find the one that works just right for each dog/handler team that I train. Although there are numerous ways that involve using pain and punishment available, it is never necessary to choose to resort to these methods and you can achieve remarkable heeling results without them.

Whichever method you use to teach walking, it is crucial that you remain consistent with your dog. As in – we are never going to move forward on a tight leash, no matter what the circumstances. Period. Many dog owners are excellent at making excuses for allowing the dog to pull “just this once.”

“He was really excited because we were on our way into dog class; he saw his best doggy friend; there was a squirrel/cat/leaf blowing; it was really cold out; I was in a hurry…” the list goes on.

If we expect our dogs to be 100% consistent with not pulling on the leash, we must be 100% consistent for not allowing them to pull. No matter what. Remember, it takes two to pull (without you pulling on your end of the leash, the dog would have nothing to pull against), so you must take equal responsibility when your dog is pulling you down the street. If you are allowing him to move forward on a tight leash, he will learn that this is an acceptable way to get where he wants to go.

The easiest way to teach a dog not to pull on leash is to teach them how to walk off leash.

Begin with your dog off leash in a large enclosed area such as a fenced yard, basement, or large room in the house. Let the dog wander while you begin walking around the perimeter of the space. Don’t call the dog to you, just start walking. At some point, your dog will wander over to see what you are doing. As soon as he does, say “Yes!” and reinforce (this can be with a treat, praise, play, anything that your dog adores.)

Continue on in this fashion, letting the dog do as he chooses, but reinforcing anytime he checks in with you, and continue reinforcing every few seconds as long as he keeps moving with you. What you’ll find is that after 10 minutes or so of this game, (maybe less if you are using really good reinforcement!) the dog is walking around the room right by your side. He has decided that, given everything else he could be doing at that moment, the most exciting thing for him is to walk around the room with you. This is huge! We are not forcing him or making him walk with us, he is CHOOSING to!

The next step is to add the leash. Clip on the dog’s leash and hold it loosely, so that it looks like a nice “J” (don’t let it hang so low the dog is tripping over it.) Continue to play the game just as before, reinforcing the dog for staying with you, but now everytime the dog begins to wander away, stop walking. Don’t call or pull the dog back, just plant your feet and wait. As soon as the dog reorients to you, say “Yes!” and begin walking again, reinforcing the dog for choosing to move with you.

Once you and your dog are pros at moving together around the house or yard without any tension on that leash, you are ready to take it on the road. Same rules apply outside, but remember that once out in the big world, you have a lot more to compete with for your dog’s attention. Try to begin in an easier outside area – spend time walking just in your back yard, or up and down the driveway, before moving out to the neighborhood or park where other people, dogs, and excitement compete for your dog’s attention. Make sure you have excellent reinforcers and be generous with them, especially at the beginning. Remember your dog is learning a new skill. Above all, have patience. Wait for your dog to offer the correct behavior and reinforce when he does. Before long, he will be choosing to walk nicely by your side and walks will be fun for both of you.