A walk with your dog can be a soothing time spent with your canine best friend — or it can be a battle for control. The way your dog acts when he’s on leash can cause serious problems. As a dog trainer, I frequently work with clients whose canines are pulling on the leash, mouthing the leash, and barking and lunging at the end of the leash. All of these behaviors are problematic, but all have solutions.
It should be no surprise that leash annoyances are so common in dogs; the leash restricts your dog’s ability to move as he wants, and so he does one — or all — of these behaviors in order to have a certain need met. The responsibility for fostering a more relaxed, controlled walk lies on the human side of the leash, though: Once you understand why your dog does the undesirable behavior, you can redirect him to a more constructive alternative.
Here are three common leash problems and solutions for each.
Pulling on the Leash
What it looks like: Your dog strains at the leash, nearly choking himself. This may be the way your dog habitually walks, or perhaps the pulling only happens at the beginning of the walk or in high-distraction, exciting situations.
Why it happens: Dogs naturally want to pull against pressure rather than giving into it. Your dog learns that when he pulls, he is more likely to get where he wants to go — and to get there faster. Dogs who pull have little connection with the human on the other end of the leash; they’re only interested in what’s in front of them.
How to change it: Gain control by only allowing your dog to move forward when the leash is loose. As soon as your dog pulls hard enough to make the leash tight, stop in place and wait for a loose leash before continuing forward. For dogs who are especially resistant to change, use a verbal marker like “oops” to mark when the leash becomes taut, and then change direction with a gentle pull (no jerking) that hinders any forward motion. When a dog is pulling to get to something, like sniffing a bush or going into the dog park, only allow forward movement while he is on a loose leash. Once he has walked close enough to the area of interest, ask for a quick behavior, like a hand target or sit, and release him to sniff the bush or enter the dog park as a reward. In addition, carry treats to reward your canine every time he checks in and turns his head toward you or even in your direction. This increases your dog’s awareness of your presence and teaches him that looking at you is more rewarding than looking around him. Teach and reward a heel on leash, or walking aligned next to you; this can be a useful alternative behavior when your dog is highly aroused. Your entire walk doesn’t need to be a heel, though — loose-leash walking allows your dog to explore and sniff, which is important for his mental health. Ask your dog to heel until he calms down or you pass the distraction, and then release him on a loose leash as a reward.
Management tool: Dogs are more apt to pull on back-clip harnesses, flat collars, choke chains and prong collars. To help manage pulling and gain more control on walks, use a front-clip harness that crosses the front of your dog’s chest and gently nixes pulling. For dogs who are powerful and out of control, head halters are another good choice for hindering pulling.
Mouthing and Chewing the Leash
What it looks like: Your dog grabs the leash in his mouth. Some nibble and bite, while others pull, like a game of tug-of-war. This may be done while walking or when standing still with the leash on.
Why it happens: Some dogs do this frequently, all throughout the walk, while others only do it when they are over-the-top with nervous agitation. Having something in their mouth is calming for some dogs, especially those bred to retrieve objects, like Labradors. It’s also a game that gets attention and a reaction from people.
How to change it: Teach your dog an alternative behavior to do instead. For some dogs, merely asking for a heel while walking or rewarding a quiet behavior while waiting, such as a down, replaces the leash chewing. You can also take the fun out of unwanted mouthing by downplaying the behavior. Try using two leashes, one on a harness and the other on the collar. When your dog grabs one leash to mouth or chew, drop the leash to take away the resistance that is naturally created when you’re holding on to the leash. Switch between leashes as needed so that there is no fun tug available with the leash game.
Management tool: Swap your fabric leash for a chain leash. Chain leashes are not nearly as fun to chew on and can’t be grabbed or tugged as easily as a fabric leash. If your dog is chewing the leash simply because he wants something in his mouth, give him something he can carry, like a stuffed toy or ball, to serve as a type of pacifier during walks.
Lunging, Barking, Reacting on Leash
What it looks like: Your dog will usually be reacting to something in his environment. Often it’s another dog, but triggers also include joggers, bikers, skateboarders or strollers. Your dog may lunge, stand on his hind feet and strain at the end of the leash, spin in circles or vocalize with barks and whines.
Why it happens: Most of the time these behaviors are rooted in anxiety and frustration. Your dog becomes upset at the sight of the stimulus for a number of reasons, such as: He cannot approach the stimulus and check it out because he is restricted by the leash, or the leash restricts his ability to get away from a situation that makes him uneasy and anxious. There may also be an element of chase to the sequence, especially with faster-moving joggers or bikers; the dog wants to run after them as they move past but cannot because he is on a leash. It is important to note that the more a dog is punished for reacting on leash, the worse the behavior can become; punishment can cause a dog who already has a negative association with a situation to become even more aroused and upset in that situation.
How to change it: It’s important in a situation like this to get help from a professional, such as a veterinary behaviorist or a veterinarian working with a positive reinforcement trainer.
This issue rarely resolves on its own and requires assessing the individual dog’s emotional state, triggers, level of aggression on leash and the degree to which the dog poses a risk to other animals, people and to himself through this behavior. You will need to work with a trainer to address your dog’s response to the specific stimulus and provide a better alternative behavior for him to perform in that situation. This means introducing your dog gradually to the problematic situation, like seeing another dog, and teaching him an alternative behavior, like making eye contact with you or hand targeting when he sees the other dog. In addition, in order to turn the sight of another dog (or any other problematic stimulus) from something bad into a signal something great will happen, it must be paired with highly reinforcing treats, play, attention — anything your dog enjoys.
Management tool: Front-clip harnesses and head halters give more control and allow the animal to be turned around and away from the stimulus before he reacts. Teach your dog to turn on cue: Offer a verbal cue such as “turn” and immediately refocus your dog’s attention by rewarding walking next to you as you move away. Cross the street or walk up a driveway to create enough distance so your dog no longer reacts. Visual blockers, like a car or a tree, can also lessen the reaction until the stimulus passes. These strategies can be useful for preventing the habeit from being rehearsed while the issue is being addressed with training.
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