Taming a leash-monster

Taming a leash-monster
The Easy Walk harness attaches to the leash in front, rather than in back, and lifts up on the dog's front legs when the dog pulls. Very easy to use.

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Many dogs develop behavior problems due to lack of exercise such as excessive chewing, digging, or barking. In many cases, dogs are not walked or are very rarely walked because of problems with pulling on the leash. Is your dog a leash-monster?

Taming a leash-monster
This is an example of a dog walking calmly and comfortably on a loose leash with the aid of a Gentle Leader head collar.

Problems with Leash-Pulling

Having a dog that pulls on the leash too hard can create a lot of problems for the owner. The most serious problem is that if the dog pulls too quickly or suddenly, the leash can be pulled right out of your hands, and then your dog is off running loose where it could be hit by a car or run into other dangers like aggressive dogs or unfriendly neighbors.

Pulling too hard on the leash can also cause strain to the owner's fingers, wrists and arm muscles if the entire walk consists of constant pulling. Depending on the size of the dog, pulling can also put strain on your back. Is it any wonder why so many people avoid the walk entirely with a difficult dog?

However, there are steps you can take to make the walk an enjoyable experience for you and your canine companion. Many dogs are simply stronger than their owners when it comes to tug-of-war on the leash. Even if you stop whenever the dog pulls, if the dog is stronger than you are, this may not help. If this is the problem, there are a number of training aids that can help.

Training Aids for Pulling

The least expensive and simplest solution is a chain collar. These anti-pulling aids are available at major pet supply stores like PetSmart and Petco. However, Tractor Supply has a wider selection of sizes to fit different sizes of dogs, very reasonably priced. Chain collars should not be used with toy size dogs, but are a valuable training aid with medium, large and extra-large dogs.

If your dog pulls so hard with the chain collar that he chokes himself, then stop using it. However, most dogs will start pulling less often after regular use of a chain collar. Please make sure to take off the chain collar after the walk is over, so your dog does not get it caught on something around the house or yard.

Heartley is a 21 lb Shih Tzu mix who usually walks nicely, but if he sees a cat or a squirrel, pulls with all his strength. For long walks, a small chain collar works great for him. Just the slight weight of the chain collar usually reminds him not to pull, and in the rare situation where he is so excited that he pulls anyway, the chain collar reminds him to calm down and stop pulling.

For dogs who constantly drag you down the street and fight with you over control of the leash, there are some great options for making your walk more enjoyable and controlled. The Premier company makes two popular walking harnesses that are recommended by animal rescue volunteers for walking strong-willed dogs: the Gentle Leader and the Easy Walk harness.

The Gentle Leader is a head collar that goes around the back of the dog's head and over the nose, much like a harness on a horse. It reduces pulling by applying gentle pressure to the dog's nose, in imitation of the way a pack leader will hold the nose of a subordinate dog in its jaws to show dominance. For some dogs, the Gentle Leader works wonders in eliminating pulling and making the walk an enjoyable experience with a dog who now walks calmly at your side on a loose leash. However, some dogs may not tolerate the strap over the nose and spend all their time trying to pry the Gentle Leader off instead of walking. It costs about $15-$20.

Dakota was a 40 lb Belgian Tervuren mix who could pull so hard that she once broke the metal clasp on a regular leash in half over her owner's fingers, nearly breaking the fingers too. However, since she was a high energy dog, she had to be walked. The Gentle Leader worked wonders with Dakota. While she had a lot of pulling power in her neck, the gentle pressure on her nose from the Gentle Leader made her slow down and walk quietly at her foster mom's side.

The Easy Walk harness looks like an ordinary nylon harness with snap clips, but it is specifically designed so that the leash clips to a strap on the dog's chest rather than the middle of the back. With this design, when the dog tries to pull on the leash, the harness lifts the dog's front legs off the ground slightly, which throws your dog off-balance and makes him slow down and stop pulling. The Easy Walk harness works with most dogs and is one of the most reliable ways to quickly turn a leash-monster into a calm, relaxed walking companion. It costs about $18-$25.

Madeline is a 35 lb deaf Aussie mix who lives at Healing Hearts Animal Rescue in Nashville, TN. When she first came here, she pulled very hard on the leash, so I tried an Easy Walk harness with her, and it caused this bouncy, curious girl to calm down and walk quietly at my side instead of trying to drag me all over the street. However, Madeline clearly didn't like how the harness restricted her movement. Using the Easy Walk harness combined with some behavioral training has calmed Madeline down enough that she can now walk with only a chain collar without pulling.

For any dog who pulls, it is important to use a regular nylon or leather leash. The Flexi leash provides too little control and can too easily break with heavy pulling. When the dog pulls on a Flexi leash, it gives him more leash, thus inviting him to pull more.

Training Your Dog Not to Pull

Changing your dog's pulling behaving begins before you leave the house. When you first pick up the leash and your dog starts barking and jumping with joy, he is already getting excited thinking about all the new smells and sights he will encounter. Make your dog calm down and sit on command before putting his leash on. If he refuses, then wait for him to calm down and do not put the leash on until he calms and sits. This forces your dog to refocus on you as the alpha before stepping out the door.

As you proceed on your walk, if your dog pulls hard or even starts to pull the leash tight, come to a dead stop and hold the leash firmly. Your dog should be jerked to a sudden stop and should take a step or two backwards and turn to look back at you. Once you receive that redirection of your dog's attention back to you, the walk can go on. If your dog keeps pulling even when you stop, then make him do a sit on command with each stop to refocus his attention on you, not the tantalizing scents, sounds and sights around him.

One of the biggest challenges in reducing pulling on the leash is when your dog sees a favorite friend, be they human or canine. Your dog may be progressing well with not pulling on a normal walk, but once he sees his best doggie pal or his favorite neighbor, the leash-monster emerges again full-force. However, the same rules apply. When he pulls, come to a full stop. You may have to repeat this many times before you finally reach the desired friend. The most important rule of all dog training is consistency, so if your dog isn't allowed to pull on walks, he can't be allowed to pull when he sees his favorite buddy either.

The goal of anti-pulling training is to teach your dog that you are the alpha and that you direct the walk. He needs to pay attention to you and what you are doing in addition to all the interesting things that are going on around him. If you slow down, your dog should automatically slow down with you. If you speed up, your dog should speed up with you. A walk is not just an opportunity for your dog to get exercise and have fun smelling new smells. It is an important opportunity to bond with your dog and help him learn to be a good canine citizen.