How to stop a dog on a leash from lunging

By Linda Lombardi

For The Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 27 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Trainer Victoria Stillwell, right, works at training a dog with Debbie and Todd Rodgers.

Associated Press

A dog that pulls on the leash can spoil more than a nice walk, and Emily Pelecanos of Silver Spring, Md., has the photos from her 50th birthday party to prove it.

Her husband had ordered a limo to take them downtown to a fancy restaurant — but of course, first the dogs needed to be walked. While she chatted with a neighbor, her dog, Buster, saw a dog that she didn't see coming — and he lunged for it.

"I hit the pavement with my hands and my face," she recalls.

Determined not to cancel the party, Pelecanos iced the emerging bruises. "Then I put makeup on and big sunglasses," she says, "but you should have seen everyone in the restaurant whispering."

Even if your pulling dog doesn't stop a party, the problem can be a vicious circle. A dog that's difficult to walk gets walked less, so he doesn't get enough exercise and socialization. Then he becomes more excitable and difficult on each walk.

There are a number of special harnesses and halters that are designed to solve the leash-pulling problem. (Don't confuse these with regular harnesses, which actually make pulling easier: There's a reason that dogs are attached to a sled with a harness instead of by their collars.)

But even if a no-pull harness helps, it's best not to rely on it as a permanent solution, if for no other reason than that it may not last. For Buster, a front-attaching-style harness worked — until he grew bigger and accustomed to it.

So trainers recommend that you view these products as a tool that allows you to give your dog enough exercise and exposure to new situations that he'll be able to concentrate on training.

To start training your dog not to pull, first, recognize that lunging in reaction to something exciting, like Buster did, and constantly walking at the end of a taut leash are different problems. Some dogs do both, and owners may describe both as "pulling."

For a dog that lunges, try what trainers call "training an incompatible behavior." The idea is simple: "Instead of lunging at the bicyclist, you sit and get a treat," says trainer Victoria Stilwell of "It's Me or the Dog" on Animal Planet.

Make sure your dog can reliably sit for a treat at home. Then, start by having him sit for a treat on walks when nothing is happening to distract him.

Next, when you see an exciting dog or squirrel before he does, get him to sit and keep sitting as the distraction passes by. Most dogs catch onto this quickly, especially for a desirable treat.

If you don't react in time to get a sit before your dog lunges, it's best not to ask him to sit afterwards; it's easy to accidentally train the dog that lunging and then sitting is what gets him a reward. But do your best to prevent the lunge in the first place, because it's "self-reinforcing" — that is, it's so rewarding to the dog that it easily becomes a habit.

If your problem is a dog that's always dragging you down the street, try what behaviorist Emily Weiss calls the "red light" method: "When the dog hits the end of the leash, you stop. When the dog relaxes and there's slack in the leash, you start walking."

As Stilwell says, the basic idea is "teach the dog that it doesn't get to where it wants to go when pulling." And remember that you're not teaching him to heel at your side, which is different, and much harder. He can walk ahead of you, as long as the leash is loose.

Make sure to do this training when the dog is fairly well exercised, so he's worked off enough energy to concentrate — that's what your no-pull harness can help with.

With enough patience, your dog will catch on. "You're going to look silly when you're walking down the street, and it can take a while," says Weiss, "but your dog will eventually learn the connection."

No-pull harnesses come in a variety of styles. You may need to try several to find one that works on your individual dog.

— Some harnesses, like the Easy Walk and the Softouch attach the leash to a point on the dog's chest rather than neck or back, which make it more difficult to pull while walking forward.

— Another approach, used by the Sporn Training Halter and Non-Pulling Mesh Harness involves straps that go under a dog's front legs and tighten when he pulls.

— The Weiss Walkie is the simplest design. Unlike others, it come in only one size that fits most dogs over 25 pounds. It's basically just one strap around the dog's chest that tightens when he pulls.

Designer Emily Weiss created it while working at an animal shelter so it would be easy for volunteers to use. She recommends that you not use these harnesses to give leash-jerk corrections.

"It works best when we let the dog figure it out," she says. "If we apply a correction, it makes it harder for him to figure it out."

— There are several brands and styles of head halters available as well, including the Gentle Leader, Halti and Snoot Loop. The difficulty with halters is getting the dog used to them, and at least one study suggests dogs dislike all brands equally.

Trainer Victoria Stilwell of "It's Me or the Dog" on Animal Planet says it's very important to desensitize the dog to the head halter gradually.

"Take a week before taking it out on a walk," she says. Associate putting on the harness with an especially desirable treat, and also reward the dog for not pawing at it. If you have the patience, most dogs will get used to them, and they do stop pulling.

All of these products, trainers emphasize, should be seen as a way to get the situation under control so you have the opportunity to train your dog.

Equipment doesn't teach you to communicate with your dog the way training does, and communication gives you a big head start on solving other behavior problems when they arise.

When she gets called in by a client, Weiss says, she often thinks, "If your dog just knew that when you do X I do Y, we'd be 10 steps ahead in fixing this behavior problem."

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