(And why it is such a common problem…..)
One of the many joys of living with dogs is going for walks. In our family, all of our dogs have loved to hike and run, and Mike and I spend time together almost every morning with our dogs at our local forest preserve. The dogs enjoy the exercise and opportunities to explore, sniff and play, while Mike and I exercise, enjoy the outdoors and spend quality time with our family.
Lots of Benefits
For most owners, it comes as no surprise that walking with our dogs is good for us. There is evidence that as a group, dog owners are more physically active than are non-owners and that acquiring a dog often leads to an increase in activity level. Other studies have found that dog owners report physical and psychosocial benefits of walking with their dogs. They get to know other dog walkers in their area, have increased opportunities to meet new people, and develop a sense of community in their neighborhoods. Dogs benefit too, of course. They have the opportunity to exercise, enjoy new smells and sights, enjoy quality time with their owner, and if walking with friends and other dogs, receive valuable opportunities to socialize.
Of course, for enjoyable walks to occur, it is necessary to teach our dogs to walk without pulling (i.e. on a loose-lead). The primary goal of teaching loose-lead walking is to train a dog to walk at the owner’s side without pulling and to be under reasonable control when distracted.
Walking with a dog who is pulling incessantly and has no leash manners is not enjoyable for anyone. Attempting to walk with a strongly pulling dog, especially if the dog is large, is uncomfortable and unsafe for both the owner and the dog. The owner may be pulled over, injured, or dragged to areas or towards dogs that he had no intention of visiting (and that do not appreciate being visited). For dogs, pulling into a traditional collar exerts pressure on the dog’s esophagus and trachea, and can lead to discomfort, gagging and coughing, and injury. Although the forces that are exerted vary, pulling into a harness can restrict normal limb movement and chronic chafing can cause skin lesions. Similarly, head halters can cause injury to a dog’s neck and spine if excessive pressure is applied or the dog suddenly lunges ahead.
In addition to the physical discomfort and increased risk for injuries, there is also some evidence that dog owners are less likely to walk a dog who is unruly and pulls on the lead – a situation that leads to reduced exercise and enrichment for the dog and the owner alike (1).
Why is Loose-lead Walking so Difficult to Train?
Paradoxically, while loose-lead walking is something that most owners engage in daily, it can be one of the most challenging behaviors to train. A primary reason for this is that pulling on-lead often has a strong reinforcement history, even in young dogs. Dogs pull because they enjoy going for walks and have learned that pulling forward is rapidly reinforced by “getting to go”. This in turn leads to the many immediate (salient) rewards of walks – new smells, sights, and opportunities for interactions with other people and in some cases, other dogs. Many dogs have experienced a long and highly satisfying reinforcement history for pulling by the time that their owners decide that they no longer enjoy walking with a dog who almost dislocates their shoulder.
A second reason that loose-lead walking is difficult to teach is related to the type of behavior that it is. It is important to realize that walking on a loose lead is a place rather than a distinct behavior. To make things even more difficult – that place is a moving target. Teaching a dog to walk at the owner’s side within a “no-pull” zone requires that the dog learns to maintain a position that keeps the lead loose relative to wherever the owner is located – and the owner is usually moving. This requires that the dog not only learns to maintain his position in a rather arbitrary spot (from his point of view) but that that spot is in constant motion. Yikes – No wonder this is challenging!
What does Science Say about Lead-Pulling in Dogs?
Of course, this is The Science Dog, so we are interested in evidence. Recently, a team of Scottish researchers studied dog owners’ perceptions of lead-pulling in dogs, including methods they were using or attempting to use to stop pulling and to train loose-lead walking (2).
The researchers surveyed over 2500 dog owners in the UK, using an on-line, 38-question survey tool. They collected information about the frequency and intensity of lead-pulling in dogs, the types of training and equipment that owners used, and owner beliefs of why dogs pull when out walking. Here is what they learned:
First, when asked directly about pulling on lead, the majority of dog owners (83 %) stated that pulling on lead was a problem with their dog. Of these dogs, only about half were walked regularly for 30 minutes or more per day. One in five were not walked regularly at all and about 30 percent were walked for less than 30 minutes daily (yikes). These walking statistics are consistent with other studies that have examined dog walking frequency and duration (see “A Walk in the Park“).
Training Approaches: Recognizing that lead pulling was a problem, owners used a variety of training approaches. These included both non-aversives (praise, food, clicker training) and aversives (leash corrections, pulling on the lead, making a loud noise). More than half of the owners said that using praise and food were the most effective approach to reducing pulling.
Conversely, about 1/4 of owners (25 %) said that they believed the use of punishment (+P) to be an effective approach to teaching a dog to walk on lead.
Owner Perceptions: The most common reason that owners agreed was the underlying cause of lead pulling in dogs was that the dog had excess energy and excitement. Although not in the majority, a substantial number of owners believed that dogs pull on lead because:
- The dog thinks he is in charge (20 %)
- The dog needs a stronger pack leader (15 %)
- The dog is stubborn (13 %)
- The dog is exerting dominance (11 %)
Time for the Soap Box
Well, there is some good news here. More than half of the owners who were surveyed said that they were using primarily reward-based methods to teach their dog to walk on a loose-lead and believed that a non-aversive approach was also most effective.
However, a disturbing proportion of owners – about 1 in 4, felt that aversives such as leash corrections and pulling (jerking?) back on the lead are effective training methods for teaching loose-lead walking in dogs. More disturbing (in my view – remember, I am on the box), is the fact that some owners believe that a dog’s motivation to pull is a problem with the dog’s personality (he is excitable, he thinks he is in charge, he is stubborn, or dominant, or has mama issues…..whatever), rather than the much simpler (and correct) explanation – the dog has simply NOT BEEN TRAINED TO WALK ON A LOOSE-LEAD (and has probably also experienced lots of +R for pulling). In other words, it is a simple training (or really lack of training) issue, not a problem with the dog.
These results are a prime example of the fundamental attribution error at its best (well, worst really). The fundamental attribution error refers to our tendency, because of the way that our brains are wired and the culture that we live in, to attribute bad behavior in others to their personalities (i.e. he is an inconsiderate jerk for driving so fast and cutting me off) rather than to their circumstances (i.e. maybe he is late for work or trying to get his dog to the vet in an emergency). When we succumb to this bias with our dogs, we are much more likely to attribute unwanted behaviors to the dog himself (i.e he is a bad dog), rather than looking at his situation – in this case, the many very potent environmental reinforcers (“I pull, I get to go! Repeat. Yay!).
Although it is encouraging that the numbers were relatively low, the fact that several hundred dog owners were attributing lead-pulling behaviors in their dogs to “bad dog” issues is still concerning. The authors of this work aptly stated in their conclusion: “Misconceptions around the motivations for lead-pulling persist amongst pet-owners and professionals. Although reward based training methods are most popular, aversives such as loud noises and pulling back on lead are still being used to modify lead-pulling“.
To all of our professional trainers – continue to fight the good fight – promote +R methods for loose-lead walking, and help to educate owners. Pulling on lead is just a behavior that has a strong reinforcement history – not dominance, not being stubborn, not being a bad dog. As we know reward-based training works and works well – even for the challenging behavior of teaching loose-lead walking.
That is all. Off of box. Carry on.
- Townsend L, Dixon L, Buckley. Lead pulling as a welfare concern in pet dogs: What can veterinary professionals learn from current research? Veterinary Record, 2022;e1627.
- Townsend L, Dixon L, Chase-Topping M, Buckley L. Owner approaches and attitudes to the problem of lead-pulling behavior in pet dogs. Behaviour-a multidisciplinary approach: BVBA Study Day. 2020.