It’s what you imagine when you get a dog: leisurely strolls through the neighborhood with your pooch calmly keeping pace beside you. Then you get a reality check.
Walking nicely on a leash is not an instinctive behavior, and your Lab is just as likely to try and pull you in whatever direction they choose.
Until they start getting into their senior years, Labs are excitable, curious, and powerful animals. That’s quite a combination! Labradors are well known as strong leash pullers.
But, like any desirable behavior, your dog can learn and you can teach. If your Labrador pulls like a rambunctious plow horse
Why Does My Labrador Pull Me When I Walk Him?
It’s no secret that dogs are pack animals, and every pack has a hierarchy. There are times when a dog will attempt to assert itself as the leader of the pack, and some people believe that pulling is just such an attempt.
While it’s tempting to blame a lot of undesirable doggy deeds on thoughts of domination, it’s just not the case when it comes to walks.
If your Labrador is generally well behaved in the home, then it knows darn good and well that it’s not the alpha of the house! That doesn’t change once you both walk out the door.
So Much to See, So Little Time!
The simple truth is dogs are overcome with excitement and overwhelmed with sensory input when they get outdoors, especially someplace other than their own backyard.
They’ll want to explore every nook and cranny they can get their noses into. Every scent tells them more about what things are and who’s been there before. And of course they’ll want to leave their own mark wherever possible, which means frequent pee stops.
Before long, your dog is so caught up in seeing, smelling, exploring and peeing, that all training goes right out the window. You’ll no longer be able to get your Labrador to respond to even the most basic commands.
As long as a dog’s getting to where it wants to go, it will see no reason to stop pulling, because there’s no apparent downside. Even the act of pulling itself can be rewarding if your Lab likes the feeling of a little extra exercise.
And if you decide to unleash your dog, either to give your arms a break, or out of fear that your dog will hurt itself, well that’s the ultimate reward, isn’t it? Freedom and autonomy in the great outdoors! Now your dog knows that pulling on the lead pays off in spades.
Basic First Steps To Stop Your Dog From Pulling
Teaching your Lab any new behavior can take some time, and walking nicely on a leash is no exception. It won’t happen right away, and will require much patience on your part.
Putting On the Leash
Let’s begin at the beginning: getting your dog leashed up and ready to walk.
The first time your Lab sees a leash it thinks nothing of it, beyond that maybe it’s something worth chewing on. But once the association is made between the leash and going for a walk, it becomes one of the single most exciting objects in the world!
Of course you can’t expect to have a nice walk if your Lab goes crazy with glee when you try to attach a leash. You’ll need to teach that the leash doesn’t go on until there’s calm.
Not unlike when teaching your Lab to stop jumping when saying hello, you’ll need to back off and do nothing if it gets excited as you try to hook up a leash or attach a harness.
Once all four paws are on the floor (or the dog is sitting; whatever your preference) then move to attach the leash again. If the bad behavior continues, you back off once more. Repeat this as often as necessary until they learn that the leash can’t go on unless they’re calm.
Short Practice Sessions
A simple way to preserve your patience is to keep the length of your training walks to a minimum. The more time you spend with your dog pulling you along, the more likely you are to become exasperated.
Nothing good will come of that for either of you. You need to be in the right frame of mind to convey reinforcement to your dog. And your dog can’t focus on your instructions after getting all wound up during a long walk with new sights to see.
A good idea is to choose a short route in your neighborhood, and walk it repeatedly. A familiar walk is still a pleasant one, though considerably less stimulating. Your dog will be less distracted if he sees the same things repeatedly.
Burn Off Extra Energy in Advance
Dogs in general, and Labradors in particular, have a lot of energy and they need to expend it in some manner. Short walks will not be enough to keep them satisfied, and they may be inclined to try to make up for it by pulling extra hard.
Have an exercise session before your training walks to help combat this problem. A dog that’s already tired will be less interested in trying to yank you around the neighborhood.
Have some fun throwing a ball around the yard, or get in a good game of tug-of-war before heading out on the town.
Keep Up the Pace
Being a fairly large breed, your Labrador will have no trouble outpacing you without much effort. Of course this can lead to more pulling, because you’re not moving fast enough for his liking.
Increase your pace and keep the walk brisk and the benefits will be two-fold: your do will be more interested in staying with you, because you’re moving quickly, and there will be less chances to veer off and investigate interesting scents or items.
Reward Good Walking
You know from your other training sessions that your Lab loves treats! When the walk is going just the way you want, offer praise and a tasty reward. Do this frequently to keep reinforcing the good behavior. And make sure they are compact and easily chewed treats that can safely be eaten on the go.
Methods for Learning to Walk on a Loose Leash
Now that some of the first steps have been established, here are some techniques you can try to help your Labrador learn to walk without pulling on the leash.
Stop & Go
As techniques go, this is a pretty simple one. When your dog starts to pull, you stop walking!
Ok, there’s a bit more to it than that. If your dog is already proficient at coming when called, even when there are distractions, this may be the method for you.
When your Lab runs out of slack leash and begins to pull, you immediately stop walking and don’t let them go any further. (This technique may be difficult for smaller individuals, the elderly, or anyone with a physical disability.)
Once they realize they’re going nowhere, they’ll stop walking. Ask your dog to come to you and give the sit command. Offer a reward in the form of a small word of praise or affirmation (something like, “good” or “yes”) and then give a treat. At this time, resume your walk.
If they continue to walk along beside you, repeat your praise word and offer another treat. Keep doing this periodically. Should they start to pull again, come to a stop and repeat the first step.
Soon your Lab will learn that walking nicely beside you earns treats, and that they don’t get to go anywhere if they pull.
As an addendum to this technique, if you don’t mind your dog following the odd scent or inspecting items of interest along the way, you can use the same method with a slight modification.
When they pulls towards an object, stop as you did before. Call them back and have them sit. Again, offer the word of affirmation, but do not give a treat. Instead, walk to the item they want to inspect and have let getting to the object be the reward.
Follow the Treat
Another effective method for teaching loose leash walking takes advantage of a Labrador’s love of treats.
Load up your pocket with treats, or carry a treat bag on your belt. Keep several in your hand at all times while walking, and replenish from your reserve.
Begin walking your dog and hold your hand with treats enclosed right in front of their nose, first making sure that they know what you’ve got. Every few seconds, pop a treat in their mouth.
Should they start to veer off or get ahead and start pulling, the walk stops. As with the previous method, call your dog back to you and get them to sit. When they do, give praise and then resume the walk, once again with the treats held in front of the nose.
After a bit of uninterrupted practice, say a week or so, stop carrying treats in your hand, but have them nearby. Keep offering them frequently.
Over time (each dog will progress differently) you’ll find your dog can walk further and further without pulling. Begin offering treats less frequently; start by giving a reward every 5 steps or so, and then gradually space them out over larger distances.
The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of rewards given to as few as possible, though it’s still a nice idea to give your dog a treat every few minutes just to let them know they’re doing good and are making you happy.
The Surprise Turn
Though not generally a preferred technique, using negative reinforcement can be an effective method of stifling an unwanted behavior, provided it doesn’t go on for too long, and that the punishment involved is not overly severe.
Be aware, this method should only be used if your dog is not wearing a head halter or slip lead.
The idea of this technique is to surprise your dog when they reaches the end of the leash. First, start with a verbal warning cue for your dog when they are about to run out of slack. One word will do; something like, “easy” or “wait.”
If that’s enough to get them to slow down or come back to you, great! Give praise and a reward as you continue to walk.
If they do reach the end of the leash, that’s your cue to turn around and walk the other way. Use your arm to take most of the force, but the end result should be a slight tug on your dog’s collar or harness.
Keep walking in the opposite direction, and praise your dog as they catch up to you. Once your Lab is back beside you, resume walking in the original direction. Repeat this step as necessary.
The idea is to teach your dog that walking too far ahead and pulling leads to an unpleasant sensation, and diverts the walk away from where they want to go.
Use this method if positive reinforcement is not having the desired effect. Watch for signs that your dog is under extreme duress; cringing, cowering, yelping or any other outward display of fear or pain are clear indications that this method is not working. Desist immediately and try something else.
Like the previous method, this technique also uses a bit of negative reinforcement, and should not be used in conjunction with a slip lead, or a head halter. Again, this should only be tried if positive methods are not proving fruitful.
As before, when your dog is approaching the end of the leash, administer a verbal warning. If it’s not heeded, give the leash a sharp tug backwards. Don’t pull, just give a quick tug.
The force of the tug will depend on the size of your dog, and it may need to be repeated before you really get their attention. As you can imagine, this is not a pleasant feeling for your dog, and it should quickly correct the behavior (perhaps a day or two), if it’s going to work at all. In the case of my own dog, his neck muscles are far too strong to make this effective, and the same may hold true for your own Lab.
Exercise extreme caution with this technique. Tugging too hard can lead to physical damage of your dog’s neck or throat.
Choosing the Right Gear
A labrador sitting patiently while wearing a harness
‘Labrador’ by Fernanda Cerioni on Flickr CC BY 2.0
Anyone who’s had a stroll through their local pet store knows there are many options when it comes to collars, harnesses, and the like. Choosing a good collar and leash will help as you teach your Lab to walk nicely.
The Classic Collar
Of course a traditional collar is perfectly acceptable, either with a buckle or snaps. Many people choose these for the ease of use; they’re simple to put on and can be left on all the time, if desired (and if it’s comfortable for the dog).
For a selection of classic collars recommended by us, please click here.
A harness is a good option, especially for anyone who has had difficulty walking a dog using a collar.
Many dogs will respond to pressure around their neck by pulling even more in the opposite direction. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a natural reaction caused by a reflex called thigmotaxis. (Pull that one out at parties and impress your friends!)
Head halters and no-pull harnesses can be very helpful during training. They make your dog easier to control, and discourage pulling almost entirely on their own.
Be warned, though, that they should not substitute for actual training if you really want your Labrador to learn to walk on a loose leash. While your dog will walk perfectly well when using this equipment, they are unlikely to repeat this behavior with a traditional collar.
Use no-pull harnesses and haltis during non-training walks while your dog is still getting the hang of things, especially if you know you’ll be walking somewhere very exciting for your dog, such as a park or anywhere other dogs can be found.
Please click here to see a selection of haltis, harnesses and ‘no-pull’ solutions to use in place of a collar.
Choosing a Leash
Make sure you give some thought to what leash to buy. When yours truly bought his first leash, the selection was based on color and not quality, a decision I regretted when my very eager puppy snapped the leash and made a run for it!
Pick a sturdy leash in the 4’-6’ range. This gives enough length to give your dog a bit of freedom, but keeps it short enough for you to maintain control and have them close enough to praise and reward.
Things to Avoid
No decent dog owner wants to hurt their dog, and yet pain-inflicting devices are all too commonly used for training. As mentioned earlier, negative reinforcement can be helpful if used cautiously and sparingly.
However, to use it as your sole method for loose leash training is not acceptable. Choke and prong collars deliver strong doses of pain to a dog in order to deter them from unwanted behavior.
It is extremely difficult to control the amount of pain generated during a correcting move with such a collar, and the force delivered invariably exceeds the required amount.
It is our very firm belief at Labrador Training HQ (and in the dog community in general) that these items are cruel and barbaric. Avoid them at all costs.
There’s no short cut to perfect loose leash walking. The good news is the repetition can be fun and rewarding. You and your dog will get plenty of exercise and quality time together, and opportunities for socialization and training, too.
Labradors are strong and energetic dogs, especially in their youth. They love to get out and explore, and this desire coupled with their devotion to their owners, make loose leash training, well… a walk in the park.