Improving your dog’s leash skills is about using brains, not brawn. There are plenty of devices out there—prong collars and choke collars among them—that claim to correct your dog’s pulling on leash. Unfortunately, while they are useful, they’re also dangerous.
There is a better way!
Choose the right equipment
What if I told you there is equipment available that will help your dog to walk more nicely on leash without causing them pain?
Well, guess what? You’re in luck. There are two types of harnesses that can not only help improve your dog’s walking skills but, when used correctly, they’re gentle and pain-free.
The anti-pull harness
Putting the leash in front of the dog gives you a sort of power steering, in which if your dog pulls ahead on the leash, they feel tension that tries to turn them in one direction or another. Since your dog doesn’t want to turn, he will slow down to continue moving straight ahead and voilà: no more pulling.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. On a large percentage of dogs, the anti-pull harness is enormously effective—magical, almost. But for other dogs, while still a better option than harnesses that clip on the spine, it won’t give you the kind of boost you were hoping for.
There are a couple other things to keep in mind about the anti-pull harness. First, it’s not a training tool, it’s a management tool. It works while your dog is wearing the harness, but the dog isn’t learning anything from it. Second, because of the harness’ snug fit under the armpits, it can chafe some dogs. This problem is easily resolved by wrapping that section of the harness with a soft, cushy material like felt.
The head halter
A head halter, like the Gentle Leader or Halti, works on the same principle as a halter used to walk a 1000-lb. horse: by giving you control over the most sensitive part of your dog’s body. If they pull ahead, the tension on the leash causes their head to turn and, when your dog’s head turns, their whole body needs to follow. To avoid turning, your dog will slow down and stop pulling on the leash.
This is a great option for dogs who need more than an anti-pull harness. Though they look a little alarming, head halters are not muzzles—your dog can even carry a ball while wearing one. But just like the anti-pull harness, there are a couple of caveats to be aware of.
First, and most importantly, most dogs do not much like things on their faces. If you purchase a head halter and immediately put it on your dog, they will spend the whole walk attempting to remove it. In order to convince them that the halter is harmless, you’ll need to gradually desensitize your dog to it.
Second, the head halter has the nasty habit of chafing the nose of some dogs, creating a little, raw bald spot. Wrapping the nose band with soft material (or buying a halter with a cushioned nose band) can help prevent this.
Both the anti-pull harness and the head halter should only be worn during a walk; remove them from your dog when you return home.
Training for a beautiful walk
Now that you’ve got the right equipment doing some of the work for you, these training exercises will help you to set your dog up for long-term walking success.
Red light, green light
WIth this game, your dog learns that pulling on the leash literally gets him nowhere. Here’s how it works:
- When your dog pulls on leash, plant your feet and stop moving.
- Either wait for your dog to loosen up on the leash or use your voice to get them to turn toward you, thus releasing tension on the leash. Do not use your strength to pull your dog back to you.
- When your dog has loosened up on the leash, begin moving again.
- Repeat any time your dog pulls.
A dog that walks nicely on leash is a dog that is walking with their guardian, not being walked by them. When your dog is regularly checking in with you (looking back at you) to make sure you’re still together, you’ll start to become a team. Begin to build this habit with the Name Game.
- While walking your dog, say their name in a happy tone of voice.
- When your dog looks at you, mark it with the word “YES!” and reward your dog with a treat while still moving forward.
- Repeat frequently. Try first doing this five times every block then gradually decrease the frequency to four, three, two, then one time per block. As you decrease the frequency of the Name Game, your dog should continue to regularly look back at you even if you haven’t said their name. Be sure to mark and reward them each time they do!
Hand-targeting (often cued with the word “touch”) is a way of getting your dog to move through space without pulling on the leash. It’s like putting a magnet between your hand and your dog’s nose which causes them to return to you when they start to pull too far away. Be sure to teach your dog a solid “touch” before attempting this exercise.
- If your dog starts to drift away from you or pulls, put out your hand at your side and ask for a “Touch.”
- When your dog touches their nose to your hand, mark it with the word “YES!” and reward them with a treat while still moving forward.
- Repeat as needed.
The case against prong and choke collars
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, collars that cause pain are prevalent. Here’s a little more detail about why I don’t believe that they work in the long run.
These types of equipment all work on the principle of applying pressure and pain to your dog’s neck when they pull on the leash.
Dog pulls → Dog feels pain → Dog slows down and stops pulling to alleviate the pain.
The problem is that this scenario may not be the most obvious one from your dog’s perspective. These devices can’t distinguish between my dog pulling because he’s eager to rush ahead or because he sees another dog or person who wants to say hello. All my dog knows is: pulling causes pain.
If that pain occurs every time he sees another dog or a friendly human, my dog may believe that it’s their presence causing the pain; he doesn’t recognize that I’m the one at the back of the leash making him uncomfortable.
Once my dog believes that environmental stimuli are resulting in his pain, he’s going to do what he can to prevent them from getting close. To do this, he may bark and lunge, growl, or try to get away when he sees other dogs or people coming. Here’s a classic origin story for leash reactivity:
Dog pulls toward frien to say hello → Dog feels pain → Dog thinks friend is causing him pain → Dog barks and lunges to keep friend away
The worst part of this training misfire is that it’s not even teaching my dog to slow down; it’s teaching him, instead, to make a display when he anticipates pain is on its way.
Just remember: there is a better way. Consistency, patience, and calm are key to a well-behaved dog on leash.