Keep It Loose

(the Leash, That Is)

By Sandra Roosna / May 3, 2022

You may have heard yourself say one of the following: “He only barks at other dogs when he’s on leash”; “he always stays by my side when he’s off-leash, but pulls like a maniac as soon as the lead goes on”; or “he’s very polite on leash on his own, but starts pulling when he walks with his siblings.”

Dogs are not born with innate leash-walking skills, and 80% of the world dog population has not even seen a collar or a lead, yet alone have had to wear such equipment. Yet, we tend to take those skills for granted. A tether is a relatively new invention in the pet world, but a necessary one, given the ever-growing population and traffic.

We have historically focused on teaching our dogs how to walk on leash, without considering why they pull and act otherwise unpredictably as soon as we clip them in.

So this post focuses on the “why”:

Some of you may have heard the expression “Tension on the leash equals tension in the environment”, or a similar phrase.

Leash reactivity is often a result of barrier frustration. Your anxious dog knows they have nowhere to run or hide when on a leash, so they exhibit ritualized aggression (typically in the form of barking and lunging) to signal to the other dogs that they need space.

Secondly, your normally dog-friendly pup may scream and lunge at other dogs on the leash because they are not able to follow a standard greeting pattern, which includes slowly walking towards each other while moving their bodies side-to-side and sniffing each other’s special parts for no more than a few seconds. Being on leash forces them to approach another dog head-on: a clear sign of threat. They respond vocally and erratically to prevent a potential altercation that those unintended messages have communicated.

A reactive dog may further associate the discomfort and pain on their neck from pulling on the lead attached to their collar with a passing dog, which further exasperates their reactivity. This is one of the many reasons I always recommend using a back-clip harness.

A pet dog doesn’t usually want to be far from their handler, but they want the option to step away if there is an interesting smell or a rabbit crossing their path. Being on a tether signifies a lost opportunity to engage in fun things, so they stop more frequently and pull harder to give themselves that freedom.

Lastly, being social animals, they cannot stand the thought of being left behind. Losing a member of your group in nature signifies injury or even death. They do their best to make sure the group stays together, which often translates into pulling on leash to stay ahead.

So how does one keep pressure off of the lead?

💜 Use a longer leash:

If the environment is appropriate, walk your dog on a leash that is longer than 6ft (local laws and regulations permitting). This will allow for some slack and more relaxed walks.

💜 Decompression walks:

Try to find times of the day to walk your dog when you’re not in a hurry to go to work or get ready for bed. Use a longer lead and follow your dog wherever they want to go. Let them follow a scent, sniff a bush for 5 minutes, roll in smelly things, or splash in water. Allowing your dog to practice these natural behaviors will keep them stimulated, happy, and much more relaxed during your regular walks.

💜 Hand Target (or “Touch”):

Think of the leash as a seatbelt, not a steering wheel. It is just there for safety. Avoid getting into the habit of moving your pup around using the leash - instead, teach your dog Hand Target and practice it on walks. This activity serves as a fun distraction while helping to reposition your dog without the use of pressure.

💜 Walk up the leash:

When your dog pulls and won’t respond to you, stop and move towards your dog by “climbing” up the leash, without adding any additional pressure (pretend like you’re climbing the rope at the gym class, except that it’s positioned horizontally). Gently touch them on the side or place a treat in front of their face and lure them away. Often moving in their space is enough to get them to refocus.

💜 Have a home base for your leash-holding hand:

When our dogs pull, we instinctively pull back, creating more pressure. This is our way of establishing equilibrium when we think we’re about to fall over from being pulled or pushed. To prevent that, determine what is an appropriate length for your leash, and place the hand that is holding the leash firmly on your hip or chest. Do not move it from that spot. If you need to shorten your leash, you have your other hand for that.

💜 Emergency U-Turn:

Teach your dog to do a 180° turn on cue to remove yourselves from a sticky situation.