How to Train a Dog to Stop Pulling on the Leash

A loose leash dog walk is a joy! Check out this streaming DVD for tips.
A loose leash dog walk is a joy! Check out this streaming DVD for tips.

[Click here to see some great custom leashes!]

If your dog pulls on the leash, then the walk is neither healthy for your dog nor relaxing for you. It's also a sign that you and your dog are not paying attention to each other -- it takes two to pull, after all.

Walks with your dog can feel like walking meditation, not a battle! One wonderful thing is that if the human learns not to pull on the leash, the dog can learn much more easily! Please learn about the BAT leash skills in this article [click here] or the BAT Leash Skills webinar to help set your dog up for success. It's very helpful to start out your dog's training by first teaching yourself not to pull.

Pulling on leash is very rewarding to a dog. What do I mean by this? The action of pulling doesn't feel so bad at the time and it gets them where they need to go. That's the reinforcer. Any habit as rewarding as pulling on the leash takes commitment and consistency to change.

NOTE: Keep in mind that a dog that's beside you on a tight leash is still pulling!

Make this promise to yourself now: I WILL NEVER WALK MY DOG ON A TIGHT LEASH. (Do bring her slowly to a stop, not just sudden. Slight exception: see the silky leash section)

Think of it this way. Let's say you are addicted to gambling, that you have a habit of gambling until you run out of money that you actually need for something else. As intervention, your family prevents you from gambling. You watch them carefully and about once a week, they aren't paying attention and you slip out for an evening of gambling and you win big. Are you still addicted to gambling? Yes. Are you ever going to stop at this rate? No. In fact, I'd say your desire to gamble is probably stronger!

So...the habit of pulling on leash is similar to a gambling addiction. Your dog wants to go forward and sometimes pulling on the leash has a big payoff, so he might as well try it all the time. What to do? Follow the Training and Management tips below.

Note: If you have more than one dog, practice the following leash training techniques on each dog separately, at first. Yes, that means walking your dogs one at a time, which ultimately will really pay off.

Training for Loose Leash Walking

  1. Reward him for eye contact. Learn how to use the clicker (see our video on modern dog training). Practice walking on leash or even off leash in the house, where your dog probably doesn't pull. Each time he looks at you, click and give him a treat. Whenever you go on a walk, do the same. This helps bring your dog's focus back to you. It's hard to pull if he's looking at you!
  2. Reward him for being in the Sweet Spot. Click and treat whenever he is in the area near your left leg (It doesn't have to be the left, but that's the traditional side. Just pick one and stick with it.) Soon he will begin to think that it is a very good thing to be near you, on your left side. As time goes by, fade out the use of food by treating less and less frequently. You'll need more treats if the distraction level goes up.
  3. Silky Leash - the core of Silky Leash training is to teach your dog to notice the lightest flutter of the leash. In a small room,  lift the clasp of the leash so it's barely tight, not actually pulling in an aversive way. Give her a two seconds to see if she happens to move in a direction that loosens the leash. If she does, reinforce that movement with a treat (food, toy, affection).If she doesn't move in that direction, you can prompt it somehow. For example, move away from her while letting the leash slide through your hands, make a kissy noise, or use a technique I call Slide: reach one hand out until the leash touches your open palm. Slide along the leash toward yourself, then swap hands. Reinforce the movement that loosens the lash.

    The step-by-step progression is what makes Silky Leash so powerful. I have more information about that in the Ahimsa Dog Training Manual.

  4. Canine Cha-cha. Another way teach your dog to keep close tabs on you is to be unpredictable. On your walk, even if he is not pulling, suddenly change direction, letting leash slide out of your hand so you can move without dragging him toward you. This is where a 15-foot (5 meter) leash comes in very handy.If your dog was pulling, do a Slow Stop before walking backwards (one of the BAT Leash Skills).  Any pressure is not meant as correction, just meant to keep him from getting the reinforcer of forward motion, so don't jerk the leash. Sudden direction changes work wonderfully off leash, too.

    When he first turns toward you, give him a treat. Repeat - over and over and over. As time goes on, don't reward him if it was his idea to pull, only if you suddenly walked back without him pulling ahead. As time goes on, you will stop walking backwards, just reward your dog at your side and keep moving forward. This is similar to Silky Leash, but you can do it on your regular walk.

  5. Feeding Tree. Dogs have a natural resistance to pressure, called the Opposition Reflex. This helps them get out of brambles that catch at their fur, but makes it hard for us to teach them to go into the direction of a pulling leash, not away from it. Leash pressure can be from a dog stopping or from a dog pulling ahead, or from you changing directions. Do not allow the dog to go where it wants to on a tight leash. You can just stop, be a tree, and wait (or back up or keep walking forward, letting line out as you go).When the leash pressure eventually eases up - you should feel this in your hand, though you can see it by the way the leash begins to sag - click and give the dog a treat at your side. You can do this inside the house, and I think that's the best place to start. It's best to combine the Feeding Tree with rewarding for the Sweet Spot, else the dog is forced to pull on the leash to get more cookies. I highly recommend doing the Silk Leash practice so that your dog has some information about the leash being a cue to move in that direction.
  6. Speed as a Treat. I think I made this one up; somebody correct me if I'm wrong. A popular technique is to "be a tree" if the dog gets to the end of the leash. You can extend that technique into what I call Speed Training by walking fastest when the dog is next to you in heel position (speed = 1) and slower as s/he gets farther away (speed =.75, .25, etc.). Slightly before they arrive at the end of the leash, you have the option of slapping your thigh or saying something like "easy" and if s/he reaches the end, either stop (speed = 0) or do the Cha-Cha (speed = -1). At first, the maximum speed might be running - whatever pace your dog wants. As the weeks go by, it's gradually slower and slower to match our boring human pace. By inserting the word "Run!" or "Quickly!" just before you speed up, you can also teach your dog to walk fast on cue - great for intersections.
  7. Focused Walking. This is a technique that I learned in agility class at Dog Sports Northwest near Seattle. Teach your dog to follow your finger, as a fun game. This is your defense against cats, children, dogs, and other fascinating things. Let's say your dog is on your left, leash in your right hand.
    Put the clicker in your right hand as well and load your left hand with treats. Put one finger out on the treat hand, like you were pointing at something. Encourage your dog to chase that finger (remember, this is a fun game, not a boring obedience exercise!)Click and treat right as they get close to the hand target. After about ten times in a quiet setting, your dog will probably follow the target with no food in the target hand. Click and feed your dog dog a treat from somewhere else, like your right hand. You'll need to work on being able to stand up straight while your dog does this. If she jumps, just click when she's on the floor, and she'll stay on the floor more. Remember, dogs do what works!
  8. Work on your relationship. Pulling on the leash can be a sign that your relationship with your dog could use a little tweaking. Do you demand that he pay attention to you without you paying attention to him? One way to improve your dog's response to cues is to use real life rewards, the things your dog wants anyway (see our handout on the Say Please Protocol.)
  9. Set your dog up for success. For all of the above techniques, work in situations where your dog will be successful. If you take him out to train and he is pulling every which way, he is not going to learn, and you will just become frustrated. Believe me, I've been there!!Back up a step or two -- work at home, inside, with only a few distractions. Then work in the yard. Next, work in front of the house. Make your training walks longer and longer. Avoid distractions that your dog is not ready for: if you can make it to the park, but not through it, for example, bring along one of the management tools below for the currently-impossible stage of walking nicely through the park.

Physical Tools for Loose Leash Walking

Long Line. You need to learn how to use it first, but using a longer leash well helps your dog pull less. I recommend a 15-foot leash in most cases.

Body Harnesses.  There are many kinds of body harnesses. Front-attachment harnesses offer great control but are best used with two points of attachment (clip on back of harness with one end of your leash and the front of harness with the other end). For brands, I like the Balance Harness, XtraDog, and the fleece-lined PerfectFit from the UK. Learn how to use the BAT leash skills so that you can use a regular harness instead of a no-pull harness.

I learned the leash skills in the BAT 101 webinar, and I further refined them in the Leash Skills webinar. Once I got the hang of walking in a new way, I saw a tremendous change in my dog's happiness  and confidence- and I rediscovered the simple joy of walking with my  dog. I highly recommend that every pet guardian and professional  trainer learn the leash skills! - Beck

If you need extra control, you can use two points of attachment on the harness. I do that using a  double-ended leash with snaps at both ends. Never use collars or other devices that are intended to startle or cause pain.

Be careful when you are picking out a “no-pull” harness. Try to figure out why the dog wouldn’t pull in it. If it’s because it hurts to pull, you might want to keep looking (for example, I avoid the Sporn harness).

I like harnesses that have multiple points of attachment, a Y in the front, and fit so that the straps are not in the armpits.

Benefits of clipping one of the snaps to the front: the dog turns around to face you when it tries to pull.

Downside: the front is not a strong place to clip a harness to, in terms of a dogs physical structure. So also attach to the back of the harness and use that if you are needing to fully restrain the dog. For example, if he’s lunging at another dog, use the back clip to hold him back and only light touches on the front to get him to turn

Front-clip harnesses are especially made for hooking up in the front and do a great job of redirecting the dog. Adding in a front clip is one of my favorite management options, because dogs take little or no time to get used to a change in leash configuration and it works very well.

Drawbacks: you need to be sure that your dog's harness is fit well and allows for full range of motion on the dog's legs and shoulders. Clipping to the front only may cause alignment issues. I don't recommend the EasyWalk harness because that often slips down. Even fit "well," the flat chest strap restricts the dog's range of motion.

Build-it-yourself harness.  This is an emergency method. Let’s say you are on a normal stroll, you thought you’d be in a training mood but suddenly, your teen-aged Fido is just too irritating to deal with. To make matters worse, you left the harness at home.

Take your leash and loop the handle end under the dog’s midriff. Now you have two places to grab the leash — one on either side of the dog. Gather both of them up in one hand and you’ll have more control than you had before. There are lots of ways to make your leash into a harness – experiment!

Options I generally don’t recommend.  I prefer not to use head collars whenever possible, virtually never. I don’t ever recommend the use of slip chains (a.k.a. choke chains), prong collars, martingale collars, basically any collar that works because of the pain or irritation the dog will experience. They lead to aggression too often for my liking, and they get in the way of training.

If a martingale is currently being used to keep the dog from backing out, an easy option is to attach a carabiner from the front of the harness to the martingale. That way, if the dog were to get out of the harness, your leash is still attached to the dog. Be sure to fit the martingale in such a way that even if it did tighten all the way, it’s still no smaller than the dog’s neck. Additionally, work on finding out why the dog is backing out. I tend to see that mostly in situations where the dog is already very uncomfortable.

I prefer not to use a retractable leash, because that puts constant pressure on the dog. The leash is always tight, so the dog learns to ignore light pressure. Retractable leashes can be used in safe and useful ways, but the standard way is not just bad for training, but also potentially dangerous.

If you'd like to learn more about leash walking, check out my Walk With Me! DVD (also available as an online streaming video). That video covers the BAT Leash Skills for long lines and also several training tips for loose leash walking and heel.

No guarantee is stated or implied in this article and if you follow any of the advice in it, you do so at your own risk. If you ever feel that you, your dog, or others are at risk because of your dog, please seek the services of a professional dog trainer.