Training a dog to walk politely on a leash takes time, patience, and tons of focus for both humans and dogs. For some dogs, pulling on leash is simply a means to get to their favorite park, beach, or buddy’s house as fast as possible.
But, for many dogs, especially in crowded, noisy, urban environments, straining and tugging on lead should be handled with much more compassion and understanding than a basic obedience approach allows.
Let’s take a look at a few types of dogs and how we can alter the “stop every time the pup pulls” technique to help your dog improve faster and make your walks much more relaxing.
Fearful pooches: If your dog clings to the sidewalk and looks left to right with eyes as big as saucers whenever a fire engine, garbage truck, skateboard, airplane, or other scary monster goes by, your dog isn’t pulling to annoy you. Your dog is never pulling to annoy you, but we’ll dive deeper into that another day.
He’s afraid and is trying desperately to get away from the perceived threat. The best way to help a pup who thinks the outside world is out to get him is to loosen YOUR perfect-heel expectations.
Loose leash walking does indeed relax the dog’s body, helping with overall confidence. But, it also requires your dog to concentrate, an impossible skill when completely terrified.
Walk close to home and in the quietest area possible, for a short distance. If your dog is relaxed enough to waltz next to you for two blocks, consider that a benchmark and generously reward your sweet sidekick for that time. At the end of the two blocks, and BEFORE your dog starts to yank forward in terror, give a cue that tells him work is done for now like “free” or “mush.”
We HIGHLY recommend a harness to keep everyone safe while you work on leash skills. If leash training goes well for a couple of weeks, try walking for three blocks, then four. However, if your dog is entirely panicked or struggles with a small distance, you need to shorten your walks so your pup can boost his courage in more manageable doses.
Young puppies: To a wee little puppy, EVERYTHING is new. And, everything can be scary. You are new. The screen door is new. The leash is new and feels weird attached to that strappy harness you shoved over your puppy’s head after running away the third time.
We do a HUGE disservice to young puppies when we don’t acknowledge how unnerving the flood of sounds, sights, and smells can be (ESPECIALLY in urban environments).
So, rather than tugging on that your puppy’s tiny neck, reward for not bolting every time you hear a siren, see a scooter, or say hello to a new person, even if the leash isn’t perfect. We bet once you do that, the leash loosens up. And, you better be ready to give a reward worthy of your pup’s gold medal Olympic performance.
Aggressive dogs: Polite leash walking is imperative when aggression is involved. But, the leash isn’t always going to be perfectly loose when you encounter whatever trigger typically causes an outburst during the beginning stages of training. Space is your best friend. Give your dog lots of it.
And, rather than getting super focused on the best leash walk of your reactive dog’s life, set your gaze on the trigger further away than you think the dog sees and reward for calm behavior. Your dog may be a little ahead of you and very well might not be looking in your eyes. But, he isn’t getting better at barking, lunging, growling, and snarling. Once your dog isn’t looking over his shoulder at the bicyclist or staring down the skateboarder, loose-leash training becomes the priority again (provided the path ahead is trigger-free).
If you focus on “yes” for the absence of bad behavior, one big caveat is don’t give your “let’s go” cue. If you give the “let’s go” signal THEN reward for calm, you’ll be rewarding your dog for ignoring the first cue.
We have to remember that our dogs take in so much stimulus during every step of every walk. Alter your approach with leash walking and focus first on rewarding your dog’s best behavior, given everything surrounding him. Leash training will be easier when your dog isn’t in an unbelievably heightened state of mind.