Cut Him Some Slack: The Psychology Behind Bad Leash Manners | The Collared Scholar


August 22, 2015Meagan Karnes1 CommentGeneral Training

I’d like you test out an experiment….

For this experiment, you’ll need the following:

(1) 2 People

(2) 1 sturdy Dog Leash, 6 feet in length

Just humor me. 

Person #1, hold on to one end of the leash. Stand facing Person #2, with approximately 5 feet between the two of you. 

Hand the other end of the leash to Person #2, and instruct them to hold their end of the leash as tightly as possible, being careful not to let go. 

Now comes the experiment. With Person #2 holding their end of the leash tight, Person #1 should now pull their end of leash, as if playing a game of tug of war. 

Don’t cheat and simply keep reading. Test it out for yourself. It’s ok….I’ll wait.

What happened?

If you’re anything like me, or any of the dozens of people I’ve put through this simple experiment, when you pulled, the other person pulled back. It was almost reflexive… A natural response that Person #2 used to keep the lead from being pulled from their hands, and to prevent the other person from dragging them through the room. 

But what does this have to do with my dog? 

What you and your friend experienced is a reflexive response to someone pulling on you. Naturally, if someone pulls and you have leverage, you will be inclined to pull back. 

Surprisingly, our dogs are no different. When you pull on the leash, or your leash becomes taut, you are initiating your dog’s natural reflex to pull against you. Inevitably, if you continue to allow your dog to pull, and you continue to pull against him in an attempt to manage him on your walks, you will enter into a game of tug-of-war in which your dog will most likely emerge the victor.

Cut him some slack

Since this “reflex” is triggered by pulling against your dog, the obvious solution to the problem is to simply not pull, but instead, to maintain slack in your leash at all times (easier said than done, I know). 

By pulling on your dog, maintaining tension in your leash, or holding your dog next to you in an effort to make him heel, you aren’t teaching him anything. Instead, you are activating his instinct to pull harder. You are frustrating him. And he’s probably frustrating you too!

With any new behavior, your goal should be to spend time conditioning and teaching, helping your dog learn to make good decisions on his own, and rewarding him when he does. You don’t want him to walk next to you because you are holding him there. You want him to walk next to you because you’ve taught him its the right thing to do!

So cut your dog some slack on walks…. literally. 

The Psychology Behind Pulling

In addition to the “reflex” you trigger by having tension in your leash, there is another fundamental and obvious reason dogs pull on walks. Plainly stated, dogs pull because….it works! 

If your dog wants to sniff a special spot on the grass, he’ll likely pull to get there. If he drags you to it, he’s rewarded himself for pulling. He wanted to sniff…he pulled…he got to sniff! 

If he drags you over to another dog because he wants to say “hi”, and you follow (willingly or unwillingly) again, he’s rewarded himself! 

Or even more inconspicuous is his desire to simply GO! He wants to go forward, so every step you take in the direction he’s pulling becomes a reward. He gets what he wants for pulling, and for that reason, its time to make a change!

Conquering the Leash

To teach your dog appropriate leash manners, its critical that you become a master in understanding what it is your dog wants at any given moment in time, or in any given context. 

Once you understand the reward your dog is seeking, your job is to simply take it away when he’s pulling, and GIVE it to him (where possible) when he’s walking on a slack leash. 

If he has his sights set on a tree up ahead, that he is dying to sniff and mark so he can let the neighborhood know its his, you can’t let him pull to get there. How you approach his pulling is up to you. You can stop forward momentum until the leash is slack again, you can turn and head the other direction, or you can correct the taut leash. Whichever method you choose, you must simply remain consistent.

Bad behavior can no longer be inadvertently rewarded, whether you are teaching leash manners, or other, more complex behaviors. So today, make a promise that your pup will no longer get what he wants for dragging you all over the place. Instead, make a commitment to acknowledge, praise and reward him for the behavior you want. The more you reward, the more he’ll comply and in no time, your leash problems will begin to fade.

A Note About Training Tools

There are a wide array of training tools available that will help curb leash pulling in an untrained pup. Some of these tools include the “Gentle Leader” or “Halti”, the “EZ Walker Harness”, the “Thunder Harness”, and the “Illusion Collar”, among many others.

I hate to break it to you but there is really no “quick fix” for anything in dog training. These tools act by making it uncomfortable for the dog to pull on walks. But they are simply a band-aid placed over an open wound. 

With these solutions, your dog learns to avoid discomfort. However, when the discomfort is removed, most dogs immediately return to pulling since they were never really taught otherwise. Owners quickly find themselves dependent on these tools as all they’ve done is “manage” their dog’s bad behavior. But don’t you want to eliminate the need for a band-aid? Cure the wound and have a dog that simply behaves?

Your best bet is to roll up your sleeves, take the time, and put in the work to teach your dog the correct way to walk on a leash. 

My good friend and colleague Eric Davis over at Average Frog often tells me that “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” – a shooting reference from his days as a SEAL Team Sniper instructor, that he regularly applies to many aspects in life and human performance. I find great relevance in the statement pertaining not only to leash training, but to any other training you plan to do with your pup. While establishing solid fundamentals may take you a little more time at the start, teaching good manners (as opposed to simply managing the bad ones) will end up being the most effective and efficient solution in the end.

Chelsey Montgomery