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Teaching Dogs Not to Pull on Leash

Dogs have to be taught to walk nicely on leash. They're not born knowing that they shouldn't pull ahead or lag behind. Teaching leash manners can be challenging because dogs move faster than us and are excited about exploring outdoors. Leashes constrain their natural behaviors and movements. Some dogs are determined to run around as fast as they possibly can. Other dogs want to stop, sniff and urinate on anything and everything in their paths. To teach your dog to walk without pulling, it's critical that you never allow him to pull. If you're inconsistent, your dog will continue to try pulling because sometimes it pays off.

How to Teach Your Dog to Walk Nicely on a Leash

You've probably seen dogs at shows or on TV who prance alongside their handlers, staring up with rapt attention. These dogs have received extensive training in precision heeling. It's impressive but demanding work. Precision heeling demands constant attention from both dog and handler and is not appropriate for long periods of time, like for your daily walks around the block or to the park. Even dogs trained to heel need to learn to walk on leash without pulling when they're not formally heeling.

You can use various methods to teach dogs to walk without pulling on leash. No single method works for all dogs. Here are some overall guidelines before we look at several methods:

  • Until your dog learns to walk without pulling, consider all walks training sessions. Keep training sessions frequent, short and fun for your dog.
  • Since loose-leash training sessions will be too short and slow to provide adequate exercise, find other ways to exercise your dog until he's mastered loose-leash walking. In fact, you'll succeed more quickly if you find a way to tire your dog out before taking him on a training walk. Dogs pull, in part, because they're full of excess energy. So unless you can expend that energy, your dog will find it hard to control himself. Before you train, play fetch in a hallway or your backyard, play a vigorous game of tug, or drive your dog to the park so that he can play with his buddies.
  • Teaching a dog to walk without pulling requires plenty of rewards. Use highly desirable treats that your dog doesn't get at other times. Soft treats are best so your dog can eat them quickly and continue training. Most dogs love wieners, cheese, cooked chicken or ham, small jerky treats or freeze-dried liver. Chop all treats into small peanut-sized cubes.
  • Walk at a quick pace. If your dog trots or runs, she'll have fewer opportunities to catch a whiff of something enticing, and she'll be less inclined to stop and eliminate every few steps. Additionally, you are far more interesting to your dog when you move quickly.
  • If you expect your dog to control herself while walking on leash, you must also expect her to control herself before you go for a walk. If she gets wildly excited as you prepare for a walk, you need to focus on that first. Walk to the door and pick up the leash. If your dog races around, barks, whines, spins or jumps up, just stand completely still. Do and say absolutely nothing until your dog calms down a bit. As soon as she has all four paws on the floor, slowly reach toward her to clip on the leash. If she starts to bounce around or jump up on you, quickly bring your hands (and the leash) back toward your body. Wait until your dog has all four paws on the floor again. Then slowly reach toward her again to attach her leash. Repeat this sequence until your dog can stand in front of you, without jumping up or running around, while you clip on her leash. This may seem like a tedious exercise at first, but if you're consistent, your hard work will pay off. Eventually, your dog will learn to stand still while you attach her leash.

Option One: Red Light, Green Light

(This method requires that your dog already have a reliable Sit and Come in distracting places.) Walk in your intended direction. The instant your dog reaches the end of his leash and pulls, red light!—stop dead in your tracks and wait. When he stops pulling and puts slack in the leash (maybe he turns to see what you're doing and this makes the leash a little slack), call him back to you. When he comes to you, ask him to sit. When he does, say “Yes,” give him a treat and resume walking (green light). If your dog looks up at you in anticipation of more tasty treats, quickly say “Yes,” and give him one while you keep walking. If he pulls again, repeat the red-light step above. As you're walking, reward your dog frequently for staying next to you or slightly ahead and for looking up at you. If you do this consistently, he'll learn that 1) if he stays near you or looks at you, he gets treats and gets to keep moving, and 2) if he pulls on the leash, the fun stops because he doesn't get to keep walking and he has to come back to you and sit. If your dog pulls toward an object to sniff or eliminate, carry out the red light, but when he comes back and sits by you, don't reward him with a treat. Instead, make the object he wanted to sniff the reward. Say “Yes,” and release him to go to the object. (Make sure you go with him toward the object so that he doesn't have to pull again to reach it.) After a few days or weeks, you'll find yourself stopping less frequently. Make sure you continue to reward your dog for walking with slack in the leash or he'll start pulling again.

Option Two: Lure and Reward

Start with your dog standing at your left side. With several treats enclosed in your left hand, hold your left hand right in front of your dog's nose (within 1 inch of it). Say “Let's walk,” and walk in your intended direction. Every few seconds, pop a small treat into your dog's mouth and praise her for walking along at your pace. You'll need to frequently reload your hand with treats from your left pocket or from a treat pouch attached to your waist. If she pulls ahead or to the side, immediately stop. Get your dog's attention by calling her name again. Ask her to sit, and praise her when she does. Then put the treat-loaded hand back in front of her nose and start walking again. Go a little bit farther every day that you practice. After at least a week of daily practice with lured walking, stop luring her along with your treat-loaded hand, and instead just carry your empty left hand in a natural position at your waist with elbow bent. Say “Let's walk,” and reward her, about every other step you take, with a treat that you get from your left pocket or waist treat pouch. When she can walk along without pulling for several minutes, begin gradually increasing—over many daily training sessions—the number of steps you go in between treats so that your dog is walking longer distances between rewards. Reward her every other step at first, then every 5 steps, then every 10, and so on. Eventually, you should be able to walk with your hand comfortably at your side, periodically (every minute or so) reaching into your pocket to grab a treat to reward your dog.

Option Three: About-Face

(Use only if your dog is not wearing a choke, pinch or prong collar, or any head halter, such as Halti®, Gentle Leader®, etc.)

Please Note:Options Three and Four use punishment. Punishment should decrease behavior quickly. If it doesn't result in a noticeable decrease in pulling after several training sessions of consistent use, then it should be stopped. Ineffective punishment repeated over and over easily escalates and can become abusive. Stop both these methods if your dog yelps in pain, becomes reluctant to walk with you, becomes aggressive, or shows fearful body language like cringing, cowering, trembling, excessive panting, tail tucking, etc.

For some dogs, stopping and waiting or luring with treats is not sufficient for them to understand that they shouldn't pull. Instead of stopping, teach the dog that when he pulls, it's a signal for you to turn and walk back the way you came. You need to incorporate a verbal warning into this sequence. Before your dog reaches the end of the leash, say “Easy.” If he slows down, say “Yes!” and call him back to you for a treat (but keep moving). If he does not slow down but gets to the end of the leash and starts pulling, don't say anything to the dog. Just turn abruptly, letting the leash check your dog. As your dog runs to catch up to you, praise him. When he reaches you, turn and walk in your original direction. If he pulls again, turn around again. He will learn that pulling is unpleasant because he gets checked against the end of the leash and he gets farther away from his destination. Be sure to follow the same instructions as above for rewarding the dog when he walks without pulling.

Be advised that if your dog is running at full speed toward the end of the leash, you could inflict physical damage to his neck if you allow the leash to check him without giving him any slack. Allow your arm to absorb most of the force when you turn so the dog is surprised but not harmed.

Option Four: Collar Correction

(Use only if your dog is not wearing a choke, pinch or prong collar, or any head halter, such as Halti®, Gentle Leader®, etc. )

Some dogs may respond to a jerk on the collar when they pull. Walk holding the end of the leash near your left side, with your elbow bent. Don't let your dog pull your arm straight out in front of you because then you won't have the slack you need for the collar correction. You need to incorporate a warning into this sequence. Before your dog reaches the end of the leash, say “Easy.” If he slows down, say “Yes!” and call him back to you for a treat (keep moving). If he does not slow down and gets to the end of the leash and starts pulling, jerk sharply on the leash backward and upward. To do this, you'll need to reach your arm forward a few inches to give yourself the slack on the leash to jerk back. Make sure your action is a jerk and not a pull. You may need to do this a couple of times before the dog slows down. How much pressure you exert when you apply the jerk depends on the dog. If your dog is small or sensitive, you will need only slight force. If your dog is large and tenacious, you may need stronger force. Be sure to quickly reward with treats and praise any time your dog isn't pulling and walks with you with the leash slack.

Be advised that if you jerk too hard on your dog's collar, you can inflict physical damage to his neck. The dog's trachea is susceptible to bruising and permanent damage, so be extremely cautious using this approach. If this method is effective for your dog, it will decrease or eliminate pulling quickly, within a couple of days. If it does not, try another method or change equipment. Do not keep doing collar corrections or let them become an ineffective habit that is painful and unpleasant for your dog.