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Why is my dog constantly pulling on the leash?

Imagine it is Fall. The leaves exhibit all of their colors. As the wind blows through tree branches, the leaves float from their arboreal partnerships toward the ground. In the breeze, they mix with those leaves that have already made their seasonal journey earthward and across your path as you walk with your dog, enjoying the moment.

You walk through your neighborhood, in a park, or down a trail. Your dog lightly smiles as her head rises to absorb all the smells. It is a good time for both humans and dogs. Neither dog nor human realizes there is a leash between them.

That is how most people envision their dog walking when they bring home a new puppy or shelter dog. Unfortunately, leash walking is not a skill dogs are born with, despite tens of thousands of years of domestication. Leash walking is a bit unnatural for the dog, and often it begins with the dog freaking out like a fish placed on a pond's bank while still attached to the fishing pole.

In many of my beginner classes, people struggle to understand why their dogs cannot behave properly on a leash. "Why can't I get my dog's attention?" There are some obvious reasons: It is a new experience, dogs have more legs than humans, and often more energy. One reason that is not so obvious is that some dogs are just not ready for it.

Some dogs become overstimulated by the whole experience of going out into the world, especially when attached to a rope for the first time in their lives. Herding breeds are very observant and sensitive to anything that moves, and a lot is moving out there: cars, bicycles, birds, squirrels, other people, and other dogs.

It is imperative for young dogs to train for new things in a place with as few distractions as possible. Doing so will allow them to focus on you and what you ask them to do much more manageable. Your body and verbal instruction will be much clearer if little else is nearby to compete with you for their attention. Leash walking offers no exception to this.

For an easily distracted dog, work on their leash walking indoors first and offer them treats as often as needed to keep their minds from taking flight, even if it is every step or two in the beginning. For smaller breeds, you may choose canned pumpkin or peanut butter with a long kitchen spoon to save your back from suffering from all the bending over.

As they become better able to focus and are consistent with walking politely on a leash in the house, you can progress to the backyard or the driveway, where there are more distractions but not so unfamiliar. Only when they can keep their attention on you, more often than not, should you try walking in the neighborhood or park. Not that the dog should walk while staring at you the whole time, but they should "check in" every so often and stay close enough that the leash never goes tight. Keep all training sessions short to help the dogs be successful, 5 minutes or so at first, then add duration and distance when they can handle it. If the dog becomes overwhelmed at any point, go back to the last place they were successful and work on it more there.

Lastly, be patient. Leash walking takes more patience on the human side than any other basic skill. That's what makes us frustrated, but spend the time getting it right so leash walking doesn't become an issue for the rest of their lives.

Now, let's talk about the types of leash walks you could take your dog on as they develop. Remember, we are not discussing advanced leash skills such as heeling, where the dog must actively stay right by the handler's leg. We are talking about casual, loose-leash walking.

First, there is the familiar walk, the one most of us think of when we say we're taking the dog for a walk. The dog should stay in the "sweet spot" near your side. The leash should remain loose. It's okay for the leash to ebb and flow to the front and back or slightly away from you, but never get tight. The pace is casual as the dog and owner trot along. Occasional stopping is fine, but this is more of an exercise walk.

My favorite type of walk is a sniff walk or dog-led walk. In doing this, the dog primarily leads the way, and the human follows along. This does not mean pulling the human in every direction. You'll want to teach the dog the common walking skills first, but when the dog becomes generally acclimated to the fact that you are there, you can let them make some choices about which way to go. They can follow their noses and explore. A sniff walk can provide a lot of mental stimulation for your dog rather than just physical stimulation.

The potty time walk is not really much of a walk, but it is crucial when taking your dog on long trips, for apartment dwellers, or if the owner's yard is not fenced. In this case, the walk is more for business than fun or exercise. Walking them to areas they or other dogs have used for the business could help speed things along.

An exercise walk or run is not for all dogs and is not the walk you want to start with for your dog. Fast walking or running with your dog depends on your dog's ability to keep up or slow down to your pace, and you'll want to build them up for it gradually. Athletic breeds are best for this walk but also consider the weather. Dogs with thick coats, even athletic ones, cannot handle sustained activity in the Mississippi summertime.

While driving a few years ago, I once saw a young woman fast walking down the sidewalk with her little chihuahua. She was out for exercise herself and wanted the company of her dog, but it was July, and it was hot! I made a U-turn and pulled up next to the woman as she flew along with her dog, tongue lolling out of its mouth and heavily panting as it struggled to keep up. The woman and dog resembled my daughter and her chihuahua, and it was. I scolded her and drove the dog back to our house.

A dog can get a fantastic amount of mental and physical exercise from walking, but remember, it takes patience and practice before it becomes the enjoyable walk we often think of taking. A suitable practice method is to take your dog with you on a walk to the mailbox if you have an average driveway.

At Awesome Dog Academy, we teach leash walking in the third of our six beginner classes, but this skill needs to be practiced and reinforced for some time after the course concludes. We also offer a Saturday leash walking clinic a few times yearly to work on techniques and problems. Look for another clinic later this year -- when the leaves begin to fall.

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