When you first bring your new puppy home, they’re a quivering little bundle of excitement, and once they’re allowed out for post-vaccination ’walkies,’ this excitement reaches out-of-this-world levels! They’ve just discovered a big wide world full of AMAZING smells and sights and sounds and people and dogs and cats and… they’re racing off into it like a steam train and paying you no attention whatsoever!
This constant pulling on the lead is manageable whilst they’re small, but if you’ve got a larger breed like a German Shepherd or a Labrador, trust me when I tell you that you’ll want to nip it in the bud as soon as you can.
My first recommendation is this: get your dog a harness. Some people will tell you not to put a ‘pully’ dog in a harness, because without the pressure of the collar tightening around their neck, they’ll feel happier to just pull even more… but if your dog is currently wearing a collar and pulling with all his might anyway, then the collar isn’t acting as much of a deterrent, is it? But what it is doing, is causing immense strain in an incredibly delicate and important area of the dog’s body, which, in the worst case, can cause serious damage to their throat and spine. Try putting your two hands out in front of you, palms facing down, and touch the tips of your thumbs together. Now wrap this around your neck, and press gently against your throat. Incredibly unpleasant, isn’t it? But as unpleasant as it is, it’s not stopping your dog from pulling – so do them a favour, and harness them up, so at least they can walk safely and without pain.
Having worked with almost every harness there is, I can personally recommend the ‘Perfect Fit’ harness. I’ve used a number of the so-called ‘anti-pull’ harnesses and headcollars on the market, and had only limited success. I tend to find that the dogs I have worked with will be receptive to them for a time, but will then soon develop a resistance and simply revert back to their previous pulling behaviour. What I love about the Perfect Fit, is that it features TWO D-rings for you to attach a double-ended lead to, giving a far greater level of control, and the ability to communicate with and steer your dog in a much more comfortable, accurate, and harm-free way.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the use of double-ended leads, they are generally attached by one end to the dog’s back (on the harness) and by the other end to the dog’s chest (on the harness). You can then control the dog’s ability to move off with incredible ease, and minimum strength. The attachment at the dog’s back provides you with general control, but the attachment at the front allows you to stop the dog from pulling – because if they do so they will simply be pulled back around in a circle. Pulling forward with any kid of chest-attached lead throws the dog’s balance so they simply cannot travel in a straight line past a certain point – try it on your dog and I promise you’ll be amazed at how suddenly your steam train is transformed into a passive companion! Once you have a more controllable dog, you can begin to work on their lead training with much greater ease, so that eventually you no longer need to use the chest attachment at all, and your dog will walk well because of his manners, rather than because of a restrictive piece of equipment!
So, how to lure out those all-important manners?
Whilst there is no magical ‘foolproof’ cure - every dog is different, with different levels of determination, tolerance, motivation, and the rest - there are lots of things you can do to help. Using a food treat to lure the dog into the correct position, sharply changing direction every time the dog reaches the end of its lead, and stopping dead every time the dog pulls are all popular methods… BUT a lot of people say to me “I tried that and it DOESN’T WORK!”
So let me tell you what the important thing to remember is here: until your dog will walk without trying to pull you over, you need to remain 100% consistent – it’s demanding work, but you will see results if you stick with it. So this means that until your dog grasps the concept, EVERY walk must be considered a training session… and for training sessions to be effective, they need to be short, frequent and fun.
Unfortunately, this means that for the time being (if you’re really serious about this), these short lead-walking sessions won’t provide adequate exercise, so find other means to use up all that pent up energy, like a game of fetch outside, some sprinting in the garden, or a long game of tug in the house. It will help if your dog has been exercised in this way BEFORE you put their lead on too – a slightly tired out dog is much more likely to listen, and less likely to steam off ahead!
I suggest you use high value food treats (like cheese, ham, sausage, etc. not just manufactured dry dog treats) and speed up your walking pace during training; your dog is more likely to pay you attention if you’re moving quickly.
Attach a verbal command to the act of walking beside you, ‘heel’ is the obvious one. Use this word every time your dog is beside you, and treat/praise regularly. The purpose of this is that eventually, you will teach your dog to differentiate between walking to heel, and free walking. No dog should have to walk to heel 100% of the time, and should be allowed free time to roam and explore sights and scents – as long as you know you can call them in when needs be. With my own dogs, ‘heel’ means get beside me, and ‘off you go’ means trot off and explore a little!
A great starting point is to establish ‘heel’ at home, by simply placing the dog in a ‘sit’ beside your left leg. Lure them (with a treat) from in front of you to beside you with the command ‘heel’ – once they reach the correct position, praise and reward. A clicker is a great way to mark the behaviour you’re praising, and can help to speed up the learning process. Once your dog understands the term ‘heel’ and will move to the correct position without the need for the lure, you can begin by taking your first step. If the dog stays beside you, praise (or click) and treat. Repeat this. Eventually you can take two steps. Then three. And so on… by the end of the training session you should be able to walk a circle around the room, with your dog by your heel. After this, you progress to the garden (in a separate session), and go back to the beginning – one step, then reward. When you’ve nailed the garden, you try the street… but it’s back to the beginning again. Each time you upgrade the environment to a more distracting or challenging one, you start again from scratch, to reinforce what you’ve already taught. If at any point your dog fails, take everything back a step – it is your job to set them up for success, not failure.
The most important thing to remember here is consistency. Until your dog has grasped the concept, EVERY walk needs to be focussed on keeping your dog beside you – if you throw in a quick ‘Oh who cares, I need to get him walked because I’m in a rush and I’m sick of not getting anywhere so I’ll just let him pull me along this time’ then all the progress you’ve made so far is shattered – he learns that if HE is consistent enough with his pulling, he’ll win YOU over in the end! I’ve mentioned the harness and double ended lead once already and I’ll mention it again here – because I think it’s an invaluable tool in keeping your dog beside you for those times you DO need to walk them, but have not yet mastered full control of the heel. It prevents the dog from steaming off ahead, and undoing all of their learning so far… and it prevents you getting all hot and agitated!
If you’d like any further detailed advice on teaching your dog to heel, please get in touch! You can email Lisa@listendogtraining.co.uk and I’ll do my best to get back to you promptly.
Happy walkies! :-)