Loose Leash Walking

Liz Palika

Leash Skills for Dogs

Unless pulling a sled or a wagon, dogs do not have to pull. When a dog is pulling hard on the leash, he can injure himself and is certainly a potential danger to his owner. In addition, other dogs will not regard him kindly if he pulls hard toward them. A dog charging into another dog’s space and face is considered a rude trespasser. Thankfully, this behavior can be managed or changed.

Managing the Behavior

If your dog is pulling when you go for a walk, you have choices; you can manage his behavior with training tools or you can change his behavior with training. Many dog owners prefer to manage their dog’s behavior – prevent him from pulling – as this is often the easiest solution. This is especially true if the dog is a strong, enthusiastic puller. There are two training tools that are most often recommended. Both of these can be effective tools but, like anything else in this world, neither one is perfect.

Head halters work much like a halter on a horse; where the head goes the body will follow. There are several brands of head halters, each has some slight differences, but basically there is a strap around the dog’s muzzle that is connected to a strap around the dog’s neck. The leash clips to these straps and this gives you control of the dog’s head. If you hold the leash close (but not tight) when the dog tries to pull, his head moves either downward (nose towards the ground) or back towards you. This makes pulling almost impossible.

The head halter is a kind, humane way to manage pulling. Unfortunately most dogs dislike the halter, so make sure good things – treats, meals, petting – occur when your dog is introduced to it. Also, when walking, do not give your dog free movement on the leash. If he dashes and hits the end of the leash, he could wrench his neck badly when the leash tightens on the head halter. Be careful.

The other tool that can help you manage pulling is often referred to as a no pull harness. There is a wide selection of these harnesses available and most are designed to make pulling uncomfortable. Some have a ring for the leash in the front of the harness – at the center of your dog’s chest under his neck – while others have a ring for the leash on the top of the back. Some, when the dog pulls, create pressure across the dog’s biceps, or across the joints of his front legs, while others tighten around his chest.

All of these can be effective, depending on the individual dog, his physical conformation, and how hard he pulls. The primary downfall to these training tools is that they can cause some physical harm. Several veterinarians I have interviewed have seen dogs with sore front legs, damaged front leg and shoulder joints, and sore ribs. As with any tool, they must be used correctly. If you try one, make sure you read and follow the directions for that particular brand of harness. When using any training tool, no matter how well-designed it may be, the key is to use it correctly. Read and follow the directions, make sure it fits your dog properly, and stop using it immediately if your dog appears to be sore at all.

Using Training

The goal of training is to permanently affect your dog’s behavior. With a problem behavior such as pulling on the leash, the goal is to teach your dog to walk nicely on a leash without pulling. This is more difficult than simply changing training tools, of course, and requires time, effort, and practice. The first training exercise to teach your dog is ‘Watch me.’ When your dog can pay attention to you, even with distractions, then you can begin working on leash skills.

Unless your dog weighs more than you, or threatens to pull you off your feet, you can be an anchor when your dog pulls. When the leash tightens, stop walking, and plant your feet. Do not take a single step forward until your dog turns back towards you. Then do a ‘watch me’ command and praise your dog. In the beginning, you may have to be an anchor every few steps. That’s okay.

An alternative technique that works for many dogs is the about turn. When your dog begins pulling forward, simply turn around and walk the other direction. Do not pull your dog off his feet or yank his neck hard; simply walk the other way. When he catches up to you act surprised, “Oh, there you are! Good boy!”

If your dog is overly excited and he acts as if there isn’t a brain cell in his head, stop walking, and help him sit. Keep a hand on his collar so you can help him. Don’t do anything else or ask anything else from him at the moment; just help him sit and let him calm down. When he’s able to do it, then ask him to ‘watch me’ and begin all over again.

Your goal with all these techniques is to help your dog understand that he can move freely on the leash as long as he pays attention to you – where you are – and doesn’t pull on the leash.

What Are Your Goals?

What would you like to do with your dog now and in the future? If you’d like to do some therapy dog volunteer work or some trick training, then leash skills are important. You’ll need to invest some time and effort into training. However, if you would like to walk nicely with your dog without your arm being pulled out of the socket, then training tools to manage his behavior might be in order.

Leash skills needn’t be one technique or the other, however. You can use management skills while you train your dog. You can use training tools – a head halter, for example – while teaching him to pay attention to you. There are many alternatives. 

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