Take Control of Your Walks

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I’d like you test out an experiment….IMG_3057

For this experiment, you’ll need the following:

(1) 2 People

(2) 1 sturdy Dog Leash, 6 feet in length

Just humor me.

Person #1, hold on to one end of the leash. Stand facing Person #2, with approximately 5 feet between the two of you.

Hand the other end of the leash to Person #2, and instruct them to hold their end of the leash as tightly as possible, being careful not to let go.

Now comes the experiment. With Person #2 holding their end of the leash tight, Person #1 should now pull their end of leash, as if playing a game of tug of war.

Don’t cheat and simply keep reading. Test it out for yourself. It’s ok….I’ll wait.


DSC_0159What happened?

If you’re anything like me, or any of the dozens of people I’ve put through this simple experiment, when you pulled, the other person pulled back. It was almost reflexive… A natural response that Person #2 used to keep the lead from being pulled from their hands, and to prevent the other person from dragging them through the room.

But what does this have to do with my dog?

What you and your friend experienced is a reflexive response to someone pulling on you. Naturally, if someone pulls and you have leverage, you will be inclined to pull back.

Surprisingly, our dogs are no different. When you pull on the leash, or your leash becomes taut, you are initiating your dog’s natural reflex to pull against you. Inevitably, if you continue to allow your dog to pull, and you continue to pull against him in an attempt to manage him on your walks, you will enter into a game of tug-of-war in which your dog will most likely emerge the victor.


Cut him some slack

Since this “reflex” is triggered by pulling against your dog, the obvious solution to the problem is to simply not pull, but instead, to maintain slack in your leash at all times (easier said than done, I know).

By pulling on your dog, maintaining tension in your leash, or holding your dog next to you in an effort to make him heel, you aren’t teaching him anything. Instead, you are activating his instinct to pull harder. You are frustrating him. And he’s probably frustrating you too!

With any new behavior, your goal should be to spend time conditioning and teaching, helping your dog learn to make good decisions on his own, and rewarding him when he does. You don’t want him to walk next to you because you are holding him there. You want him to walk next to you because you’ve taught him its the right thing to do!

So cut your dog some slack on walks…. literally.


The Psychology Behind Pulling

In addition to the “reflex” you trigger by having tension in your leash, there is another fundamental and obvious reason dogs pull on walks. Plainly stated, dogs pull because….it works!

If your dog wants to sniff a special spot on the grass, he’ll likely pull to get there. If he drags you to it, he’s rewarded himself for pulling. He wanted to sniff…he pulled…he got to sniff!

If he drags you over to another dog because he wants to say “hi”, and you follow (willingly or unwillingly) again, he’s rewarded himself!

Or even more inconspicuous is his desire to simply GO! He wants to go forward, so every step you take in the direction he’s pulling becomes a reward. He gets what he wants for pulling, and for that reason, its time to make a change!


Conquering the Leash

DSC_0177To teach your dog appropriate leash manners, its critical that you become a master in understanding what it is your dog wants at any given moment in time, or in any given context.

Once you understand the reward your dog is seeking, your job is to simply take it away when he’s pulling, and GIVE it to him (where possible) when he’s walking on a slack leash.

If he has his sights set on a tree up ahead, that he is dying to sniff and mark so he can let the neighborhood know its his, you can’t let him pull to get there. How you approach his pulling is up to you. You can stop forward momentum until the leash is slack again, you can turn and head the other direction, or you can correct the taut leash. Whichever method you choose, you must simply remain consistent.

Bad behavior can no longer be inadvertently rewarded, whether you are teaching leash manners, or other, more complex behaviors. So today, make a promise that your pup will no longer get what he wants for dragging you all over the place. Instead, make a commitment to acknowledge, praise and reward him for the behavior you want. The more you reward, the more he’ll comply and in no time, your leash problems will begin to fade.


A Note About Training Tools

There are a wide array of training tools available that will help curb leash pulling in an untrained pup. Some of these tools include the “Gentle Leader” or “Halti”, the “EZ Walker Harness”, the “Thunder Harness”, and the “Illusion Collar”, among many others.

I hate to break it to you but there is really no “quick fix” for anything in dog training. These tools act by making it uncomfortable for the dog to pull on walks. But they are simply a band-aid placed over an open wound.

With these solutions, your dog learns to avoid discomfort. However, when the discomfort is removed, most dogs immediately return to pulling since they were never really taught otherwise. Owners quickly find themselves dependent on these tools as all they’ve done is “manage” their dog’s bad behavior. But don’t you want to eliminate the need for a band-aid? Cure the wound and have a dog that simply behaves?

Your best bet is to roll up your sleeves, take the time, and put in the work to teach your dog the correct way to walk on a leash.

My good friend and colleague Eric Davis often tells me that “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” – a shooting reference from his days as a SEAL Team Sniper instructor, that he regularly applies to many aspects in life and human performance. I find great relevance in the statement pertaining not only to leash training, but to any other training you plan to do with your pup. While establishing solid fundamentals may take you a little more time at the start, teaching good manners (as opposed to simply managing the bad ones) will end up being the most effective and efficient solution in the end.


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Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    8 replies to "Cut Him Some Slack: The Psychology Behind Bad Leash Manners"

    • Tori

      I’d include prong collars, choke chains and slip leads on the list of ineffective “walking tools”. To a dog trainer, they may not be immediately categorized as such, but they are marketed this way and seem appropriate for this function to your average person. To a human, being choked seems like a bad and painful thing. We would instantly avoid pulling if someone placed a chain around our necks. So people instantly go for that option when they have a dog that pulls. It just seems like it makes sense. Throw in the chain, the dog chokes himself, he didn’t like it and the problem is solved! However, I’ve walked thousands of mostly large and unruly dogs through my work at a large animal shelter. There, we use slip leads because they are quick, fit everyone, and difficult to escape from. Most dogs will pull and choke themselves until they pass out before they will stop pulling. I see people bring dogs in on choke chains and prongs all the time…why? “Because he pulls!” Well, just like any no-pull harness or head collar, simply putting on a special piece of gear doesn’t do anything. The only way to get a dog to stop pulling is…to train it not to pull. A fact which I try to explain to all people who come in, regardless of what tool they are attempting to use as a bandaid. 🙂

    • Carmen Gibb

      Thank you for this article. I have found some dogs respond simply by me being a tree until they relax and come back beside me Others I have found do better by me turning and walking the other way. I prefer being a tree. Should I be using a cue when I stop or turn around. At this tim3 I don’t.

      • Carmen Gibb

        I gave the wrong email before. It should be .ca not .com

    • Ginny

      My dog wants to run and he is 86 pounds. I tried a 20foot lead and even that did not help!

      • Agnes

        Give him a cue for “run”. I use “let’s go!” for my dogs. So, when he’s running, say the cue and run with him (while keeping the leash slack) to teach him the cue. Then work on getting him to run only when you give the cue. If he learns that a portion of his walks will be a run (when he hears you say so), then the walking part will get easier 🙂 Oh – you’ll need a cue to end the run as well. Mine is “okay, easy.”

    • Jodi Oscar

      I have been looking for real help with problem dogs and have trained professionally for many years and I find this information perfect a lot of it I have been doing but no one has made it so easy to explain as she has! I have seen many methods come and go and like she states–most of these things and tools are simply “band aids for real problems. I am enjoying all the info and using her well thought out methods on some of my most difficult dogs!

    • Fran

      What would you suggest for a collar for my two springer spaniels? I have leather buckle collars for their tags but I don’t find them very good for leash training. I have had in the past with other dogs a half collar-half choker before. What do you think?

    • Brenda

      I have a 10 month old beagle mix and her first walk of the day is the most challenging. I use a harness for her because she pulls at every single thing she sees and wants to sniff. She’ll bolts on me when she smells something interesting and when we’re approaching home. It’s been 5 months. What I’ve done with some improvement is not move when she pulls. She stops when I stop but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes she’ll keep pulling wanting to drag me. I just stay consistent in that I’m stopping when she pulls. I feel like I’ve made 50% progress because there are plenty of setbacks. Her second and sometimes third walks are a lot easier. Don’t know if it’s because we already went through it in the morning or she’s tired but she doesn’t pull as much after her first walk.

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