A common myth is that dogs pull on leash because they are trying to be “dominant” and “lead the pack.” This myth perpetuates another myth, that a dog should always walk behind his owner and that if he chances to forge ahead, it is because he does not respect the handler or is somehow challenging the handler’s authority.
Many trainers and behavior professionals have already fulfilled the “Mythbuster” role addressing the urban legend of dominance in dogs. For those wanting more information, check out the following resources:
Morgan Spector on the dominance myth
Debunking Dominance Theory by Karen Pryor
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Position Statement on Dominance
Association of Pet Dog Trainers Position Statement on Dominance
Drs. Suzanne Hetts and Patricia McConnell on Dominance Mythologies
Since these, and many other, individuals and organizations have done such a phenomenal job publicizing the truth about a dog’s perception of social hierarchy, I will attempt to pick up the mantle of truth as it applies to why dogs actually pull on leash.
REASON #1: IT WORKS!
Dogs pull on the leash because it works – it gets them where they want to go. Dogs are essentially hedonists. They do what feels good for them. They are also practical – they do what works.
Dogs probably think humans really like walking on a tight leash because they do it all the time.
In the context of practicing loose leash walking (as I mentioned earlier in the week, I use different equipment to cue the dogs when it is “doggy walk” time and when it is a “working walk”), my dogs learn that tight leashes make the walk stop. I freeze, leashes held against my navel, and wait for as long as it takes for the dogs to make the decision to take tension off the leash. When they move back toward me to loosen the leash, the walk resumes. The reward in this case is not a click and treat, but a chance to resume forward movement.
This “Be a Tree” technique gets a bad reputation for a few reasons: improper execution, inconsistency and lack of training.
Improper Execution: To be effective, the leash needs to remain in a neutral position. If my leash hand is two feet away from my body, even if I stop still, my dogs have the room to take steps forward and be reinforced for walking on a tight leash. Since dogs and humans both have opposition reflex, which means we instinctively resist pressure when applied. It’s a classic “Pushmi-Pullyu”, tug of war. A hands-free leash or a leash held in a consistent, neutral position anchored against the body will help greatly.
Inconsistency: People often try this for one walk and get frustrated about ten minutes into the exercise because it hasn’t worked miracles yet. Generally, the dogs with the strongest pulling behavior also have the longest and strongest reinforcement histories for that behavior. This means it won’t be cured overnight. You can’t just do this on one walk or for part of your walk, you must practice it on every walk until your dog is reliable walking on a loose leash. All people that walk the dog must be 100% consistent in application for this technique to help.
Lack of Training: “Be a Tree” is only a management technique, intended to prevent the dog from receiving reinforcement for the wrong behavior. To be truly effective, this technique must be combined with reinforcement for the appropriate walking behavior.
REASON #2: THEY’RE FASTER THAN WE ARE!
Try winning a race with your dog. Let me know in the comments how successful you were.
REASON #3: THEY’RE UNTRAINED
Lack of training is the number one reason dogs pull on the leash. Walking on a loose leash is not a natural behavior for dogs, it is a learned behavior. If you want your dog to learn this behavior, you must teach it to them! A good, positive reinforcement trainer will be able to give you tips on developing loose leash walking behavior.
REASON #4: THE ENVIRONMENT IS MORE REINFORCING THAN THE HANDLER
Dogs gravitate toward things that are interesting. Owners are well-advised to find ways to become very interesting to their dogs. This may involve the use of amazing treats, favorite toys, and environment rewards like the opportunity to sniff, chase, or roll in the grass.
A strong and consistent reinforcement history makes owners very interesting to dogs. Until you’ve established a strong reinforcement history, practice your loose leash walking skills in no, and then low distraction level environments.
REASON #5: EQUIPMENT
Certain equipment can actually contribute to pulling behaviors. No pull harnesses and head halters are generally the best equipment for managing the pulling behavior while you train for polite walking. As a word of warning, many dogs strongly dislike head halters, so if you plan on using one, find a trainer who will teach you how to appropriately desensitize your dog to wearing it before you begin using it in your sessions.
Really, equipment doesn’t fix or cause loose leash walking problems. Only training can teach a dog to walk nicely on a loose leash. A dog can be trained to walk nicely on any collar or harness. In fact, whenever possible I like to train a dog to walk next to me without any equipment at all, relying only on reinforcement history and trained behavior to keep the dog with me – the leash should only be a management tool, never a training tool.
For me personally, unless I’m working specifically on heeling, I don’t care where my dogs walk in relation to me. They can be in front of me, beside me, or behind me as long as the leash is loose!