How To Stop Your Dog From Pulling On Leash - Part 2

Part 1 of this article was short and to the point...the only two techniques you need to stop a dog from pulling on leash are Direction Changes and Leash Pops. It really is that simple but, as with nearly everything in dog training, it’s also controversial and worthy of further discussion.

Part 2 is significantly longer, more for the dog behavior connoisseur than the social media skim reader. It gets into terminology, realistic expectations, training collars, the problem with extreme punishment and the controversy created by “Positive” dog training. You may want a comfy chair and cup of coffee for this one. Here we go:

Defining Loose Leash Walking

Most dog training advice is misinterpreted, misunderstood or misleading because there is no reference point for what is actually being discussed. For example: What is meant by “Loose Leash Walking” or “Stopping The Dog From Pulling”? It might seem obvious but that assumes everyone has the same definition as you do. They definitely do not. So, before going any further, let’s get on the same page. Ok?

Here’s my definition: “how to stop a dog from pulling” or “”how to teach loose leash walking” means that the dog is given the full length of leash and is allowed to look around, sniff the ground, go ahead, fall behind, go to the left, go to the right, etc. The only rule is NO PULLING.
It also means to teach this in a way that will actually work in the real world, with high levels of distraction that is not excessively harsh or fear inducing. Firm enough to be effective, yes, but not physically or mentally harmful to the dog or your relationship. The techniques should empower the owner to be able to confidently maintain a loose leash for hours at a time.

In other words, not teaching heel, not walking around an empty room or up and down the driveway, not throwing a pinata party just because the dog took a few steps without pulling and not yanking the dog so hard he flies through the air. I’m not talking about competition level obedience. I’m not talking about playing “Watch Me” games. I’m just talking about taking a regular pet dog for a controlled, casual walk.

I'm also not expecting the dog to never pull again for the rest of his life. I’m expecting to have a dog that is easily manageable with verbal commands and occasional leash pops. Fair enough?

It is critical to understand that not all trainers subscribe to that definition. In fact, most of the “stop dogs from pulling” articles and videos out there are actually teaching dogs to walk at the owner’s side and/or to focus on them using treats. These methods, while helpful in many ways, would more accurately be described as:

  • engagement exercises 
  • how to teach your dog to focus on you
  • how to teach a focused heel

Call them what you will, the fact of the matter is that none of those things teach a dog to avoid pulling while walking at liberty. None of those things teach the dog that pulling is actually unwanted. None of those things give the owner true control over the dog in real world situations. They are great things to teach but ultimately not a real solution for leash pulling.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of reward-based training for engagement but that is a different topic. I also find great value in teaching dogs to Heel but again, different topic. This article is about how to let a dog walk FREELY without maintaining engagement, without endlessly feeding treats and without allowing any pulling. You know, just a regular walk like most dog owners want.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Understanding this definition is critical. Otherwise the whole article may not make sense.

“What if I only want to use ‘Positive’ dog training methods?”

This is a common sentiment but first we have to ask, “What is meant by the term Positive?” There are variations in what people mean when they use that word. Let me put this another way:

Have you ever seen a movie that was based on a true story? Did you leave the theatre believing what you watched was 100% true? Hopefully we all know that being “based on” a true story is a far cry from being completely true. The reality is that the “true story” was just a springboard for Hollywood to do its magic. Sure, the movie might have been an accurate portrayal of facts but let’s face it, they probably dramatized things a little. It could be 99% fabricated and still be “based” on a true story, right?

“Why in the world is this guy talking about movies?”

Because the term “Positive Dog Training” can be similarly misleading. Obviously, positive means training with positive reinforcement but does it mean to train 100% with positive reinforcement? Or, like a Hollywood true story, is the training merely “based on” the use of rewards? Is that loosely based or strictly based? Is this Hollywood magic or real dog training? Let’s take a look behind the scenes.

“PURELY-Positive” dog trainers never use force, aversives, intimidation or dominance of any kind. They never say “No” and train through the giving and withholding of rewards and use a lot of management. This basically means keeping the dog engaged in other activities or not allowing the dog access to anything that might be a problem. For example: Having a leash on the dog so he can’t chase cars is management. Teaching the dog to walk at your side and look at you for treats is using “engagement” to distract the dog from pulling. Other terms for this style of training are “Force-Free” or “Clicker Training”.

It should be obvious that this will never actually achieve a casual loose leash walk....not by the definition I gave at the top of this article.

“If that’s true, why are there so many famous ‘Positive’ dog trainers?”

Great question! However, there are no “PURELY-Positive” trainers (famous or otherwise) that effectively train dogs to stop pulling on leash. Zip, zero, none.

“Positive” trainers that do succeed in teaching dogs to stop pulling are what I call “Primarily” rather than “Purely” Positive. “Primarily-Positive” means they use a reward-BASED system, not a reward-ONLY system. There’s that word “based” again. “Based” on a true story....“based” on the use of rewards...see the connection?

Some of the biggest names in “Positive” training...Ian Dunbar, Sophia Yin, Jean Donaldson, Bob Bailey, Patricia McConnell, Victoria Stilwell, Pat Miller...all admit that punishment and negative consequences are needed at times. Loose leash walking is clearly one of those times since most “Positive” trainers use head halters or no-pull harnesses to stop pulling. These tools use force and discomfort which are clearly not “Positive.” I’m not making this up, all you need to do is read their material and watch their videos, it’s not a secret.

So, is it possible to stop leash pulling with “Positive” training? Not really but you can minimize the amount of stress you cause the dog and increase the amount of cooperation you get from the dog by using combinations of positive and negative reinforcement. I call this “Balanced” dog training. Of course, that term gets misused as well. Perhaps the term “Integrated” or “Blended” dog training makes more sense? Humans, we’re a little wacky sometimes. Thank God dogs don’t get hung up on semantics!

“Ok, but I just don’t want to hurt my dog.”

Of course not, I don’t want you to hurt your dog either, but let’s do a little reality check and ask, what do you mean by “hurt your dog?”

This article assumes the readers are dealing with dogs that are already pulling on the leash, already choking and gagging, already experiencing some degree of discomfort or pain and in many cases have already caused injury to themselves and/or their owners. Seriously, some of my clients have literally suffered broken bones due to being pulled down by their dog. Most of them either had no previous training at all or had only been taught how to give the dog treats. Some of them actually had been taught to properly pop the leash but they refused to do it because they thought it was “mean”. 

Some people come to me after cookie training fails and are amazed at the immediate results we get. Unfortunately, many people don’t get help and just stop walking their dog. Others just get rid of the dog. Sadly lack of effective training can literally be a death sentence for some dogs. That’s an awful lot of “hurt” compared to simply popping the leash and changing directions, wouldn’t you say?

So let’s keep things in perspective. A leash pop may be uncomfortable. It might even cause a little pain. So, it might “hurt” for a microsecond but it should not injure your dog or your relationship. In fact, it should improve your dog’s life and your relationship. If the training doesn’t improve both your lives you are doing it wrong. It’s really that simple.

So I’ll ask again, what do you mean by “hurt the dog”?

How To Be As Gentle As Possible

Clearly you can’t be 100% “Positive” but there are several things you can do to be as gentle as possible. One is to use “Pressure Conditioning” which means to use positive reinforcement to teach your dog to happily accept leash pressure.

For example: Start at home with some basic lure and reward exercises. Then gently pop the leash in the direction that you are luring the dog and deliver the treat just after the pop. That’s a gentle tap, not a hard yank. You are not dragging the dog or punishing the dog, just a nudge in the direction you want him to go. At first you might use an almost imperceptible amount of leash pressure.

Dogs have an instinct to resist leash pressure called “Opposition Reflex” but making the pop very light avoids triggering that reflex. Also, popping rather than pulling leaves no time to resist. It’s already over and he’s already getting a cookie before he can resist. Pretty soon he thinks, “Hey, this isn’t a bad deal” and everybody’s happy. I’d say that’s pretty dang “Positive.”

Another option is to use a pulling rather than popping technique, typically called “Pressure and Release” leash work. Basically you hold mild tension on the leash and wait for the dog to move in that direction. As soon as you get the slightest movement in the direction of the leash pressure you drop slack in the leash as if you are trying to push a wet noodle. Some trainers prefer this method because they feel it’s more gentle than popping. I find popping the leash to be more clear to most dogs and easier for most people to do correctly. That said, I do use a very gentle “Pressure and Release” on young puppies and sensitive dogs. However, most clients with pulling problems have dogs that are already numb to leash pressure and need a pop to get their attention.

Adding distractions gradually will also help reduce the amount of leash pressure needed, hence keeping the experience “Primarily-Positive.” Generally this means not actually going out for a walk until your leash work is mastered indoors, then only going in the front yard, then pacing to the neighbors house and back, etc. I don’t find this to be necessary in most cases, but if you really want to be as soft as possible, it’s an option. I find it’s usually better to just go for a walk because the dog enjoys it more.

The Truth About Leash Pressure, Pops and Corrections

Ultimately the dog’s temperament, impulse control, physical strength, prey drive, etc. will determine how hard the leash pops need to be. Be aware that videos of dogs being trained in empty rooms, backyards, driveways, etc. are only showing introductory lessons. This gives the false impression that very light tugs is all it ever takes. The reality is this: As you venture out into the world, you will sometimes need to increase the intensity of the pop from a light communication to an actual correction. In other words, something the dog will pay attention too or work to avoid. Not violent, just firm enough to be effective. Also, don’t forget to use direction changes. Review Part 1 if you forgot what I’m talking about.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The walk itself is positive reinforcement. You almost can’t help but be “Primarily-Positive” when walking your dog. Walking is a “Mental-Emotional Cookie.” Every single step forward is “Positive”. This is why dogs endure the pain of pulling in the first place! You have to be pretty dang harsh to make the overall walking experience negative for your dog. Exceptions to this might be super sensitive dogs or dogs that don’t enjoy walks in the first place. Common sense should tell us to adjust the pop intensity to match the dog’s sensitivity. If a dog that normally loves walks is acting afraid or shutting down you are making a mistake. Stop what you are doing and reassess. Dogs that don’t like to walk are generally not pullers in the first place so that’s probably another topic such as socialization, fear or something health related.

At the end of the day, all you need to do is communicate, “I’m not trying to hurt you, I’m not mad at you, I just don’t want you to pull.” in a way that your dog can understand. Like I said in Part 1, it’s actually very simple.

“Can’t I just use a special training collar or harness or something?”

Ok, so now we’re are no longer talking about being “Positive” and the conversation switches to getting faster or easier results.

Yes, there are a variety of tools on the market (martingales, choke chains, prong collars, no-pull harnesses, head halters, etc.) for better distribution of pressure, added leverage or to make pulling uncomfortable for the dog in some way. These tools can definitely speed up the process but please DO NOT expect the tool to do all the work. You must still use the techniques outlined previously.

Before deciphering the controversy surrounding training collars we must accept the fact that we are NOT being 100% “Positive” and that we are going to be popping the leash or using some form of pressure and release techniques. Otherwise we can run into “apples and oranges” arguments. In other words, let’s not compare using a prong collar to giving the dog a cookie. Fair enough? Ok, then let’s continue.

In order to stay “apples to apples” we need to be clear that we are comparing popping and pulling the leash with one tool vs popping and pulling the leash with another tool. Through this lense we can see that training collars (used correctly) are actually designed to be more gentle on the dog. For example: a flat collar puts all the pressure on the front of the throat and a Martingale collar distributes the pressure to the muscles on the sides of the neck. Another example: to get the same result as jerking full strength on a choke collar you might only need to flick your wrist with a prong collar or head halter. The tool causes more discomfort with less force. This causes the dog to actually pay attention to the leash and the person on the other end of it. Clearly this is far more gentle on the dog’s neck and throat.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If an aversive tool such as a prong collar or head halter appears to be needed you should go back to square one of pressure conditioning with no distractions before going out for a real walk. Some dogs can go into a state of rage or panic if these tools are not introduced carefully and some dogs should simply not be trained with these tools at all.

WARNING ABOUT HEAD HALTERS: The techniques must be altered if using a head halter. Never use strong pops or allow the dog to hit the end of the leash with strong forward motion on a head halter. This can twist the neck very harshly, scratch the eyeball and possibly cause spinal injury. These tools are very effective in creating leverage but are only designed to be pulled GENTLY with the dog at your side. The proper technique is a slow pressure and release rather than a quick pop. This requires constant handler awareness and makes it impossible to safely give the dog more than 2-3 feet of leash. For this and other reasons I rarely use head halters. If you are going to use one please be careful.

“How Long Will It Take?”

People tend to think that after a handful of poorly executed and inconsistent attempts at popping the leash their dogs should just “get it” and then walk on a loose leash for the rest of their lives. They get frustrated and give up saying, “I tried but it didn’t work.” Perhaps they are just impatient or perhaps it’s due to false impressions created by so many edited videos and TV shows. Either way, this is about a million miles from a realistic expectation.

Let me ask you this: How long does it take for kids to learn to wash their hands before dinner? Or keep their elbows off the table and eat with their mouth closed? Or brush their teeth before bed? They speak English, so it’s a safe bet they understand these rules immediately. That means it should be a one time learning experience, right? Haha! Not quite! We all know that they need to be reminded over and over and over and over and over. It can literally take years to get those kids doing those things without being reminded! Especially if the parents are inconsistent, right? Well, walking a dog is similar, they will need reminders once in a while, even after they understand the rules.

There is no exact science to how long it will take but if you are wondering how long until your dog will never need reminders, I’d say forever. It just won’t happen. They will get distracted, they will daydream, they will get a burst of energy...they will need reminding like a kid. A more fair question is, “What kind of reminders and how often?”

As you train your dog you should strive for three things that I think are totally realistic:

  1. Response to verbal reminders (obedience commands) such as “Easy.”
  2. Leash pops getting softer and softer, to the point that even “Positive” trainers would feel foolish calling it inhumane.
  3. Reminders, verbal or physical, getting less and less frequent.

In most cases reminders become so subtle that people won’t notice you are doing anything. They will think the dog just “gets it.” The secret to reaching that goal is consistency, realizing that you will being doing thousands of pops and that some of those pops may need to be firm.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Some “Traditional” trainers may argue with my statements, citing permanent results in 12 weeks or so. This is because really harsh corrections can make a dog afraid to move away from your side whenever a leash is on. For example: Some of these trainers advocate for corrections that send the dog flying eight feet through the air as you literally run full speed in the opposite direction. Yes, this can be effective in stopping a dog from pulling but it can also be effective in creating permanent fear or mistrust, not to mention physically harming the dog. This can affect the overall relationship with your dog as well as make other training efforts impossible.

For example: A couple years ago I worked with a dog that came from this type of training. He was clearly terrified to move from a Heel position with a leash on but when the leash was off he would run away. I was trying to use a 50’ long line to work on his recall but it was impossible because the dog was glued to my side. It was very sad to see. This is the result of “Purely-Punitive” dog training that is cited in the campaigns of “Positive” training extremists. I honestly didn’t think trainers like that still existed but apparently they do. For sure, that type of training will “hurt your dog” and it’s simply just not necessary.

The reality is that there is plenty of room in the middle of the extremes for “Balanced” or “Primarily-Positive” training. I think a few reminders here and there is a small price to pay for a healthy relationship with a happily obedient dog that understands negative consequences but does not walk in fear. Wouldn’t you agree?

Hiring a Trainer

You know, it’s really hard to explain this stuff in writing and probably even harder to learn it by reading. In person I can teach most people to go for a decent walk with their dog in one or two private lessons. Most people can also get the hang of this by the end of my six week basic obedience group class.

It might be wise to find a good “Balanced” or “Primarily-Positive” trainer in your area and take a lesson or two. Unless your dog is aggressive, leash reactive, fearful or has some other issue that makes it a bigger project, an experienced trainer should be able to walk your dog decently during the first lesson. If not, they may not be qualified. Training you to be able to it...well, that may take longer but the trainer should be able to inspire you by showing you what’s possible pretty darn quick.

Conclusion

Pop the leash and change directions, that’s it. Use a training collar for leverage if you need it. Be fair and consistent, have a “Positive” walk and don’t make it too complicated. Peace!

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-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2018