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Help! My Dog Pulls on Leash!


Dogs do what works! Terrible grammar, I know but it’s the best way to describe the way dog’s learn. The bottom line is if a behavior is reinforced then it will repeat, the more the behavior gets reinforced the stronger it becomes. Reinforcement can come in many ways, sometimes it’s food, sometimes it’s play, sometimes it’s the avoidance of pain or conflict. Pulling on leash to get to another dog is a classic example of this. Every time your dog pulls you off your feet or breaks free of his restraints to get to another dog, the behavior is reinforced and gets stronger. So our job is NOT to prevent the dog from pulling AND convince the dog that you are WAY MORE interesting than any dog can be.

The goal is for your dog to set your dog up to successfully walk past other dogs often and with the right amount of incentive so that this becomes the habit, rather than pulling.


Often, leash pulling is inadvertently reinforced during puppy hood and adolescents, first because people don’t see it as an issue (it’s just a puppy) and happily follow along after the puppy with a tight leash. Then as the dog gets stronger over time and it becomes problematic many do not understand the dynamic that pulling gets reinforced when the dog gets to greet the other dog coming at them. Also, some believe it is ok to let their dogs just say Hi on leash, after all once the puppy has said hello he’s more likely to pay attention. Unfortunately, a puppyhood full of on leash greetings turns into an expectation that the dog is going to be allowed to say hello to every dog or person they see!

This happens a lot to dogs that love other dogs and/or people and becomes most problematic with the larger, more powerful dogs as they become adults.


Identify Targets: For some dogs this is EVERY dog or person they see, for some it’s only their best friend or dogs and people that show interest in them. It is important for every person who will be handling your dog to understand what makes him pull!

Give your dog an alternative behavior to pulling: This means finding a behavior your dog can perform in the presence of their target INSTEAD of pulling. I typically teach my dogs to watch/look/leave it (ie make eye contact) when they see their target, if they are making eye contact with you they cannot be pulling!

Practice Eye Contact/Leave it! One of the

most useful ways to prevent your dog from targeting another dog and pulling is to give them something else to do. In most cases I rely on eye contact and practice the Leave it skill (in the absence of targets) until it is an automatic response and the dog can hold the eye contact for 10-15 seconds while you walk.

Practice Escape Protocol (Run Away Hurray Game): This is also sometimes referred to as ‘Get Outta Town’, the idea is that in the face of a surprise target event or if the dog goes over threshold and starts pulling, we use a KNOWN cue that indicates to the dog that we are running away from the trigger as quickly as possible.

The Cue: The words you use don’t matter, as long as it’s something you will think of and be able to say quickly and cheerfully! The more you practice this routine with your dog with NO TARGET’s PRESENT the better. We don’t want the dog to associate this cue with the appearance of their targets, in fact we want this cue to be a fun fast game that means – ‘Quick, let’s run away and then I will feed you lots of high value treats!’ I often suggest things like ‘Uh Oh’, or ‘Run Away Hooray’, saying your cue in a loud, happy voice is helpful to draw the dog’s attention as well as give them reassurance that this is a fun game!

The Action: As indicated above, this is a quick about turn and running in the opposite direction to get away from a target, at the end of the running away there is always a SERIES of (NOT JUST ONE) high value reinforcers! If the target is coming directly toward you, running away at a 90 degree angle creates the space your dog will need for that target to pass without incident!

Practice: You MUST practice this in the absence of targets. The more you practice, the better your dog is going to be at ignoring a sudden appearance of a target and running away with you when you need it!

Management to Avoid Problem Behaviors in the mean time

In addition to teaching your dog new skills you will need to manage the dog to PREVENT the dog from practicing the undesirable behavior (pulling away from you or pulling you to get where they want to go).

Management may include any or all of the following:

- Equipment like a front pull harness or head collar that prevents your dog from pulling you around

- Avoidance, keeping your dog far enough away from other dogs that they do not feel the need to pull.

Behavior Modification Protocol Swapping one behavior for another – Classical Conditioning: Using a "Classical" approach for behavior modification we are not rewarding or punishing specific responses. We are trying to change the dog's response to the sight of their target.. We are going to do this by pairing the appearance of the stimuli (strangers, dogs, trucks, etc.) with something the dog really enjoys like an especially good food item, a game of tug, running AWAY from the target.

First, we must prepare:

1) Identify an extremely favored food item or tug toy. It might be steak, chicken, liver, cheese and so on should not be a regular food item, and it should be highly desired by the dog. During the treatment program the only time the dog will receive this highly-coveted treat will be in the presence of strangers. Strangers = liver. "I love liver!" We hope to change the dogs default behavior from pulling to paying attention to you!

2) Next, we must identify all the dog’s targets. This list must be as comprehensive as possible and include anything that the dog reacts to. It must also be maintained throughout the process as it will change over time.

3) Finally, determine at what distance the target makes your dog respond with pulling.

Next, we must Practice:

Armed with your dog’s favorite treat or tug toy, locate an area where you will see your dog’s targets repeatedly AND can control how far away those targets are. You want your dog aware of the target but not yet intensely interested, and you do not want the target walking directly at you! Ideally, you station you and your dog so the targets are walking PAST you at a distance.

1) Position yourself so that you can see the targets but they will be walking PAST you at a distance.

2) As soon as your dog becomes aware of the target, begin feeding him the luscious treats or play a game of tug, continue playing or feeding treats one after the other as quickly as he can eat them.

3) When the target has left the area, STOP playing and/or feeding. Teach the dog to drop the tug toy on cue and put it away.

If your dog will not eat or play, then you are too close to the target move further away!

If your dog stops eating or goes over threshold and begins to pull, quickly use the Run Away Hurrah! Protocol to get further away.

For several weeks work this way, within your dog's c

omfort zone, then gradually reduce the distance over time. Be sure to ensure your dog remains under threshold at all times. As with most training going slowly will result in faster results. Slow is Fast.


During this training process, do everything you can to prevent your dog from practicing pulling behaviors, primarily when he is on leash avoid close encounters with the dogs targets.

I would also recommend keeping a daily log of all the interactions that you had and how they went. Who was walking the dog, how far away the target was, and whether this was a practice session or a regular walk. Keeping a log will help you understand where your weak links are, remember that EVERY TIME THE DOG PULLS AND SUCCESSFULLY MAKES FORWARD PROGRESS THEY ARE LEARNING TO PULL HARDER!


Changing your dog’s LEARNED BEHAVIOR OF PULLING IN THE PRESENCE OF OTHER DOGS/PEOPLE, is not an easy fix! This is going to take time, attention and consistent prevention and reinforcement of the alternative behavior. Set up practice times, first to get the Leave It and Run Away Hurrah skills well learned, then to expose your dog to their targets and practice using Leave it (or Run Away if you have to). Lastly, don’t forget to reinforce your dog for looking at you, this can be food or tug play! If the dog is not responding to food or tug play, you are either too close to the target or your food/play isn’t that interesting. Change things up if they aren’t working, use more distance or change the food you are using or maybe tug isn’t your dog’s thing but a ball is!

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