How do I prevent my dog from pulling?
To teach your dog how to walk nicely outside you'll need patience, walking at the right time (when there are as few distractions as possible and when you and your dog are feeling connected to one another), reinforcing the type of walking you're happy with, and using harm-free dog walking tools. Let's start with the most important part.. you and your dog's safety!
It's important that we prioritize you and your dog's safety to ensure that you're all feeling happy and safe about tomorrow's walk. What's number 1 on my list of to-do's when it comes to dog walking safety is considering a dog walking harness, more precisely the Freedom (No-Pull) Harness. Before I share with you a little more about it and why I recommend it, let's first tackle the most common question dog trainers get about harnesses: Don't harnesses encourage more pulling? Like with sled dogs? The short answer is no. If you're not already using a harness and you're reading this, chances are your dog is already pulling on their collar and that in its own can be harmful to your dog's neck, as well as ineffective. If you're using a harness and your dog is still pulling, this is mostly due to a number of key factors that we'll touch on in this article. The solution to dog walking doesn't lie in the tools alone, but rather in How and When we use them. The Freedom (No-Pull) Harness is currently my go-to harness because it comes with not only a back clip but also a front one. This allows me to use a leash, and with the least amount of pressure or force, guide my dog's chest toward me in order to be able to redirect and guide him.
Having two clips instead of one can be amazing for heavy pullers (especially with larger breeds) as these harnesses can be purchased in tandem with a double-clip leash for further support. We greatly recommend getting this or another harness that shares this dual clip feature which will also help prevent neck injuries from the use of any type of collar around your dog's neck.
With that out of the way, let's focus on the lesson itself! The first exercise I suggest that all pet parents practice, whether they have a 10-week-old puppy or a 10-year-old dog is the umbilical cord exercise. This exercise consists of having your dog walk with you indoors for short periods of time, as you introduce minor but multiple distractions (like toys, or sounds, and food) they can practice ignoring by walking with you, as you reward that choice to walk on. To make this even easier and more convenient for you, you can tie your dog's leash to your waist so your hands are free to reward with treats/kibble and even play some games if needed, to keep your dog's brain engaged. The benefit of this exercise is that you and your dog are practicing in a setting that has the least amount of difficult distractions possible, allowing you both to consistently build a connection that will be beneficial once you're outside and faced with more distractions. You can use your dog's meal to practice this exercise as it also makes for a wonderful mentally stimulating exercise. Follow it with a couple of fetch or tug-and-pull games and you'll have a dog that's then feeling not only more connected to you but mellow as well.
This idea of helping your dog feeling mellow and relaxed dog before or during your training sessions, is an important part of the dog walking lesson that'll help prevent your dog from feeling the need to pull on walks. Most pet parents, unfortunately, see their dog's walk as their main outlet for exercise, however in my opinion this is the biggest reason for the pulling. You will find that if you use the walk as a cool-down activity, following mentally and physically-stimulating activities, your dog will start to associate the walk as an activity that is done to further relax, and simply bond. As opposed to an activity where they need to continuously search for ways to expand their energy. Got your harness? Got your dog doing little walks indoors where you're rewarding them for checking in and choosing to walk nicely? Awesome! Next comes the part where we go from Level 1 to Level 2 and for every dog level 2 is different. For some dogs, the next level might be simply walking near the door before you feel as though you have completely lost the connection you had and their attention, and it that has instead shifted towards the excitement that the door might open. For other dogs (particularly young ones) you will be able to go through a few different levels quite rapidly. Such as touching the door knob, turning it, opening the door a little, a little more, and so on. All while continuing to walk indoors. The key thing with your dog's levels is not what they are, but rather How and When you decide to go through them.
Without realizing it, you and your dog have gone through (or potentially skipped through) all of these levels often, because you need to take your dog out for their bathroom break pronto, and you understand their need to go for a walk. But if you came back indoors after their potty break and restarted the walk indoors, you will see that your dog will do his or her best to make sense of the change in the usual routine by checking in with you, which is when you want to reward before going to the next level.
As you go through different levels, pay close attention to how you're feeling, to how your dog is feeling, and whether you think you are both in tune with one another and connected. You should then be able to safely proceed to the next level and make it further into your walk. If you don't, then the best you can do is keep your walks short and sweet, by walking your dog in and out of your home, and a little further each time, the more you feel your bond becomes stronger with each step. That's because the opposite of a dog pulling is a dog that is choosing to focus its energy and attention on you!
Once you make it further and further out, you will inevitably run into situations, people, or dogs that will be all too distracting and this is normal, and okay. Dogs feel and react like any other individual can, and there's just no way of knowing exactly how they will react in environments you can't fully control. So what do you do in those, more challenging scenarios? Take a breather, channel in your patient self and help your dog "reset" by walking back closer to where you were previously, to help your dog feel calm once more, to wait for the moment when your dog checks in and reconnects with you and get that amazing tasty treat reward AND your attention, as you keep walking!