Blog - Walking the Dog

Posted Thursday, 21 April 2016

Why do so many dogs pull on the lead despite training?

Part 1

As I walk my own dog or drive around I can’t help noticing dogs dragging their owners about on the ends of leads (yes, I admit to being ever so slightly obsessed!). Yet there is so much information available about teaching loose lead walking! I regularly see an array of Facebook posts and information on how to train dogs to “walk to heel”. Most of these articles focus on the practical techniques on how to train a dog to walk nicely on a lead. There are excellent books which also look at different techniques to teach dogs to walk nicely on the lead. There is a massive range of products designed to cure pulling on the lead from harnesses, head collars, various strangely designed leads and very recently, even cans of pleasantly scented spray which all proclaim to cure dogs of pulling on the lead!

So why is it that when I am out in my car or walking my dogs, most of the dogs I see are pulling their owners on the lead?

I have reflected on this and the answer is: there is no “one size fits all” way to address this problem.

I think where most people have failed to train a loose lead walk is that they have not understood the MOTIVATION or EMOTION which drives this behaviour. Nor have they understood that this varies between dogs.

Why do Dogs Pull?

So, why do dogs pull? We need to answer this question about a dog before we can teach an owner how to train their dog to deliver a nice loose leash walk. There is a long list of reasons that I see which explain why dogs are not walking on a loose leash. For example, (not limited to):

1. Owner is not holding the lead correctly.
2. Dog wants to sniff.
3. Dog wants to forage.
4. Dog wants to greet.
5. Dog wants to get somewhere quicker.
6. Dog is frightened and trying to get away.
7. Dog is has no manners and wants to do what he wants to do.
8. Dog has not learned to or does not want to pay attention to the owner.
9. Dog is distracted by something else in the environment.
10. Dog wants to pee/poo.
11. Dog is stressed (this is different from being frightened).
12. Dog is unable to control his behaviour in the environment.
13. The equipment used to control dogs when walking is not fitted correctly and/or is uncomfortable for the dog.
14. Dog has not learned what is expected of him – For these dogs, all those wonderful "how to..." articles and books which describe various techniques to teach dogs to walk nicely should be helpful.

However, some of the training you will try may have limited success until you address the underlying cause of the behaviour. A lot of people find that using food rewards for teaching a dog to walk nicely on a lead are not very effective. If you look at the list above, you will see a number of explanations for this, for example: if a dog is afraid, his digestive system shuts down in response to increasing levels of Corticotrophin Releasing Hormones which suppress the appetite. You don’t need to eat if you feel you are about to have to run for your life or fight to survive as this would slow you down. So the fearful dog is unlikely to respond to treats during training to walk nicely on the lead (See next week's BLOG for more on this one).

Another explanation for dogs not responding to food in training is that food may have a lower reinforcement value for them than something else that they could have if they pulled on the lead instead. I remember working with a huge intact male chocolate Labrador called Flynn. A recent rescue, his owners were dragged down the road by this bull like Labrador whose mission in life was to advertise his sexual status to all the dogs in Dorset! Seriously, this dog cocked his leg every four paces to advertise his services! Marking his territory was far more important to him than eating cheese. Yes, I know, he really was a Labrador too! It takes all types I guess! The way we taught this chap to walk nicely was to make marking contingent on walking nicely. So, if he tried to pull to mark, his owners dug deep and clung on to him, not allowing him to sniff and mark. But if he walked one step without pulling, he was led over to sniff and mark a lamp post (or anything else suitable, blade of grass even). As they made progress, he walked 2 steps before marking, 3 steps before marking, etc..... you know where we are going with this. Using this technique, this dog was walking nicely on the lead after just two weeks. He was four years old at the time and had probably always pulled on the lead. No treats were used, nor would they have been useful as they were less important to him than marking his territory. Professional dog trainers will know that this technique is called the "Premack Principle". Basically this technique works on the basis that the dog is rewarded by a behaviour HE wants to do, as long as he gives you a behaviour YOU want him to do. This technique can use intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic rewards and is very successful. So, if food isn't working whilst you are trying to train your dog to walk nicely on the lead, do consider what else he might be motivated to work for. 


In this photo you will see that I am allowing Lily to sniff even though she is pulling on the lead. This tells her it is OK to pull and her reward for pulling on the lead is sniffing. If I allow this, even occasionally (look how I sacrificed my own training to show you this.... if she pulls now, it's all your fault, ha ha), she will continue to try to pull me if she wants to sniff something. I look more like I am flying a kite than walking a dog here. I should either stop her from sniffing if she is pulling, or allow her to sniff whilst on a slack lead. See second image below. Here I allow Lily to sniff whilst on a slack lead. This way the slack lead is reinforced by allowing her to sniff ONLY when the lead has no tension.

First Step to Loose Lead Walking.

How to Hold the Lead

The first step in learning to walk a dog nicely on the lead is for the owner to learn how to hold the lead properly. Many gather up the lead into a short lead so that the dog can't get too far ahead, but this technique actually INDUCES pulling. Yes, it really does. If you imagine that time someone came up behind you and unexpectedly grabbed you by the arm, what did you do? Did you allow them to pull you away and go with the flow? Or did you pull away from them? Everyone I have asked this question of says that they pull away. This is because of a reflex response (negative thigmataxis). But pulling away actually increases the tension. Imagine a lead on a dog; the lead tightens up around the dog's neck so he pulls to escape from it. However, it actually increases the tension as the dog is unable to escape (he is attached), so he pulls even harder. Believe it or not, if you make a special effort to hold the lead in a way that it hangs slack between you and the dog (I affectionately call this a "loopy lead" or a "smiling lead"), he is less likely to pull and becomes more relaxed; it takes some practice though. 

In this picture you will see how I suggest you hold the lead. Hold the lead in one hand, let the lead cross your body and be ready to take up the slack in the free hand, but the lead is still slack between this hand and the dog's collar.This way you have a firm hold of the handle part, but your other hand is ready to hold should the dog decide to do something unwise (like jump up or pounce on a passing dog). This gives the handler control without increasing tension (unless it becomes necessary for safety reasons). 

Please look out for the follow ons from this BLOG where I will discuss challenges and solutions to help address dogs which are not learning to walk on a slack lead.

Lily says, this modelling work is boring, nice stretch after her work is done! Thank you for your time and expertise Miss Lily!