Walking Your Dog: Who Is Training Who? The Psychology Behind The Modern Day Leash Walk

As first printed on the Bedford-Katonah Patch, February 20, 2011

Thanks to those readers who commented or emailed me on my article, “Winter’s Perils.” It was a great way to get to know some of you and a fitting introduction to my new bi-monthly column, “Ask the Trainer.” This new format will let me shape my column around your dog training questions and concerns.

Based on sheer volume, it seems the number one concern among my readers and clients is leash pulling. If you’ve ever walked a dog, chances are you’ve been pulled by a dog too. Many wondered why their dogs behaved worse on the leash than off. Is there a connection between leash pulling and heightened reactivity to people and other dogs?

The answer is yes, and understanding the fascinating psychology behind it can help you manage the behavior. 

In the long, intertwined history of people and dogs, the leash and leash walking are relatively new inventions, designed for convenience and safety. Humans walk in straight lines, confident in the belief that they are in charge because they are holding the leash. But restricted, linear walks are unnatural to dogs, who prefer to meander and explore. Dogs pull on the leash in an effort to increase the meandering. Humans pull back to increase the restricting. This combination of pulling away and pulling back puts pressure on the dog’s collar and he starts to choke and feel very, very anxious.

This is not going well. What’s going on here?

Psychologically, dogs think a little like first-graders. Whoever is first, wins. Period. When you are walking, he naturally roams ahead. This, according to your dog, makes him the leader. This is no easy job, mind you. Leaders must be on high alert, scanning the distant plains for predators or prey. True, your suburban cul-de-sac may not resemble a dangerous wilderness, but old habits die hard.

An approaching stranger looms large in your dog’s eyes. A normally inhibited dog may become overly friendly while a frightened dog may grow wary and concerned. In the worst case scenario, dogs become aggressive playing the role of both guardian and protector. When other leashed dogs approach – possibly experiencing some canine psychodrama themselves – it may up the emotional ante.

The solution?

Learn to walk with your dog, not tethered to your dog. Walks should bring about the calm you experience when walking hand-in-hand with someone you care deeply about. It is a learned habit: it takes some practice to get it right.

Here are some tips to follow to get started. If you need coaching, find a dog trainer like me who can help you. Leash pulling is a simple problem to solve and can often be taught in a single lesson.

  • Avoid walking your dog on a retractable leash; while ideal for an open field they are unstable and dangerous to manage near roadways.
  • Test other collars or harness restraints. My favorites include the Gentle Leader, the No-Pull or Easy Walk harness, and the Good Dog collar for ardent tuggers. On my website I offer instructional video clips on each.
  • Teach your dog to respect doorways. To your dog, this is the entrance to the den. Make sure you wait until your dog is calm to enter or exit.
  • When you walk, move with enthusiasm. Fake it if you must. Walks are your dog’s big adventure and he’ll only alert to a leader who reflects his excitement.
  • Hold the leash like you would someone’s hand: relax your arm straight and pull back if he lurches forward. It is a tricep tug versus a bicep curl. Do not lift your dog up when pulling back— he will feel panicked and pull to get away from you.

Dogs spend a lot of time hanging around the house – it’s safe and comfortable but a bit limiting. Share the world with your dog by learning how to walk together.