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5 Reasons Your Dog Still Pulls When Walking on a Leash

If your dog hasn't mastered a relaxed walk at your side, you may have made one of these five mistakes.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Feb 25th 2016


One of the most common reasons dog owners contact trainers is for help with walking their dogs on leash. Dogs pull for a variety of reasons — one being the fact that they have two more legs than we do. They are not pulling in some bizarro canine attempt to dominate you (please do your dog a favor and Google “dominance theory debunked”). They often pull because the human has not sufficiently or clearly communicated how he wants the dog to behave on leash. Some dogs pull and lunge, bark and growl at oncoming dogs, and that is a behavioral issue and not an obedience issue.

I want to address those dogs who yank their owners down the street in their eagerness to walk. Here are the top five reasons your dog may not have mastered a relaxed, on-leash walk with you:

1. You skipped important training steps

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It’s important to begin training when a dog is still a puppy. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

I begin training every dog in an enclosed room because I want to control the environment for the first few sessions. Notice I didn’t say I want to control the dog. I want to control what is appealing to the dog, and a room has less appeal than the great outdoors.

I help the dog to learn that staying beside me as I walk around the room — the dog is off leash — is a wonderful, fun, and treat-delivering place to be. I begin nearly all training off leash and indoors first. I want the dog to choose to be close to me. It pays off in huge dividends when we move to leash work.

2. You aren’t encouraging your dog enough

All dogs need clear, effective and reinforcing communication to learn to walk politely on leash. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

All dogs need clear, effective, and reinforcing communication to learn to walk politely on leash. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

Over the years, one of the key distinctions I’ve noticed between effective dog trainers and owners is that we dog trainers use a LOT more reinforcement when teaching a new skill. In other words, I pay out A LOT of very good meat or cheese reinforcements in the beginning stage of training. Later on, it is important to switch to a random reinforcement. It makes a huge difference in training if you see yourself as your dog’s coach and you say “YES!” every time the dog make the right guess in the beginning of training. Note I am not bribing the dog. I am showing him that staying close to me is highly rewarding, and then rewarded behavior continues and increases.

3. You are “no!” junkie

Are you constantly telling your dog “no”? If yes, you are focused on the wrong angle of training. It’s boring and un-fun and even unproductive to be the Queen of No.

Instead, think about what you want your dog to do and train for that, instead of training against a negative. If you want the dog to stop pulling your arm off, train a behavior you want instead — meaning reinforce the heck out of your dog for looking up at you on a walk and for staying by your side. Catch your dog walking beside you and reinforce with food, or a pet, or a “yes!” and so on. Switching over to a “yes — you did that right” kind of trainer solves a lot of problems.

4. You rushed the walk

Use the environment itself as a huge reinforcer! (Photo by Annie Phenix)

Use the environment itself as a huge reinforcer! (Photo by Annie Phenix)

Too many dog owners have an old tape playing in their human brains about the purpose of a dog walk. They feel it is only about the exercise and that the dogs must have lots of it. Not so. If we could see what a dog smells outside, we’d all be a lot more impressed that any of them agree to come when called at all. I prefer a walk to be first and foremost about allowing a dog to use her most powerful tool: her nose.

Instead of a human-focused, fast-paced walk around the neighborhood, begin each walk with a leisurely sniff about for the dog. Let them read all of the “emails” left behind on grass and bushes.

Of course, you don’t want your dog dragging you over to the smells. You can use the environment as the reinforcer. I like dogs to look at me when I call their names, and then I give a quick “yes!” and we go immediately to the area they wanted to sniff. The dog quickly learns to turn his head in my direction so that he can get to that very important message left behind by the previous dog or wild animal.

5. You are using the wrong walking equipment

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Too often, humans rush a dog on a walk. Let them sniff and explore, and be sure to use the right dog walking equipment. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

The skin on a dog’s neck is more sensitive than our own. Would you like something made to inflict pain strapped on tight to your sensitive neck? The underside of the neck houses crucial body parts, such as the thyroid and the trachea. Anything restrictive on the neck (even a flat collar or a chain collar can damage a dog) is not helping you teach your dog not to pull. It is working to teach your dog that a maniac with a penchant for causing pain to the neck holds the other end of the leash.

Punitive equipment is focused on the “no.” I prefer instead a quality harness, such as a Freedom Harness. And no, proper harnesses are not teaching your dog to pull. They simply are not designed to do that.

I hope you’ll give these tips a try. Let me know of your progress in the comments!

Read more by Annie Phenix:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.