Pulling on the lead is one of the most common behaviour “problems” reported by dog owners and for good reason. Not only is loose lead training one of the hardest skills to teach but it is also one of the easiest to accidently reinforce.
Below are six of the most common reasons why dogs pull on the lead.
IT DOES NOT COME NATURALLY TO A DOG
Dogs are not designed to walk in a straight line. They are designed to move from smell to smell, in no particular pattern and at their own pace. Taking these factors into account, it’s no surprise that a lot of dogs (& their owners) struggle when it comes to lead walking.
Working Cocker Spaniels are a great example of how a natural behaviour goes against our desire for loose lead walking. Working Cockers are designed to search an area in the most efficient manner possible, this is usually by zigzagging with their noses to the ground, this movement is called quartering. This behaviour is so hardwired in them, that it can make lead training very challenging, even with the best hot dogs or squirty cheese.
THE POWER OF PAVLOV
Have you ever noticed how your dog gets really excited when they see you reach for their food bowl?
This happens via a learning process called ‘classical conditioning’ or more commonly known as ‘Pavlov’s Dog’. In simple terms, the dog has come to associate the appearance of their bowl (over a number of repetitions) with their yummy food. The mere sight or sound of the bowl, will cause your dog to salivate in anticipation of their food.
Classical conditioning is one of the most powerful ways a dog can learn. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the hardest to unlearn. Classical conditioning can be both a positive and negative learning experience for the dog, depending on the situation or their humans wants & needs.
When I’m working with an owner and their dog, one of the first things I ask the owner to do is to fit their dogs walking equipment as if they were going for a walk. What I am observing is how does their dog react to the sight/sound/appearance of their walking equipment. The result of this is usually a dog who is desperate to go on a walk.
What has happened is the dog has associated their walking equipment with going on a walk, smelling new smells, interacting with other dogs, chasing a ball or terrorising the local squirrel population (looking at you Tywin). In other words, your dog associates their walking equipment with going for a walk.
If you see your dog getting excited before you’ve set foot out the door, they have most likely learnt what is coming next. This is when the excitement builds, leading to you being dragged out the house.
UNREALISTIC HUMAN EXPECTATIONS
When it comes to owning a dog, we can all have unrealistic expectations, whether that be related to their toilet training, behaviour, obedience or skills that they should just know. Lead walking is where I see a lot of unrealistic expectations put on our dogs:
We expect our dogs to just know to walk to heel for an hour.
We expect our dogs to ignore all the smells in the neighbourhood and walk next to us.
We expect our dogs to ignore their dog mate across the road and walk next to us.
We expect our dogs to not want to investigate the local dog peeing spot.
Not only are these expectations unreasonable but they are unfair on the dog, who is expected to stop acting like a dog and behave like a robot. When the dog inevitably gets something wrong, their human gets annoyed at them for not behaving.
Someone shouting at you when you tried to go into your favourite shop,
Someone dragging you by your neck, when you try to go to the local bakery,
Someone who ‘gently’ hits you when you try to say hello your mates,
Someone who gets annoyed at you for wanting to stop and take in the view.
How would you feel about that person?
Would you feel grateful for them stopping you from doing what comes naturally?
Or would you feel frustrated and annoyed at them? You might even begin to feel stressed/anxious around them because you can’t be you and try to get away from them.
Learning how to use your dogs distractions to your advantage is a crucial part of loose-lead training.
THE SCENT APPEAL
Dogs ‘see’ the world via their nose, whilst us humans use our eyes. So whilst we might get distracted by the sight of freshly cooked sausage rolls and pasties, our dogs will get distracted by the smell of them.
The power of a dogs nose is often overlooked as well. A human’s nose has around 6 million olfactory receptors, whereas a dog’s nose has around 300 million! That means that they will have smelt something before we have seen it.
To put that into perspective, in her book ‘Inside of a Dog’, Alexandra Horowitz wrote:
“We might notice if our coffee’s been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar; a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full.”
So if your dog gets distracted by every lamp-post, bush and post box, it’s not because your dog is being “disobedient”, they are simply doing what comes naturally to them, investigating interesting scents.
In my next post, you will learn how to harness the power of your dog’s nose to improve your dog’s lead walking.
To find out more about a dog’s nose, why not watch the below TED-Ed Video.
Dogs are efficient learners, this means they will do what works.
So, if pulling you gets them to the park quicker, their favourite sniffing patch or best mates house, then they will pull, it’s that simple.
That is why a lot of training advice focuses on what to do when your dog pulls. By not letting your dog get what they want after they have pulled, they should learn that pulling doesn’t work (at least in theory), however that is rarely the case. How often have you been told to turn around the second your dog pulls, only to be pulled in the opposite direction?
The most common advice when a dog pulls on their lead is:
Stop and wait for the lead to go loose before moving off.
Turning around and walking in the opposite direction.
Dragging them back to your side.
If using aversive training tools (shock collars, prong collars and/or slip leads), the dog will be punished for getting it wrong.
The above techniques are trying to teach your dog what not to do.
In other words, you pulled me so no reward for you.
Whilst it is important that we do prevent any further pulling (this is achieved via simple & temporary changes in our routine), we must teach our dogs how they can successfully access the things they find enjoyable.
When a dog learns that a specific behaviour gives them access to something they want or need, they will do that behaviour over and over again.
LOOSE LEAD TRAINING TAKES TIME
Lead walking will often take a lot longer to ‘master’ than almost all the other skills we teach to our dogs. Not only does it take lots of repetition, but it requires practicing in a variety or locations before the training is cemented in the dog.
Not dedicating enough time to lead training is (at least in my experience) the most common reason for training to ‘fail’ and I can totally understand why.
Most of us get dogs so that we can take them on walks and enjoy discovering the world together. Spending hours a week, stopping/turning/shouting is a sure-fire way to not following through with any training plan.
Having a clear plan with simple and achievable steps for you and your dog, is they key to better lead walking.
And that is what you will get next week, 10 steps to better lead walking with your dog.