A lot of people seem to think that dogs pull in harnesses, and dogs who pull on a flat collar will just pull even more on a harnesses. I say it all depends on the harness, the method of training, the relationship between dog and owner, and the environment they’re in, at a minimum. Let’s break it down and look at each of these individually: –
There are literally hundreds of harnesses in pet shops, on the internet, and in specialist stores. The type of harness your dog wears will affect whether he pulls more, less, or at all.
If you buy a sledding harness, your dog will pull, because sledding harnesses are designed to encourage sled dogs to pull. If you buy a walking harness, your dog will neither be encouraged to or discouraged from pulling. If you buy a “no-pull” harness, you run the risk that your dog will pull more than normal; this is down to something known as “oppositional reflex”, which basically means, that if your dog is walking ahead of you, and you add tension, or pull back on the lead,the dog will pull forward with more determination.
Note the difference between the sledding harness on the left (designed to aid the dog in pulling), and the regular harness on the right (designed for walking).
The difference in design is obvious, and although there are different style of walking harness available, none of them are designed similarly to the sledding harness, and so none of them will make the dog pull more than without using one.
The type of training undertaken with a dog, will determine whether it pulls or not. Choke chains, for instance, which have often been used in the past to try to teach dogs to walk without pulling, actually can promote pulling via oppositional reflex, as can ‘leash corrections’, and just plain old yanking the dog backwards so it is in the correct ‘heel’ position. It’s quite easy to see that if trained with these methods, any dog will not want to be anywhere close to anyone who causes it so much pain; and there are also the psychological issues caused by such methods of training; any pain caused when a dog is looking at something will be attributed to that thing – dogs don’t have the mental capacity to look at one thing, and think of another; and so if they receive a ‘collar correction’ when looking at, say a small child, they will soon start to correlate small children with pain, and will then start trying to keep small children away from themselves, in the hope of avoiding pain. This is when you will see fear-based aggression: lunging, barking, snarling, and so on; first it will be at close quarters, but when the dog learns that they still feel pain when children are 20 feet away, as well as 10 feet away, they will become hyper-vigilant, and eventually wont be able to be in the same vicinity as a child, for fear of the pain they cause. They may also realise they only feel pain in the presence of a certain person (i.e. the owner) and become defensive around that person too.
So, what are the alternatives? There are many, non-aversive, non-painful, ways to teach a dog to walk without pulling, none of them will cause a dog to not want to be around you, or will they have any negative side-effects (also known as “fall-out”), such as with the example with the child above. So, how do we train a dog to love walking at our sides?
The simplest way is to kit the dog out in something that will not harm it – a harness, along with a double ended lead attached to the harness at one end and a flat collar at the other and take your dog for a walk. When your dog pulls, stop walking. When the dog relaxes the tension on the lead, carry on; stopping the next time your dog pulls.
If, in the past, pulling has been reinforced by going places, the pulling will continue, and may have even have gotten worse (i.e. the dog pulls with more force). However, what we ar teaching your dog now is that pulling results in stopping, and not pulling results in forward motion. If you have a determined puller, you can also turn around and walk back a few steps, then turn back around and carry on walking. This should make it easier for your dog, as you are covering old ground, and then coming to new ground, rather than just expecting your dog to be able to stop pulling and stay calm with something potentially enticing at nose or eye level.
Another thing you can do, is to make it extremely fantastic to be at your side – treats, toys, praise, they all happen when your dog is in ‘heel’ position, when your dog isn’t, they get nothing. You can slowly start adding in steps when your dog is happy to be at your side – first one or two, then another couple, then some more; remember to frequently reward your dog for being in the correct position. It is far better to reward too much at the start of training, and be able to thin out your reinforcement schedule; than to not reward enough, and always need to have treats or toys to reward your dog with.
With both of these methods, it is best to start out in less distracting places, before gradually adding in distractions (such as indoors, or in your back garden), and then gradually change locations and increase the level of distraction, so that your dog learns to walk on a loose lead, and isn’t overwhelmed by what’s going on around him or her.
Talking of less distracting places, any dog is more likely to pull in distracting environments than one with very little going on – and what one dog will find distracting will likely very to the next. At the moment, Inka pulls when he sees another dog, and he also pulls when there’s a “good smell”, he will sometimes pull when he’s excited as well. We’re working through these, and gradually he’s walking more & more on a loose lead, but it does take time, and patience – and remembering (or realising, as it changes) what sort of environment will be too much for him to cope with.
Alongside all of this, we’re also working on his proper “heel” training, but so far we’re sticking around the house and back garden as anything else is too much for him to cope with while heeling. If you set a dog up to ‘fail’ (in this case, pull on lead) then that is what that dog will learn.
This is really quite important to all aspects of training – if your dog doesn’t want to be around you, he will make it known, and – I believe – no more so than when on lead. He (or she) is more likely to pull, and not only to pull forward, but also I’ve noticed that dogs who don’t want to be “tethered” to their owners will often pull to the side at the same time i.e. in a total attempt to “get away”.