Dog that pulls on the lead? Six reasons to fix pulling for more satisfying walks.

Dog pulling on lead
Picture of Dr. Else Verbeek
Dr. Else Verbeek

Dog behaviour scientist and consultant.

Is taking your dog out for a walk no longer fun because they pull on the lead? There are several reasons why your dog may pull on the lead. They may be trying to explore the environment or interact with other dogs or people. A dog that pulls may also indicate that they are uncomfortable in a situation, and want to get away. 

Pulling on the lead is unpleasant for both the owner and the dog. According to a recent scientific study, no less than 24% of people would like to see their dog pull less on the lead. But why is it important to reduce lead pulling and teach your dog to walk on lead without pulling, aka loose lead walking? Keep reading and find out why reducing pulling will improve your dog’s welfare.

dog that pulls

Why do dogs love walking?

But let’s start with why dogs like going for a walk, and why you should definitely walk your dog. A lot. Exercise makes dogs feel good, allows them to play with other dogs, sniff and explore, and lets them have fun. Adequate walking is therefore important for a dog’s wellbeing and helps them to express their own natural behaviours.

When dogs run free, they sniff about 33 per cent of the time. Dogs use their noses to explore the world. We, people, mostly use our eyes to explore and discover. So we sometimes struggle to understand the importance of a dog’s nose.

Allowing your dog to find other dog’s scent marks and explore them in their own time may help them to have better interactions when they actually meet afterwards. By using their noses, dogs collect social cues about other dogs and use this to guide their behaviour.

When shelter dogs are allowed to use their noses (olfactory enrichment), they are calmer. Pet dogs that do regular nosework are in a more positive emotional state (=happier) compared to dogs that engage in regular heelwork. So let your dog sniff and explore in peace. Allowing your dog to behave naturally and make active choices during walks will make them feel good.

Should I let my dog lead when walking?

Why does your dog want to lead when walking?  Because they want to follow their nose, sniff and enjoy. So, let your dog ‘own’ the walk, it is for their benefit. If they are following their noses and guide you in a certain direction, let them do it. But, unfortunately, for many people this is not so easy.

Problems with walking a dog that pulls.

Research shows that 15% of owners do not walk their dogs every day. It is not entirely clear why this is so, but 10% of people say that they walk less when the dog is pulling on the lead a lot. Dogs that are more ‘obedient’ are walked more than dogs that are perceived as less obedient and more active and excitable. It seems a reasonable assumption that lead pulling limits the duration, frequency and quality of the walks dogs’ receive.

One common problem is that many dogs are not sufficiently socialised at a young age and may react aggressively when they meet other dogs and people. These dogs may bark, lunge or even try to bite unfamiliar dogs. They have never been taught polite social skills and may not have learned that interacting with others can be a good experience. Owners may not dare to take their dogs on walks because they fear that their dog may behave aggressively towards other dogs, or that other dogs may injure their own dog.

Often the two problems – lead pulling and reactivity to other dogs – go hand in hand. And it is often caused by misinterpreting the dogs’ playful and curious behaviour towards other dogs. In many cases, this problem already started in puppyhood.

Here’s an example. You’re taking your puppy out for a walk and there is another dog nearby. Your puppy acts excited and pulls you towards the other dog. You’re not sure about your puppy’s intention and you may be worried that she may growl, or even bite, the other dog. Therefore, you may pull back – or even jerk – on the lead to stop your puppy from approaching the other dog. Perhaps you have seen this on TV as an appropriate way to ‘correct’ your puppy’s unwanted behaviour, see also this post. Or you may scold your puppy, or simply pull her closer to you to stop her from going to the unfamiliar dog.

You may be successful in stopping your puppy from approaching unfamiliar dogs. But what you may not realise is that you may be – unintentionally – teaching your puppy to associate an unfamiliar dog with a punishment. 

The next time you meet a dog, your puppy may start to anticipate the discomfort from the lead tension or pull (which acts as a punishment) and start reacting fearfully toward the other dog. This fear is expressed as aggressive behaviour in some dogs, while others try to hide or get away.

Luckily, you can teach any dog loose leash walking skills so that going on walks is a pleasant experience for both of you. Here are six reasons why you should fix your dog’s lead pulling.

Reason # 1. Reduced walking and weight gain.

As said above, lead pulling leads to less walking and may even lead to reactivity. However, too little walking increases the risk of obesity and behavioural problems. Several studies have shown a link between reduced walking and weight gain, although it can be difficult to interpret these studies due to confounding factors such as the age, diet, neutering status of the dog and the behaviour and attitudes of the owner. Still, we know that exercise burns calories, and together with a healthy diet, plays a major role in preventing weight gain.

Reason #2. Lead pulling is uncomfortable and causes stress and frustration.

Dogs who pull (or have an owner who pulls a lot and uses leash ‘corrections’) suffer from frustration, stress, increased heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones, damage to the neck, thyroid and salivary glands, and possibly their eyes. Funnily enough, their owners may also experience increased coughing and hiccupping.

Reason #3. Lead tension teaches a dog the wrong way to go forward.

When pups are young, they learn that pulling on the lead makes them go forward. This behaviour pattern is hard to break, even if it’s painful or dangerous for your dog. It is best to prevent this behaviour early on so you can enjoy loose leash walking as your dog gets older. 

Image by susanne906 from Pixabay

Reason #4. Choke collars cause pain and distress.

A popular solution for pulling is the use of aversive dog training equipment, such as specific collars and harnesses. These rely on increasing the tension on the lead to the point that it is uncomfortable. The only way to escape this tension is for the dog to stop pulling. Problem solved. Or is it?

While correction-based methods may suppress pulling, the unintended consequences are more aggressive behaviour, fear, pain and stress. Interestingly, owners who use choke collars also find walking less pleasant. Choke collars can also cause physical injury to the dog. But the same applies to some harnesses. 

Luckily there are also animal friendly methods to stop lead pulling. It is unclear whether the use of corrections (verbal, lead corrections, or electronic) are more or less effective than reward-based methods in getting your dog to walk without pulling on the lead. However, it is certain that reward-based methods are better for your dog’s wellbeing. By using positive reinforcement training, we can change the pulling behaviour for the better. 

If you have a dog that pulls on the lead, there are plenty of techniques you can use to stop pulling. Training your dog for loose leash walking can help you to better understand and communicate with your dog, and this will benefit both of you by giving you rewarding walks in which your dog doesn’t pull. To learn how simple it can be to train your dog to walk on a leash, please watch this training video below.

Reward-based training methods are a better way of teaching your dog how to walk on a loose lead than using pain-based ones, like choke collars and prong collars, which may even cause unwanted behavioural problems and stress!

Reason #5. Lead pulling and the bond between dog and owner.

Pulling on the lead weakens the bond between dog and owner. Especially when it happens often and hard. No dog likes choke collars or other animal-unfriendly methods.

There is good evidence that people who walk their dogs more have a better relationship with their dog. This is because they feel a sense of obligation to walk their dog and at the same time feel that their dog emotionally supports them. They simply want what is best for their dog. The opposite may also be true: walking the dog more may lead to a better relationship due to the increased time spent together.

A strong attachment is important. People that have a less strong bond with their dogs are more likely to relinquish their dogs when things turn out to be a little harder than they thought. And perhaps this does not come as a surprise: behavioural problems are one of the main reasons for relinquishment. So let’s create a better relationship by preventing lead pulling using positive methods.

Reason #6. Choose quality over quantity.

OK, perhaps this is not really a reason, but it is important. It turns out that the quality of the walk is more important than the number of hours you walk each day. Calm and relaxed walking reduces stress more than running on a lead. So don’t feel pressured to run marathons with your dog, or anything like that.

Instead, take a gentle stroll, let your dog follow their nose and simply enjoy quality time together!

Your dog will be so much happier for it!

Ultimately, you and your dog are a team. If you want to see changes happen, then you need to communicate with your dog in a way that both of you can understand. While fixing problems like pulling on the lead can be difficult at times, it’s an essential part of improving yourself as a pet owner. And when done right, leash training is more than just fixing bad behaviour and unwanted habits—it’s about strengthening the love and trust between you and your dog.

So if you have been struggling with pulling on the lead, and feel that something needs to change, there are many methods available to train your dog to walk on a leash without pulling. You can try an animal-friendly harness, positive reinforcement techniques, classes and books on understanding dog behaviour. Choose a method that is suitable for both you and your dog and have fun with it.

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Lead pulling as a welfare concern in pet dogs: What can veterinary professionals learn from current research? – Townsend

Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog

Use of pedometers to measure the relationship of dog walking to body condition score in obese and non-obese dogs | British Journal of Nutrition | Cambridge Core

Overweight dogs exercise less frequently and for shorter periods: results of a large online survey of dog owners from the UK – PMC

Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs – ScienceDirect

Effects of Olfactory and Auditory Enrichment on the Behaviour of Shelter Dogs

How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates

Owner Attachment and Problem Behaviors Related to Relinquishment and Training Techniques of Dogs

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Dr Else Verbeek en witte hond