by Adam Patterson, CPBT-KA
This is going to sound terrible of me, but I know I cannot be the only one who has felt this way at some point while owning a dog.
You are wanting to go out for a nice walk around the neighborhood, or through the park, and you see your dog looking at you with those longing eyes that always seem to say, “Please, take me with you.” You contemplate it for a moment.
Work was exhausting. You’ve already cooked dinner and changed the kids, and now all you want is a relaxing stroll in crisp evening air. Taking the dog would be so much work, and you just know that this is the time when your arm gets pulled out of socket.
I feel so guilty any time I do not take my furry friend on walks with me, but if I haven’t properly trained them to walk on a leash, man, it can be a nightmare - the pulling, the hassling, the barking. It can all be too much and seem like there is no hope for a nice walk around the block.
I would like to spend this time talking about how to train a dog to walk gently and calmly on the leash and hopefully save some folks’ arms and shoulders.
Collars and Harnesses
Now, yes, there are some collars and harnesses out there that claim to train your dog to heel on walks. One that I absolutely ask you to NOT use is the choke collar. This is based on negative reinforcement.
When the dog pulls on the lead, the collar tightens up around the neck. This can be potentially dangerous. If you have a dog that is anxious or nervous and they start getting choked, they could freak out and pull harder or take off trying to escape the aversive collar.
Here we find one of the biggest problems with negative reinforcement strategies. It doesn’t teach the animal what to do.
The dog is just walking along, and then sees a squirrel she wants to chase. She takes off and then all of sudden, “Aaacckk! I am being choked! Run the other way! Yaaackk!” That did not loosen the hold. How are they supposed to know that you are wanting them to walk calmly at your side with slack in the lead?
The other problem is that you cannot have negative reinforcement without first having a positive punisher.
Your dog pulls on the lead. The first consequence of this behavior is the collar getting tight and potentially choking them. The harder they pull, the stronger the choke. Ergo, the pulling is punished by the choke. Negative reinforcement does not come into play until they stop pulling and the collar loosens.
Why is this bad? Well, there are multiple harmful side effects to using punishment and negative reinforcement.
The first is apathy. Your dog may lose interest in going on walks. They just give up because they are continually being told they cannot walk.
In an attempt to teach them to heel while walking, it can be confusing, especially if they keep pulling in multiple directions. How are they supposed to know to walk at your side?
Aggression is another side effect. They could try and bite at the leash or maybe even you to get the choking to stop.
They could develop generalized fear. This could be fear of the leash, fear of walks, fear of you, or fear of every human if this choking happens with every walk. Then escape/avoidance behaviors can occur. You get the leash out, and they go run and hide. They do not let you put the collar on or maybe even fight putting it on.
Why put your furry friend through all this? It just sounds barbaric, right? There are much better techniques to teaching your dog to walk gently on a leash.
If you must go the route of a contraption to help to teach your dog to heel, then I recommend the gentle lead. It is a harness that tightens around the chest
This is much safer and does not usually freak dogs out as much as the choke collars. The tightening around the chest is more of a signal to your pet rather than a strong punisher.
They notice that it gets tight around their chest, and then you redirect with positive reinforcement methods. So, it’s not just the harness, it is also active training on your part to teach them to heel instead.
Teach Them What to Do Instead
So many times, we find ourselves saying, “I want my dog to stop barking. I want my cat to stop scratching the sofa. I want my dog to stop jumping on the couch. I want my dog to stop pulling on the leash.”
Okay. Cool. But what would you like them to do instead? When I am doing consulting work and someone says that they want their animal to stop doing something, I always ask in turn, “Well, what do you want them to do instead?”
We do not always think about that part. We just want something to stop, so why would we think of an alternative behavior? Let them figure it out.
Here’s the problem with that: behavior serves a purpose. It always does. There is always a reason your dog is behaving the way it is behaving
So, by trying to tell them “No, do not do that behavior,” you are denying them a certain outcome they want. It is much better and effective to allow them to get that very same outcome by instead doing a different behavior that you teach them.
For example, you come home after being gone to work all day, and what does your attention-deprived pet do? Jumps all over you! “Oh my goodness, dad, I’ve missed you so much! Why were you gone so long, mom?! That’s okay, I am just so happy your home now. Let’s go play! Wanna play? Wanna go outside?”
This is what I imagine they are thinking and would say if they could. But what do we normally do? Push them back down and say, “No, no jumping. Down. Off.”
What are they wanting when you come home? Attention, pets, love, affection - maybe to be fed! So, we can teach them to sit instead of jumping when we come home.
If what they truly want is attention, and they can get it for sitting, you will see a huge reduction in them jumping all over you. It is because they are getting the same outcome or consequences that jumping used to get them.
What Does Leash-Pulling Get Them?
Why then, do our dogs pull on the lead when we try to take a nice stroll around the neighborhood? What could they possibly be getting out of it?
In short, a walk. Just like the jumping when excited, they are excited for a walk. They pull and pull and pull and what do they get? A walk! We normally keep walking with them, right?
So, the pulling works, they get what they want, which is walking (not necessarily true for every case, but most of the time this is the culprit).
Therefore, if we can teach them to heel by outside instead of pulling, they can receive the same outcome of getting to go on a walk and thus eliminate the pulling on the leash. Easier said than done right? How do we do that? Through positive reinforcement.
Reinforce Them Walking Beside You
I know, now you are probably thinking, “Now Adam, you said that the consequence they want is going on a walk. So why then do we need to give them a different reinforcer on our walks?”
That is a great question. Remember how I said we have to teach them what to do instead? Our strongest form of communication is reinforcement.
If I can give them a little bit of their favorite treat for walking right beside me on a walk, you better believe they are going to start walking beside me in order to get that treat. Then, we transition reinforcers over to the walk itself. They’ll begin to think, “Oh hey, this is how we walk.”
Using treats on a walk is not a crutch or the dog “winning.” If I need to take a handful of treats with me to keep my pet from pulling and walking by my side, AND I can do it without a choke collar or other negative reinforcement method, it’s a win in my book.
We both get to enjoy a nice walk, and it was achieved through positive reinforcement and communication.
Adam Patterson is the Behavioral Management Lead of the Wild Encounters Department at Zoo Knoxville in Tennessee. His training experience comes from over 15 years of working at Zoo Knoxville as an animal trainer. He has worked with birds and mammals alike, training husbandry behaviors, medical behaviors, and educational show behaviors.
Adam’s life has been shared with dogs since he was born. He has always had a furry companion since he could remember. His first dog was a male Collie, whom he named Lassie despite his parents’ arguments that Lassie was a name for a girl dog. He didn’t care, so Lassie was his name.
Adam is happily married with 2 human babies and currently 2 fur babies. Molly is his dog of 12 years. She is a mixed rescue who loves riding shotgun in his Jeep. Arthur “Artie” Fitzgerald, a Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, is the first dog that he and his wife got together.