If dogs could talk, I’m fairly certain they would ask that we stop pulling on their leashes.  But wait, aren’t we the ones being uncomfortably dragged around by our dogs? The answer is – it goes both ways. So let’s look at how to stop humans from pulling on leashes.  Dogs pull us in the direction they want to go, we pull back in an attempt to thwart the pulling, then they pull harder against us.  Dogs naturally pull against whatever pulls against them (an opposition reflex) and so the cycle continues. Fair to say that unless WE stop pulling, we can’t expect our dogs to. So let’s fix some of what’s happening on our end of the leash first.

How to Stop From Pulling on Leashes

If your dog is a puller, he/she is only half the problem.  The human end of the leash matters just as much.  Perhaps you’ll recognize some of these common leash handling habits in yourself:

You have a death grip on the leash handle and the leash is wrapped tightly around your hand. You shouldn’t have to white-knuckle it or suffer from shoulder dislocation on a walk. How you hold the leash truly matters. Start by holding the leash handle of a 6-foot leash in the hand closest to your dog. Your thumb should act as a stopper so the handle does not go up your wrist. Then shorten the leash by pinching off one large loop between your thumb and forefinger.  Leave just enough slack in the leash to form a “J” between you and your dog.  Lay the leash (just past the pinch point) over top of your forefinger, between it and your middle finger. This will allow you to comfortably maintain the desired leash length, yet firmly grip your hand around the leash when needed.

Photo by It’s Your Dog, LLC

Photo by It’s Your Dog, LLC

Photo by It’s Your Dog, LLC

Your leash arm is extended upward like the Statue of Liberty.  I encourage my students to hold the leash with the hand closest to the dog while keeping their other hand free to give hand signals and treat rewards.  Find a comfortable position for your leash arm close to your body – either straight down by your side or bent at the elbow and crossed over your belly.  The key is to alleviate pulling against your dog or giving him more leash by maintaining the same general arm position throughout the walk.  Have a friend pull against a leash your holding so you can get a feel for the new mechanics.  This does not require muscle strength, but rather muscle memory built through repetition. I can hold a lot more dog so long as I don’t break at the waist or allow my arm to be pulled away from my torso. You’ll find too that once you give up your center of gravity, you lose a huge physical advantage.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Your leash is fully extended as you dutifully follow behind your dog like a water skier behind a boat.  The simple act of moving forward is reinforcing to your dogs. And, behavior that is reinforced, increases. This is one of my (many) concerns with retractable leashes – they are designed to reinforce a pulling dog by giving him more leash.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, there are two forces driving the vicious cycle – a fully engaged opposition reflex and a consistent stream of inadvertent reinforcement for your dog.  If your dog is pulling, stop moving forward.  Keep your leash arm close to your body, your legs shoulder-width apart, bend your knees and don’t break at the waist.  When your dog moves in such a way that the leash becomes slack, you are ready to continue walking.

You inadvertently give the dog more and more leash as you move forward.  The amount of leash you start with is the amount of leash you want to maintain throughout the walk. Otherwise, you end up with too much slack and fall into the old habit of pulling against your dog to adjust.  If you hold the leash and practice the arm mechanics described above, you’ll alleviate this problem.

How to Help Your Dog Not Pull on Leash

Incorporating these relatively easy changes will improve your leash handling and provide you and your dog with the physical relief you both deserve on walks. To put new habits in place, keep the focus on your end of the leash and be patient with yourself.  It’s surprisingly easy to fall back into old familiar ways.  Always practice  in familiar, low distraction environments (like your driveway or fenced yard) before heading out to more novel, challenging locations. Send me a comment so I know how it’s going!

Stay tuned!  Next, we will focus on how to turn distractions you encounter on walks into potent rewards.