So, here’s the problem with a blog post on teaching a dog how to walk properly without pulling: there are SO MANY ways to teach it that I could fill a whole book with different theories. If you’ve found a way and you like it and it’s working, stick with it!
In an attempt to rein in my wordy self (ahahahahahahaha!), I’m just going to talk about teaching a dog to walk on a harness.
The first thing you should know is that most harnesses are made to help a dog pull harder. The base of the neck and the chest are the strongest pulling points of a dog’s body. If they pull and the restraint is there, their instinct tells them that they’re caught and to pull harder to break free. Also, there’s a reason we used harnesses on dogs who pulled wagons (Rottweilers among others) and sleds (malamutes and huskies among others). When choosing a harness for your dog, keep in mind that most of them suck.
Wait, was that unprofessional? Probably. Ahem. Most of them are built to help your dog pull harder.
The ones that are built to keep your dog from pulling often do so by affecting their stride or pinching their shoulder blades/chest uncomfortably. If I’m going to make my dog uncomfortable anyway, I’m going to use a prong collar. Looks awful, but it’s less likely to cause joint problems later in life due to changing the way they move. (Note: neither prong collars nor harnesses are good to use with dogs dealing with aggression. In the case of a harness it can work eventually but takes forever and gives you little control in case something goes wrong, and in the case of a prong collar they sometimes work great, but can also actually increase aggression.)
So, back to a harness! My favorite ones are front-clip harnesses. Yes, the dog still hits the end and instinct says “pull,” but the more they pull the more they turn themselves around. They’re working against their own strength.
Among the front clip harnesses, I like the Easy Walk harness or the cheaper knock-offs. (If you have a small dog or one with a funky body type, pay extra to get the brand name. It has more adjustable straps and will fit better.) A lot of the instruction booklets will tell you to set them up so that the front strap sits low on the chest. Don’t do that. It affects your dog’s stride, and works just fine without affecting their stride and possibly causing those aforementioned joint problems when they age. Instead, fit it so that it’s mid-point on your dog’s chest, low enough to keep from coughing (which happens if it hits their windpipe on accident) and high enough to keep it from restricting leg movement. Also make sure your harness is snug; you don’t want it gaping and coming off somewhere.
Now, if I have a world champion puller, I’m going to start in the house. I’m going to walk to the door, put on my stuff, and then swing the door boldly open.
Did I mention the part where I braced my feet against the coming missile of my dog? No? Well, I did that even before I opened the door.
The other thing I’m going to do as I open the door is start backing up, fairly quickly. The reason for this is that by the time I notice my dog is running out the door, doing his best missile impression, it’s already too late. My brain doesn’t have enough time to tell my feet to move. So, I’m going to start backing up while I open the door, and then I’ll have about the right timing.
You’re braced, yeah? Good. Because when your dog hits the end of the leash, the harness is going to turn him back around to face you. If you timed it right, he’s going to look at you like, “What happened?” If you didn’t time it right, you’ll have to keep backing up until he finally turns and looks at you like, “Dude, you’re going the wrong way.” This’ll be about the same time that you’ve dragged him back inside. Don’t worry about it, just make a note: dog is Superman speed. Move faster.
Now my dog is facing me. I’m going to give him my best happy smile, say his name, and offer a treat. As he comes toward me to take it, I’ll step toward him. BEFORE I LET THE TREAT GO, I continue past him. He turns to stay with me. I take a step. Gasp! Now we’ve taken two steps together; one turning (him), one side by side! Now I release the treat and he eats it!
My dog shoots forward again like a 5th grade rocket. I brace and step back. He hits the end of the leash and spins to face me. “What happened?” he wonders.
“Did you spin around?” I ask brightly. “Here, Missy!” (My dog doesn’t believe in gender norms.) Missy comes to get the treat. I once again hold onto it while I step toward him and he turns to step with me. Two steps! The treat is his!
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Jenna, you forgot to close the front door.” Ha! I did not, because I’m only just now getting out of the house after I had to drag Missy back in!
Close the door. Lock it, if you so choose. Reel Missy in, step forward, and try not to hit the door when you back up, because he’s hitting the end of his leash.
Now, at some point one of you is going to get smart. (I’m rooting for you, dear human reader.) Take half a dozen treats and put them all in one hand. I am assuming that you’re lazy like me, and are holding your leash in the other hand and not in both hands. If you’re not being lazy, and you’re using both hands for your leash… well, jeez, be lazy.
Now when I say Missy’s name and he comes tearing back for the treat he knows I have, I’m going to give it to him. I’m going to IMMEDIATELY thumb out another of those half dozen treats I’m holding and give him that one, too. And then I’m going to do it again. And if I’ve managed to give him three treats in less than three steps, I’m going to buy myself a donut! (No, I’m not. But you totally should.)
Now Missy remembers he’s watching his figure and decides he’d rather chase the squirrel than get a treat. As Missy shoots forward, I start walking backward again. A note, here: I’m actually walking backward. I’m not turning around and going backward, but I am actually walking backward.
I have no idea, Missy! One second you were running forward, the next you were facing me!
After about ten feet of this (which will take fifteen minutes to accomplish), you’ll be cursing Missy, who will be cursing the squirrel. BUT, Missy won’t be pulling so much. In fact, he’ll start walking on… wait for it… A SLACK LEASH.
- Pull Missy all the way around so he’s facing you. I don’t care if he looks at you, but he needs to be facing you. If you pull him halfway around and he’s dancing toward you while looking at the squirrel, that’s cheating. It won’t work. I don’t know why not, but it doesn’t.
- BACK UP. Most often I’ll be standing telling someone, “Good, now back up.” They stop dead. I repeat, “Back up.” They stand there, looking at Missy and wondering what happened to Fido. I treat them like a distracted dog and help them by doing it for them; I grab their arm and pull them backward. “BACK UP.” We repeat this three or four or fifteen times before they realize; they haven’t been moving their feet. Move your feet.
- Remember treats. You don’t have to use them, but lordy, do they help. The thing is, you need to use about six times more of them than you think you do. If I can keep a dog beside me by giving them treats every half step, I do. If the dog doesn’t realize I have treats because they’re focused on the squirrel, I might actually stop walking, put the treat on their nose so they smell it when they inhale, then use it to lead their face around and give it to them. If they’re not used to getting treats, they’ll need twenty before they start realizing this is a new thing. Give them that twenty ASAP. Within the first five feet. One at at time.
Finally, Missy is beginning to walk on a slack leash, and you’re getting pretty good at backing up. You start to relax. You think, “We’ve got this!” You get a little lazy. Not in the “I’m holding my leash in one hand” way, but in the, “I’ll just stop Missy rather than turning him around and he’s still getting it.” STOP DOING THAT. That’s the wrong kind of lazy. Okay, sure, you can do that a time or two, but Missy will figure it out and take advantage. BACK. UP.
You usually only need to back up a step or two, but if in doubt, back up ten feet. Back up until your dog faces you. Then walk forward.
Check out your leash. Is Missy ahead of you? Probably. That’s not really what I’m worried about. Is the leash taut between you, or dipping like one of the Golden Gate Bridge wires? If it’s not dipping, Missy is pulling. It’s a fine line for Missy to detect “pulling hard enough to feel the pressure of the harness against me” and “pulling hard enough to feel the pressure of the harness against me.” Missy isn’t thinking about how much pressure there is. He’s thinking about that damned squirrel, or Daisy who lives on the corner and always barks at him and how this time he’ll get the jump on her. We need to make this really easy for Missy, and for us. The leash should dip between you. If it’s not, assume Missy is pulling and turn him around.
Now you’re starting to get tired. You’re barely having to pull him around (and thank god, you never realized Missy was a rhino in disguise). The leash is slack. When you back up, he turns around and faces you and keeps turning and continues on. And weird, but you’re not getting anywhere anymore, because you keep backing up and going forward and backing up and going forward and backing up…
Back up FAST. You want Missy to pivot. (Sometimes I’ll add a slight upward tug, so that my dog pivots instead of dragging their feet on the cement. I mean, ouch.) You don’t want to give Missy time to turn around, because that just becomes a fun game. Pivot. Greet. Treat. Walk forward.
Don’t repeat ad nauseum, because heyyyy. This is working. Woot woot!