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No Pull Walking - realistic expectation or impossible dream?

For many people, teaching their dog to walk on a lead without pulling is the hardest task they will ever face as pet owners. Even after years of walking together some dogs owners are left wondering - why does my otherwise intelligent dog not get this?

The answer is both simple and complicated! The dog keeps pulling because in his opinion, he is rewarded for it. Pulling provides the opportunity to smell more, explore more and best of all get to the off-lead park or bush track sooner than walking at your pace by your side. This huge perceived reward outweighs any amount of choking, jerking, tugging or cajoling you can dish out. Add to this a state of high arousal caused when adrenalin floods your dog's nervous system at the mere sight of your walking shoes or lead (and continues as you walk out into the excitement of the world beyond your door) and you begin to understand why walking nicely on a lead can be such a persistent problem.

Some of the solutions people have tried are:

  • Don't use a lead. Problem: illegal and unsafe.
  • Don't walk the dog, sadly an option many people settle for. Problem: a bored, obese, poorly socialized dog who engages in nuisance behaviours such as barking and digging.
  • Physically forcing your dog into heel position by holding a short lead or jerking your dog into position. Problem: requires physical strength on your part, may take a long time to take effect and may cause damage to your and/or your dog's neck, back or shoulders.

There must be a better way right? Let's consider again the two reasons WHY dogs pull and work back to how we might be able to convince the dog that what he wants -exploration - is best achieved by doing what we want: walking without pulling on a lead.

The Neva Eva Ever! policy

This policy involves removing the reward for pulling by never, ever, EVER walking forward while there is tension on the lead and collar.This policy works if implemented faithfully right from the start, ideally from the first time you attach a lead to your new puppy.

Neva Eva for a puppy: Start by attaching a lead to your puppy and stand still. If your puppy struggles. take no notice; if the lead remains slack with no tension on the collar, instantly reward with praise or treats.You are really teaching your puppy to accept the fact that when he is attached on a lead he is restrained. Next, start to move slowly around the back garden. If the lead tightens stop immediately and act like a post, don't move at all and don't shorten the lead - just wait. When the lead slackens, immediately reward with praise and move forward.

Your puppy should be learning that pressure on the collar means stop while no pressure on the collar means go. Ssadly this is the opposite of what most dogs learn. If all goes well, repeat in the front garden and then on the footpath just outside your home. If your puppy is initially reluctant to walk on the lead just wait, don't give in to the temptation to pull first. This will worry a puppy who is already unsure of the lead, teach him that a tight collar means go and will engage his natural opposition reflex to pull the other way. The aim is to learn to walk together as a six legged team not begin a lifelong game of tugof-war.

Neva Eva for the older dog

The exact same technique as outlined for a puppy can be used to re-train an older dog. However as the older dog has had a lot of rewards for pulling, the process can be expected to take a lot longer. The biggest problem is that most owners find it difficult to never ever walk forward with tension on the lead. This means that the dog is intermittently rewarded for pulling, keeping the behaviour strong. A few exercises can help your dog to understand what you want faster:

The Target Game

Start with your dog's bowl and some really tasty treats and/or a person your dog loves standing at one end of the garden. Show your dog the treats/person and get him really excited - this is your target. Now move back with your dog on lead to a starting line some distance away. Start moving toward your target. If the lead tightens immediately turn around and move back quickly to behind your start line. Talk to your dog and praise him whenever the lead is loose even if at first this is only when you are moving back toward the starting line. Repeat until you can walk all the way to your target without the lead tightening at all - then release your dog to the treats and praise. Your dog is learning the valuable lesson that the fastest way to get to what he wants is by maintaining a pressure-free lead connection.

He Who Was First Shall Now Be Last

The dog who pulls out in front of you assumes that he knows where you are going. Turn this around by immediately changing direction. At first your dog will probably charge past you and assume leader position again. Say 'steady' and assertively change direction until he who was first has become last again. Repeat until your dog realizes that you're the only one with the map! This is a great exercise for teaching your dog that you ARE relevant, not just a go-between from house to park. Adding the word 'steady' before each turn will teach your dog there is no point in charging ahead as you are about to change direction.Eventually it can be used as a general cue to slow down should he forget his manners and starts to pull ahead in the future.

Teach a Sweet Spot

Create a sweet spot at your left leg where good things happen. The name for this sweet spot is 'close' or 'heel'. Whenever your dog is near this sweet spot say 'Yes!' and dispense a treat as though from your left knee. If your dog moves too far ahead, stop, call him back and again reward from your left knee. You want the dog to know there are good things at your end of the lead - not just out in front where the good smells are.

Let's Stay Calm

The second contributing factor to pulling on a lead is that most dogs are in a high state of arousal at walkies time. With all that adrenalin rushing around their bodies it is hard for them to walk as slowly and calmly as we would like them to. To reduce pulling behaviour it is preferable to start with as calm a dog as possible. How you prepare for your walk can contribute to, or reduce, the level of arousal even before you step out the door.

  • Move slowly and speak quietly. Sit somewhere away from the exit door and wait for your dog to come to you and sit before putting his lead on. If he gets up before his lead is attached, stop, look away and wait again. Like in the Target Game your dog will learn that the fastest way to get his lead put on and get out the door is to sit at your feet and wait.
  • Wait for a sit at the exit door
  • Step out through the door before your dog
  • Sit once more as soon as you reach the footpath. Wait until the leash is loose and your dog is looking at you to see what is going to happen next, praise and start walking remembering to use one of the strategies outlined above if the lead should start to tighten.

Helpful Hints

Be proactive - whenever tension creeps into the lead do something about it immediately. Apply short vibrations to the lead to keep it alive, change direction, or call the dog back to you but never allow the lead to become a tug-of-war rope between you.

Walk as briskly as your comfort level allows.

Some of the worst cases of pulling result from dogs who are walked to an off leash area everyday. Their owners become merely vehicles they drag daily to doggy paradise. Turn this around by alternating long street walks with no 'pot-of-gold' at the end with being driven to the off-lead park for a free run.

Teach restraint in different situations. If you have taught your dog right from a puppy that there will be times when you must restrain him for baths, grooming, vet examinations etc. he will be more likely to accept restraint on lead as well. Practice gentle handling and restraint in as many and as varied situations as possible.

Choosing the right equipment

Never before have there been so many options on the market designed to make walking easier for you and your pet. No one choice is right for everyone so if in doubt seek the advice of an experienced trainer. Some of the options include:

Collars

The most important feature of a collar is that it is comfortable and will not slip off or over your dog's head. Normal buckle collars or martingale collars with a limited slip feature are amongst the safest and best.

Leads

For recreational walking, I recommend a lead of approximately 2 -3 meters in length. This length of lead will allow your dog to reach the smelly bits of trees and lampposts without pulling you off the footpath yet can be easily managed and shortened to allow people to pass or for crossing roads. To achieve the same amount of freedom, a small dog will need a longer lead then a big dog as much of the length will be taken up simply reaching down to the collar. This extra length will often resolve minor pulling problems immediately.

Head Halters

Head halters brought a fresh approach to the problem of pulling when introduced many years ago. By placing your dog's head in a halter he is really only able to use his weaker neck muscles against you rather than the full strength of his shoulder and back muscles. The handler is thus able to use a much lighter touch to direct and control the dog. There are many styles, designs and makes of head halters on the market today and the trick is to find the one that best fits your dog. Generally the head halter should fit snugly around your dogs face and be easy for you to take on and off.

Despite their effectiveness many people still resist using a head halter because they believe:

  • It may be confused with a muzzle and makes the dog look mean.
  • The use of a head halter is somehow cheating or must only be a temporary measure.
  • Head halters are too difficult to fit and use.
  • Dogs don't like them.

While it is essential that you receive good advice on how best to introduce and fit a head halter, when properly used they remain the most effective choice if:

  • you haven't got time to methodically implement a 'neva eva' programme
  • you own a very strong dog
  • you own a dog with a long history of pulling
  • your own strength is limited in some way e.g.a bad back
  • you would like children to easily walk the dog
  • behavioural problems make greater control a safety issue.

Harnesses

Although harnesses were designed to allow a dog to pull more efficiently, there is some evidence that some dogs seem to pull less when wearing them - unfortunately it's a case of try it and see. A new harness on the market, 'The No-Pull Harness' by Kumalong is designed specifically to combat pulling by connecting the lead at the dog's chest.The dog is less able to lean into the harness and create resistance. The advantage of harnesses in general are that they are readily accepted by both dogs and owners and are an excellent choice for small dogs or dogs with sensitive necks or spinal problems.

Double Ended Leads

Double ended leads are often recommended to be used in conjunction with either a head halter and collar, a head halter and harness or a harness and normal collar. They provide added safety and control and can spread the pressure of the lead across several points rather than just one.

Realistic expectation or impossible dream?

Have you ever taken a bunch of five year olds to McDonalds for a birthday party? If they had been on a lead do you think they would have been pulling?

Going for a walk would have to be at least as exciting for your dog as going to a birthday party is for kids - a high adrenalin, highly rewarding event that comes along just once every 24 hours.

To expect your dog to walk calmly in perfect heel position is probably an unrealistic expectation, however by setting the rules for the walking game, employing the 'Neva Eva' policy and making use of sensible equipment choices walking can become a dream run for both you and your dog.

This article first appeared in Dog's Life magazine, in 2005, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Karin Larsen Bridge, president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia and part owner of Get S.M.A.R.T (Successful Motivation And Reward Training) Dogs in Sydney.