Does your dog pull on the leash, but can’t always be trusted off leash?
Do your walks often seem an ordeal, and you feel your arms are at least 5cm longer than they were before your dog joined your family?
Don’t despair, this is a common problem, particularly with strong northern breed dogs with thousands of years of selective breeding to pull sleds and herd/chase. You CAN train leash-walking using only positive reinforcement.
In this article, I’m going to cover how I trained good leash manners into a very stubborn sled dog pup. It is do-able with time, patience and practice, if I managed it then you can too.
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All harnessed up
First of all get your pulling dog a harness. Harnesses distribute the forces more evenly over the dog’s back and shoulders than a collar. Indeed most dog physiotherapists insist that strong pullers wear a harness to reduce the risk of pulling-related neck injury to the dog.
Some people will have told you to use a neck collar or a head collar (halti, dogmatic etc) instead of a harness as body harnesses allow a dog to pull harder. What they mean is that a dog wearing a harness is free to pull without being choked. This is a good thing, pulling against collars can cause serious injury. There are many different harness designs and the correct one for your dog depends on their body shape.
It’s important that your dog’s harness is a good fit for them, so unless you already know their size, I strongly advise a visit to a local pet store for a trying-on session rather than guessing sizes and buying online. Get your dog used to wearing the harness by making getting dressed into a fun activity with lots of praise (and treats if that’s what works for you!).
Take the lead
No retractable (flexi) leashes for when you are training. It’s so much easier to maintain control with a fixed length leash. Be wary of the ever-so-fashionable climbing rope style leashes as they can result in some nasty rope burns.
You need a strong and comfortable dog leash (for you and your dog). While you are at the pet shop trying on harnesses, try out the leashes.
Pull the material over your palms: does irritate? Is the handle comfortable to hold? Is there metal-ware near the grip that could cause injury if it’s yanked through your hand? Go with the leash that seems the best combination of strong and comfortable to handle.
I‘ve found that a 1.5-2 m length double ended (with clips at both ends) leash is the ideal training leash. I’ve used this one from Halti virtually every day for four years.
For your added comfort with a strong puller, look for a leash with a bungee section or buy an additional bungee shock absorber to use on the end (such as this one from Ancol.
Some people wear walking belts (such as those made for canicross activities) to spread the load. I sometimes wear a belt, but I found it dangerous when training a young dog as I tended to get myself wound up in the leash, but by all means give it a go.
Another good option to prevent hand injuries and accidentally dropped leashes are the sleeveless glove jogging leashes. Hurrta and EzyDog both make a version. My personal preference is for the EzyDog Handy leash attachment as it has a carbiner style clip for fast release if you get in a tangle! But honestly, any leash that is strong, relatively short (1-2m) and comfortable to hold will be ideal.
I assume that your dog tries to rush out the door in excitement and pull you down the street? I had a puppy that thought she was starting the Iditarod sled race every walk, so I know the problem!
You aren’t going to like my next piece of advice, but it’s what (finally) worked for us: until you get your dog trained out of excessive pulling then walks are for training NOT exercise. If your dog is at a stage in their life that they need extra exercise try to find an enclosed space where they can run off steam, because you aren’t going to get far on your walks for the next few days/weeks. However, the mental exercises of training that you are about to start are very effective at tiring them out!
Harness your dog and attach a short leash. Many people, myself included, found that it helped to use a double-ended leash attached both to the back and to the front of the harness.
On leaving your house make sure YOU step through the door first: YOU are going to be in control from now on. You aren’t just going to be training walking nicely; your dog will walk nicely because they will be conditioned to keep looking to you for guidance.
If possible get your dog to “sit” before you go out the door and ask for a “sit” again once outside in order to focus their attention on you. Bribe with verbal praise, snacks, a squeaky toy or whatever motivates them!
Hold the dog on a short leash (positioning isn’t important, beside you or in front is fine, most northern dogs seem to have a preference to walk in front and it’s very difficult to train this out of them). The dog training ideal is to have your dog on your left but at the moment just do what’s easiest.
Walk briskly in any direction, change direction often.
If your dog is treat motivated then reward with small treats and hold a treat in your palm for them to nose to guide their walking. The aim is to get your dog watching you and following you. If at any time your dog starts to pull, then you pull back lightly against them (no yanking, no hurting, but so they feel that they are attached to you).
If this doesn’t work then either stand still (“be a tree”) or change direction to walk AWAY from whatever they are pulling you towards. Be firm. Be prepared to do a lot of standing still, but after a few sessions of getting nowhere, your dog will begin to realise that in order to get further than the end of your street they need to pay attention to you. Reward good behaviour with lots of verbal praise, treats if they are food-motivated or a favourite toy to carry.
If you see anything that will likely cause pulling (another dog, a cat, a person), then ask for a “sit” and then do “watch me” (hold a treat or a toy close to your face to keep their attention). Then once you have their attention continue your walk in a direction AWAY from the stimulus. Be prepared for a few frustrating weeks of going nowhere and getting funny looks from your neighbours!
Not all days will be good days
There will be days where you have somewhere you need to go and no time to train good manners. That’s ok, just walk as briskly as you can and accept the pulling. If you have a belt or a hands-free leash then this is a good time to make use of it. I found that if I couldn’t make time to correct during the whole walk, then it was better not to start and then give up halfway as this only re-confirmed my dog’s perception that pulling won them the ability to go where they wanted. Good, luck, keep practicing, be firm, be kind, be consistent and you will see progress – I promise!
Call in the pros
It’s worthwhile calling in the professionals and booking yourself and your dog some lessons. Look for force free trainers in your area. The Kennel Club and Victoria Stilwell are good places to start your search.
Going to a class is NOT an admission of failure but a chance for you and your dog to have fun and learn together in a supportive environment. Be prepared that the first dog class you attend might not be the right one for you (we were thrown out of two puppy classes for being unruly!). Ask the trainer beforehand if they have experience with your breed/breed mix as all dogs have some specific breed-related traits. Your breeder or rescue may also be able to recommend an experienced trainer.
One big advantage of dog training classes is that they provide a supply of (mostly) friendly dogs to act as distractions while you work on getting your dog to focus on you. If you have a dog that is very reactive/excitable around other dogs then consider “ringcraft” (for conformation showdog skills) classes rather than the standard obedience class.
Instead of the sit, stay, down and trick training of standard classes, ringcraft trains dogs to be calm in a show environment, to ignore other dogs, to walk and stand on command and to accept being touched by persons other than their owner/handler. There will normally be a range of dog ages in the class as serious show competitors will continue to train their adult dogs to prepare them for showing.
Most ringcraft classes are happy to accept new recruits and there’s no obligation to show your dog in a conformation show if that isn’t your thing. But be warned, if you get trained up as a handler you might find yourself in high demand to take dogs around the ring at the next show!
The TLDR sum up
• Harness not neck collar
• Short double-ended leash
• Consider a bungee leash/bungee section
• Treats or toys for distraction
• Don’t give in to pulling, stop or change direction
• Sit/change direction BEFORE you encounter stimuli
• Consider a dog training class
• Always try to get your dog to focus on you
• Patience, patience, patience!
I hope you found this article useful. If you’ve got any leash walking training tips, then get in touch. Next time I’ll cover how to safely train off leash recall in a northern breed, but until then, have fun, hug your pups and happy walkies!
Any comments or questions? Send hello.bark a message or come say hello on my dog’s Instagram @scotlandwithfluffywolf. Any dog or photography related topic I’ll be delighted to chat with you!