Dear Sarah, May 17

Dear Sarah,

My dog pulls really badly on the lead, but when he’s off lead on the beach, he walks right beside me. Why is that?

Sonya S

Hi Sonya,

Walking on a loose lead is possibly the hardest thing to teach a dog to do, for a number of reasons.

For starters, the lead is a human-imposed piece of equipment that dogs aren’t born automatically knowing how to walk properly on. Secondly, dogs naturally walk faster than humans do, meaning that they are naturally out in front. Thirdly, dogs often pull to get to smells and other things up ahead and as they are attached to our arm, it is very easy for us to be pulled in that direction (hence reinforcing the pulling behaviour). And finally, dogs have something known as an ‘opposition reflex’ for balance (we have it as well, by the way), so if you pull against them (like when you put any kind of tension on the lead), to maintain balance, they will automatically pull against you in the opposite direction.

I have a number of clients who have the same concern that you do; their dog walks nicely beside them on the beach, but as soon as that lead goes on, it’s like a Husky pulling a sled! This is sometimes a learned behaviour, but more often than not, it’s the opposition reflex kicking in. And the more you try to pull them back, or hold them in position, the more they pull.

There are a couple of things you could do. You could try to reinforce the desirable behaviour (when he’s walking beside you on the beach), either with a treat, or by telling him that he’s good, so that he’s likely to replicate that behaviour. You could also try having him wear the lead on the beach and drag it behind him (so that the lead becomes a part of the desired behaviour), making sure that you’re still reinforcing him for a job well done. Once he gets the hang of what’s expected, pick the lead up so that you’re holding it, and continue to reinforce for him walking along beside you.

You might also like to try a different piece of equipment. Front attaching harnesses can work wonders with dogs that pull on lead by turning them around to face you if they go to pull. While no piece of equipment cures pulling, it can at least make it easier for you to hold your dog while you’re teaching him what walking on a loose lead is all about.

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