Training To Not Pull On Leash

trusting paws

by Naomi Heck-

The most common complaint I hear from owners is pulling on the leash.  My orthopedic doctor says he repairs many torn tendons due to this problem, and I even had a client who broke his shoulder as a result of being pulled down by his very large dog.   A huge amount of force can be exerted by your German Shorthaired Pointer hitting the end of a leash.  The longer the leash attached to the dog, the higher the impact on your arm and shoulder.

A few years ago I received a painful rope burn on my hand that took over a month to heal when a client’s Labrador Retriever bolted toward another dog that suddenly appeared while I was training her on a 15 foot line.  And this lab was wearing a no-pull harness.  I prefer using soft leather leashes over the nylon ones which are more abrasive on the hands.  A retractable leash like a Flexi ™ actually teaches a dog to pull because he gets to go where he wants up to a 15 foot radius by putting tension on the leash.  And have you ever had a dog wrap the skinny line of a Flexi around your legs while wearing shorts?  Ouch!

My most memorable pulling incident happened years ago when I was training service dogs.  Yes, those well-behaved working dogs you see in malls and restaurants are just like any other high energy sporting dog when they are young.  A group of us trainers went on a field trip to Boyd’s Big Tree Preserve in the mountains north of Harrisburg.  During a peaceful walk in the woods, we came upon a pond.  I was doing some hands-free training with a clicker and treats so I had the leash attached to my waist.  As soon as my dog saw the other dogs playing by the water’s edge, he took off.   Down the muddy hill to the pond he ran, dragging me face down laughing and screaming.  It would have made a good YouTube video!  Luckily he spared me a dunking and stopped when he reached the pond.  The moral of the story?  Use the proper equipment and be ready for the unexpected.

So, what is the best equipment to keep a dog from pulling and possibly embarrassing or injuring you?  Well, it depends on several things, like the size of the dog, its temperament, your patience, and your willingness to take the time to learn how to use it correctly.  I’ve tested numerous dog-walking products in the form of collars and harnesses.  Collars I’ve tested include:  the plain buckle type, head collar, choke chain, nylon choke, martingale style (aka greyhound collar), prong collar (metal and plastic) and electric shock collar. Harnesses I’ve tried include: the standard style with the leash attachment on top of the dog’s back, no-pull types with the leash attachment in front of the chest, and a harness with straps that tighten under the dog’s armpits.  I have even resorted to the emergency half hitch around the dog’s belly with a 6 foot leash (works well in a pinch but I don’t recommend it for a long term solution).

A few decades ago, the choke collar was the tool of choice.  It is what many obedience instructors and training books recommended.  With the collar place high on the dog’s neck, “corrections” (quick leash jerks) were delivered when the dog pulled or went beyond a pre-determined radius from the handler’s leg.  The dog learned how to avoid this unpleasant consequence by sticking close to the handler.  This technique is still popular today despite the current trend toward less aversive training methods.

Pain avoidance can stop a dog from doing something you don’t like, but there is potential for undesirable side effects.  I have seen dogs whose necks have been injured by the improper use of choke collars.  I recently saw a dog that would lose consciousness when lunging at other dogs while wearing a choke collar.  The owner had expected the choking effect of the collar to be an adequate deterrent to pulling, but this dog was of a breed that typically has a high tolerance to pain.  For this dog, the benefits of pulling far outweighed any discomfort, especially in a highly aroused state.

A dog can develop unintended associations with things in the environment when punishment is used in training.  For example, the sight of another dog can come to predict a painful leash correction, causing the dog to become more agitated.   The sight of the collar itself can cause a dog to shy away if it has been paired with pain.  A high level of skill is required when using equipment that relies on corrections. Even so, unforeseen fallout can occur despite a person’s best efforts.

So what do I recommend?  For most dogs, I like using a harness that allows the leash to be clipped in front of the chest.  When the dog forges ahead and hits the end of the leash, there is nothing into which the dog can push (if you stand still).  He will just spin around and end up facing you.  It’s physics working FOR you!  I call it “power steering”.  In contrast, a leash clipped onto the back just makes pulling more comfortable for the dog (think sled dogs).  My favorite brand of front clip harness is the Freedom No-Pull Harness™ by Wiggles Wags and Whiskers.  There are actually 2 rings for leash attachment, one in the front and one on top of the back for additional options.  A double ended leash can be used to clip onto both rings for more control if desired.  The belly strap is made of velvety material for comfort.  A similar harness called the Easy Walk Harness™ by Premier is more readily available in pet stores, but I prefer the fit and comfort of the Freedom Harness over the other brands I’ve tried.  A big advantage of these harnesses is that most dogs readily accept wearing them.

I do not recommend harnesses with straps that tighten under the dog’s armpits to discourage pulling.  I have found that many dogs easily become accustomed to the restrictive feeling and end up pulling anyway.  There is also a greater chance of chafing due to excessive rubbing even with padding that covers the straps.

A head collar is the most effective tool for difficult dogs or dogs that display threatening behaviors on leash.  There is a reason why horses are maneuvered at the head and not at the neck or back.  Controlling the head allows you to easily control the rest of the body.  Gradual acclimation is required when first introducing this type of equipment to an animal.  I see many clients who have given up on head collars because their dogs protested when this strange contraption was put on their faces.  It is unrealistic to put it on and expect the dog to instantly accept it and walk nicely.  Horses need to be gradually introduced to a halter, and so do dogs.  Proper fit is crucial and assistance from a professional trainer may be helpful for the acclimation process.  My favorite brands are the Comfort Trainer™ and Snoot Loop™ because of excellent fit and control, especially with dogs that bite.  The Gentle Leader™ and Halti™ are 2 other brands readily available in pet stores, but I prefer the other 2 brands for the reasons I mentioned.

Pulling on leash is a learned behavior, and your GSP can quickly figure out that pulling works for him if you allow it.  You can inadvertently teach a dog to pull using any piece of equipment, so look for next month’s post on tips to make leash walking more pleasant.



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