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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9 Responses to Training To Not Pull On Leash

  1. Ruby says:

    Thanks for a great post! Can you offer me any advice? I have a 2 year old GSP, and have had him from 10 weeks. I started leash work immediately and he walked beautifully until about 6 months old where he figured out how strong he was. I’ve tried the halti (he just bears down and pulls anyway), a choke chain (a correction works for about 10 strides), a no pull harness (he’s strong enough that he just twists and pulls so it doesn’t spin him) and the e collar (but would just heel when he felt the sensation). All of this is with a smile on his face; he just truly doesn’t see the point. The thing is that he will heel beautifully, but obviously can’t go to the bathroom like that. I need an in-between. Is there anything I’m missing? Even a way to train it, because he’s very trainable. Thanks in advance!

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Ruby,
      Thanks for your question. Although the reason for pulling and what rules you must teach is the same for all dogs, some dogs are more of a challenge. My own GSP was one of those “super crazy pullers”. The thing to keep in mind is that law of learning applies to all dogs: Dogs Do What Works. In other words, whatever behavior the dog does that results in getting what he wants, even just a tiny bit of it, will be repeated. The more value the dog sees in the desired outcome, the stronger the behavior, even over-riding any equipment that might cause discomfort.

      So the answer is two-fold. First, use equipment that will mechanically and humanely reduce the force of pulling. I prefer something that controls the head like the Halti for strong pullers. Actually a few years ago I switched over to a Newtrix head halter for my dog because he seemed to be more comfortable in it. The mechanics of how it works is different from the Halti. You can find an explanation here: It’s a little confusing at first learning how to put it on, but once you practice and follow the directions carefully, it’s not hard.

      The second and more important point is to recognize how you are inadvertently reinforcing your dog for pulling. If you take even a single step forward while your dog pulls, he learns that pulling works. Going forward to explore the environment is the most powerful reinforcer there is. It was sure more powerful to my GSP than grilled steak when we were outside.

      The key is to teach your dog that the fastest and ONLY way to move forward is to turn toward you to make the leash loosen so that he feels absolutely no tension whatsoever on his collar, halter or harness. Then and only then will you allow him to continue forward. As soon as the leash tightens again stop and plant your feet so he is unable to take another step forward. This rule has to be black and white, not fuzzy where sometimes pulling works and sometimes it doesn’t. You will have to suspend your walks to really entrench this new rule into your dog’s brain. (Think about how hard it can be for us humans to break a bad habit.)

      I used a clicker to mark (click) the precise moment my dog turned toward me to loosen the leash. Then I said “Let’s Go” and took a few fast steps forward until the leash tightened again. (Be very careful if using a Halti or Gentle Leader that can turn the dog’s head. Don’t let the head whip around if the dog suddenly hits the end of the leash. Use a short leash and soften the impact to prevent injury to the neck. It’s another reason why I like the Newtrix design better.) I like using a clicker because it is a much clearer form of communication. It means only one thing and the click sound is like nothing else. Black and white! This training takes a lot of discipline on the part of the human because the slightest inconsistency will impede progress. If pulling works occasionally, the dog becomes a gambler because the payoff is huge!

      I highly recommend having someone take a video of you walking your dog so you can observe how you might be reinforcing pulling. Even extending your arm slightly after you stop walking so your dog can stretch his neck forward an inch can be enough to keep the pulling habit strong. Hope these tips help.

  2. Julianne Deering says:

    I rescued a GSP from the Humane Society last Friday. He is such a sweetie, already fitting right in… but the pulling is just about to put me in an early grave. He is only 6-9 months and has energy for days. I know he needs to get out and run, burn energy, etc… Hopefully your suggestion of the no-pull harness will work. It’s only been three days and my shins are killing me!!
    I’ll keep you posted.
    Thank you for the advice. I’m sure I’ll be back time and again to your sight.

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  4. Naomi Heck says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    You have a typical adolescent sporting breed dog that needs appropriate outlets for his enormous exercise needs. Starting now, you need to keep a leash on him and teach him sofa manners. If you decide he is allowed on the sofa, teach him that he can only come up if you invite him. Teach him “Off” as a fun trick (your attitude will determine whether he will want to do it Act as if it is a fun game). First, gently tug on the leash until he has to jump off. As soon as his front paws hit the floor, say “Yes!” and immediately give him a treat or play his favorite game with a toy. Ask him up again by saying “Up” and patting on the sofa. When he jumps up on the sofa, don’t praise or reward, just stay silent. After a few seconds, say “Off” and very lightly tug on the leash to give him a hint. Always praise and reward when he jumps off. Jumping off should be the best thing in the world. After you practice this a few hundred times, he should be eagerly jumping off when you say “Off” without a leash hint. Also use the leash to prevent crazy behavior on the sofa. Don’t let him have a blast at your expense! As soon as he starts to get excited, tug the leash and say “off”. Do not wrestle him or grab his collar. You may need to pull the leash hard if he resists (don’t jerk it), which will show him you mean what you say the FIRST time you say it. Then give him a second chance: invite him up to rest quietly with you. Immediately give the same consequence when he starts acting up. If you act promptly (within 1 second of him starting the crazies), the clearer you communicate your rules and boundaries. Scolding, grabbing, or repeated commands when he is having a party on the sofa will just add to his arousal and excitement, and he will learn to ignore you. Stay calm and cool if you want your dog to be calm. Hope this helps.


  5. Jennifer says:

    I’m hvaing a problem with my GSP and how hyper he is on the couch. I have researched the breed and understand they are pack animals that love to be on the couch with the family. I don’t mind him being on the couch, but unless he is being rubbed he’s running back and forth, jumping on your head, or putting his paws all over you. If you’re not paying attention he’ll blindisde you and might just run into your face. I keep redirecting him and telling him “no,” or to get down when he starts this, but it’s like it get s him more amped up . We’ve only had him a week and he’s about a year old, so I know he’s still young, but I want to properly fix this before he gets odler.

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