Welcome to our simple guide to how to stop your dog pulling on the leash. We’ll also talk about anti-pulling devices, and give you an in-depth guide to teaching heel. Helping you to get your dog walking nicely next to you, instead of pulling you along!
Tried everything to get your dog to stop pulling? This is where you can find out how to stop your Lab pulling permanently, and get him walking next to you on a nice loose leash. Use the green menu to jump to the parts that interest you, or for best result, work through the article and accompanying training exercises from start to finish.
Pulling is a miserable problem
If you are fed up with having your arms pulled from their sockets on a daily basis, you are not the only one. Apart from running away, getting a dog to walk nicely on a loose lead seems to be the biggest sticking point for owners of medium to large dogs like Labradors. It is a common and miserable problem.
Don’t get me wrong, little dogs pull too, it just isn’t usually such a big deal. Being dragged around by a large dog isn’t just a horrible experience. It also makes you and your dog vulnerable to accidents, injury and embarrassment.
The dangers of pulling on the leash
If your Labrador lunges towards a busy road and you let go, he is in trouble. If you don’t let go, you could both be in trouble. Labradors are relatively large and powerful dogs. Learning to walk nicely on a lead is one of the two safety commands that all big dogs need to be taught sooner rather than later. In fact it’s really important that you have control over your dog both on and off the lead and this is something you can achieve yourself, with a little guidance and support.
I’ve tried everything to stop my dog from pulling!
This is a frequent comment from people with strong pulling dogs. It can really feel as though nothing works.
It will help if we look first at why your Labrador is still pulling on the lead, and why the things you have already tried, didn’t work. Then we’ll look at different training methods. Training takes time, so we will also look at effective ways to manage your dog, or prevent him from pulling, while you teach him to walk on a loose leash.
Good dogs and bad dogs?
Why is loose leash walking so hard to achieve? Why do so many people give up training or resort to head collars, prong collars or other anti-pulling devices. While other dogs behave so well and trot nicely along at their owners heels? Is it the dog that’s at fault? Are there ‘good dogs’ and ‘bad dogs’ ? Or is it the owner? Or perhaps a combination of the two?
Why does my dog pull on the leash?
The chances are, going out for a walk is pretty much the most exciting thing your dog does all day. I’m not suggesting you are boring, but dogs just love to be out and about!
Your dog knows all the little preparations you make before taking him out. Locking the doors, finding your coat, putting your phone in your pocket, and so on. Most dogs get pretty wound up just at the sight of a leash or some car keys, and by the time you have your jacket on, they are fizzing.
It’s walk time!
Any thing that predicts a walk is exciting for a dog and a lot of puppy and dog owners, inadvertently make that excitement worse. I’ll explain how in a moment. But in short, when you step towards that front door, chances are, your dog is alight with excitement. His whole being is focused on getting through that front gate and out into the world. He is probably pulling on the lead, before you get to the front door. And what happens next? That’s right, YOU GO THROUGH the door.
The dog pulled very hard on the lead. And the consequence was – he got the thing he really wanted more than all the world – to go through the front door. I think you can get where I’m coming from.
A fundamental principle of animal behavior – in ALL animals (it works for you and me too) is that animals repeat behaviors or actions that were rewarding in the past. Why wouldn’t we? It makes total sense from a survival point of view. If doing X gets you Y and Y is important for survival – you are going to do X as often as you can until your need for Y is fulfilled.
Dogs pull when pulling is rewarding
Any kind of reward, will encourage a dog to repeat the behavior that accompanied or immediately preceded, that reward. And dogs pull, because to date, pulling has been highly rewarding for them.
The biggest reward in the world
Exercise is one of the biggest rewards you can offer your Labrador. Off lead exercise is the icing on the cake. The biggest reward in the world. Every time you let your dog off the lead to run around, he receives a massive reward for whatever behavior he was doing just before you released him. Likely as not, what he was doing was dragging you towards his favourite park or field.
But how can my dog enjoy choking himself?
Now you would think that the consequence of dragging a heavy weight (that would be you) by the delicate tissues of his throat would be unpleasant to a dog. But the truth is, Dogs don’t mind pulling – in fact some dogs quite enjoy it. And dogs are very tough when it comes to bearing pain.
You may wonder how your dog can possibly bear to be gasping and gagging on the lead, and even worry that he may injure himself. The fact is, he could very well be harming himself, but just like people, dogs do not always feel pain in the ‘heat of the moment’ or when they are overly excited. And he is one excited dog if he thinks he is about to get the best reward of the day.
Even though his throat may be sore and his neck aching, your tough dog will keep going – onwards to the place where fun happens! Even if the dog is aware of the pain in his neck, he may want the experience of exercise sufficiently to bear it.
Why is so hard to stop my dog pulling?
Loose leash training is a challenge, both because the stakes are very high for the dog, and because, as we have seen he is capable of putting up with a LOT of discomfort in order to get free running exercise. It is also a challenge because most dogs that pull, don’t realise that there is another way to get that exercise they crave. That’s where you come in.
Changing your dog’s behavior
If we want to change a dog’s behavior, we have to stop rewarding behaviors we don’t like. And start rewarding the behaviors we want. Up till now, you have been rewarding your dog for pulling. In fact, you have been teaching your dog to pull.
Exercise is such a powerful reward, that anything which immediately precedes it is reinforced. This means that when you walk a dog to his exercise area on a daily basis, he soon believes that dragging you behind him actually results in a walk. And he is kind of right, isn’t he?
Changing your behavior
Even if you never let your dog off a leash, he is still being rewarded each time he pulls. This is because dogs also find following new scents, sights, and sounds exciting and enjoyable too. You can’t win really, until you change your own behavior. Because as long as you let the dog move forwards, you are rewarding the pulling.
Effective training methods
Effective training methods always involve two important strategies
- They prevent dogs being rewarded for BAD behavior
- They reward dogs for GOOD behavior
That sounds like common sense right? But so often we use methods that only embrace ONE of these two strategies. We stop the dog doing the bad thing but forget to reward the good. Or just as frequently, we reward the dog for the good things, but fail to prevent him continuing to carry out the BAD.
Remember that dogs will repeat actions that were rewarded in the past. So we need to prevent the dog being rewarded if he carries out the behavior we want to diminish. In this case what we want to diminish is pulling on the lead. We need to teach the dog the correct way to walk when he is on a lead. But it is no good doing this training, if we don’t also prevent the dog from dragging us around. Nor is it any good stopping the dog pulling, if we don’t reward him for walking correctly in the way that we want him to.
Breaking bad habits
Preventing bad behavior while rewarding the good, is a TRAINING + MANAGEMENT approach which is essential when a dog has begun to engage in bad behaviors that are highly rewarding. We’ll look at the training part first, then get down to the management side of things!
Training your dog not to pull
Training a dog not to pull means teaching him what you want him to do instead. When we do this, we need to reward behaviors that the dog can recognise, control, and understand. This could mean rewarding a position, or it could mean rewarding some other kind of signal or action that the dog can control.
Rewarding a position means teaching the dog how to align himself next to his owner. We usually refer to this as walking to heel. But we can also teach the dog to control the state of his leash – in other words we can teach him to make sure that the leash remains slack. We’ll look at both a simple loose leash walking technique and at a more formal method of teaching your dog to walk neatly to heel at your side.
Loose leash walking
With loose leash walking, in each training session, we reward the dog when the leash is loose. We also remove his access to forward movement when the leash goes tight. This is the basic principle. But I have explained it in a lot more detail in this article: Walking your dog on a loose leash.
Some people find this method so successful that they don’t need to train the dog to walk at heel in a formal sense. And if all you want is a dog that isn’t dragging you around, and if your dog isn’t too distractible, then this method may be all that you need.
Teaching a dog to walk to heel
For many of us, the ‘waiting for a loose leash’ technique is not quite enough. The idea of a dog that walks prettily along right next to us, is very appealing. And to achieve that, you need to teach your dog to walk to heel. A process which will take you several weeks. Your dog has to learn where the heel position is, and the cue you want him to respond to, and he has to learn to apply these rules in all kinds of different situations.
What’s the difference between teaching loose leash walking, and teaching heel
Loose leash walking focuses on reducing pulling and on the leash itself. In loose leash walking, it doesn’t really matter if the dog is a little in front of you, or a little behind, so long as there is some slack in that lead.
Heelwork focuses much more precisely on the position of the dog. The dog is controlling his body position, not the lead. The lead is relatively unimportant. In fact, you don’t need a leash at all in order to teach a dog to walk to heel.
Which method is best?
In some ways, it is easier for the dog to understand heelwork as he always knows exactly where he should be in relation to you. In addition, if your dog is at heel, the leash will always be loose. It is also a much better approach for a dog that lacks focus or attention on his handler. It brings the dog and handler into a much closer working relationship
I recommend you train your dog to walk to heel as this really is the best solution. It will also enable you to walk your dog at heel without a lead. This is a useful skill and an essential part of most dogs sports and activities.
What is involved in heel training?
You’ll need to put aside ten or fifteen minutes twice daily to spend in training sessions with your dog. You’ll establish the basics quite quickly, its the proofing that takes the time. Because not only do you have to teach your dog to walk next to you at home, in your garden, you need to teach him to do it in the street to, or when other dogs are around, and this takes some extra time. Especially in dogs that have been lunging at people or other dogs for years.
This leaves a problem for those that need to get out and about with their dogs before this training process is completed. This is where the management part of coping with a leash puller comes in
Getting best results from training
Whether you decide to have a go with my simple loose leash technique or go for the full heelwork training in our linked articles, for the best and fastest results from the time you invest in training, you should not walk your dog on a lead at all during this training period unless you are actively training him not to pull. This can be a problem for some people.
What are you supposed to do if you are forced into a position of having to walk your dog on a lead, even though you are not able to stop and wait, if he gets to the end of the leash or starts pulling? Well, that’s where the management part we talked about above comes in.
Managing your strong pulling dog
When I talk about managing dogs that pull, using devices that reduce or prevent pulling, there is always someone that will say – Just Train The Dog! You hear people say that anti-pull devices are just for lazy people that cannot be bothered to train their dogs. But of course, it is not that simple.
And yes, training is always the best long term solution to a dog that pulls. However, this advice ignores that fact that dogs live in real families in the real world. The reason we have to talk about managing the dog that pulls, rather than just training him, is because loose lead training takes time.
If you want to train your dog to walk on a loose lead without using force, which is essential if your dog is stronger than you. And if you want to be able to walk him on a loose lead past all manner of distractions (kids playing football, other dogs, next-door’s cat etc) then you are looking at several weeks of concerted effort. In the meantime, you might just need to take your dog out on a leash
When you might have to walk your untrained dog
Suppose you have to take your dog to the vet’s for an important appointment and you don’t drive? Or supposing you live in an apartment without a garden and need to walk him to a toileting area before going to work? You cannot be endlessly switching direction or stopping and starting as we do during training.
Maybe you are on a long car journey and your dog has to stop and have a wee on the lead at a lay-by en route? This is where an anti-pull device comes in. You don’t want to give your dog a training lesson, and you don’t want to be dragged under a lorry. So you need to prevent pulling using some form of restraint.
There are two main types of anti-pull device, head collars, and body harnesses. None of these devices can claim to completely prevent all pulling in all dogs, but some will reduce pulling sufficiently to allow the dog’s owner to maintain reasonable control over the dog. You may have to try different types in order to find one that suits you and your dog. Let’s look at headcollars first.
Most head collars work by turning the dog’s head to one side as he pulls. They can be effective at minimising pulling, even with a very strong dog. It has to be said however, that they have some serious disadvantages.
The main problem is that many dogs don’t like them and find them quite distressing to wear. The dog may be walking to heel more out of misery, than because the head collar is mechanically restraining him. If your dog is very strong, and you are not, you may need to resort to a head collar on occasions. You may also need to try more than one make to find one that your dog is comfortable with.
I personally do not like head collars and many dogs find them highly aversive. If you do resort to a head collar, try and keep their use for essential journeys only, a trip to the vet’s for example. Never rely on head collars to control a dog on a daily basis, and strive to teach your dog to walk to heel so that he doesn’t need a head collar any longer. For most dogs, the best anti-pull device is a double attachment body harness.
Body harnesses for Labradors
Body harnesses are gradually replacing standard collars as the preferred means of attaching a lead to a dog. It is now recognised that restraining a dog by the soft tissues of his neck is not ideal.
Harnesses come in all shapes, styles and sizes. And are perfect for puppies. This is important because you are going to need a method of restraint, to keep the puppy safe in public, before he has learned to walk to heel. If you want to use a harness to reduce pulling in your older dog, the double attachment type, where a lead can be attached both at the chest and on the dog’s back, will help to reduce pulling.
Some harnesses can interfere with the natural gait of the dog, especially if they have a horizontal chest band that sits on the dog’s shoulders. Check out our excellent review of body harnesses for more information
Pulling on the lead is a bad habit that many dogs get into because they have been inadvertently rewarded for it. The problem tends to be worse in dogs that are walked on a lead, from their home, to the place where they are exercised. Pulling is dangerous and needs to be stopped. You wouldn’t be the first person to be dragged off their feet by a Labrador. The consequences on a busy roadside don’t bear thinking about.
Turning things around
Dogs also pull because NOT pulling, is NOT rewarding for them. To turn this situation around, you need to reverse the consequences for the dogs. You need to stop rewarding pulling and to start rewarding NOT pulling
If you want to go further than a loose leash and want your dog to walk prettily at heel, then you will need to spend some time training, on a regular basis, for several weeks. This is not a natural behavior for any dog, but once trained it makes the dog a pleasure to take out. If you would like to train your dog to walk to heel, use our series of structured training exercises. Here are those two key articles again
For a complete guide to raising a healthy and happy puppy don’t miss The Happy Puppy Handbook.
It will help you prepare your home for the new arrival, and get your puppy off to a great start with potty training, socialization and early obedience.
You can buy The Happy Puppy Handbook from Amazon by following this link. If you do, The Labrador Site will receive a small commission which is greatly appreciated and won’t affect the cost to you!
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website