An owner going on a walk with their dog, with the dog taking the lead.

Should I Let My Dog Take The Lead On A Walk?

My dogs love going on walks. In their enthusiasm to explore, they usually drag me along behind them. Soon, the dog appears to be walking me when it should be the other way around! Maybe you’ve experienced the same and are wondering, “Should I let my dog take the lead on a walk?” 

Walking with dogs is a great way to spend quality time with them. However, if your dog is constantly pulling on the leash and you have to use all your energy holding them back, you and your dog are bound to get frustrated. Training a dog to walk calmly on a loose leash is a great bonding experience and can make walks much more enjoyable.

Why Do Dogs Pull On Leashes?

According to Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal behaviorist at Colorado State University, exploring and discovering new scents on their walks activates a dog’s seeking response. According to her, seeking makes dogs happy by activating the pleasure centers of the brain. So, it’s no wonder dogs are eager to get those happy hormones flowing when they get the chance.

It’s only natural that dogs that spend most of their day cooped up indoors (take a look at what we have to say about separation anxiety, by the way) are overexcited to be outside on their walks. What’s not natural though is for a dog to walk around while tethered to a human; no dog is born knowing how to walk on a leash. 

Leashes are important for your dog’s safety as well as the safety of others around, but your dog doesn’t know that! So, it then becomes our responsibility as pet parents to teach our dogs how to behave calmly while they’re walking on a leash. 

Dogs may start pulling on a leash because they don’t know any better, but a dog will definitely continue to pull once they see that it works. When we allow our dogs to lead on walks, we are positively reinforcing them for dragging us along behind them. 

A dog that smells something exciting would want to get to the source of that smell as fast as it can. The dog quickly learns pulling hard on the leash makes the human holding it move along faster, thus giving the dog what it wants and rewarding it for the pulling behavior. 

Why Shouldn’t I Allow My Dog To Pull On The Leash?

A Corgi holding its leash in its mouth outside.
Someone’s ready for a walk!

Studies have found that leash-pulling, particularly when used with a neck collar, can cause serious harm to your pet. When dogs strain against their collar while leading on a walk, their collar applies excessive pressure on the sensitive structures of the neck, leading to various potential injuries, such as the ones in the following list. 

Damage To The Airway And Esophagus 

The trachea or windpipe is located at the front of the neck, unprotected by any bone or large muscles. Pressure from collars directly impacts the trachea. This causes obstruction of the airflow into and out of the lungs as your dog breathes. Hypoxia occurs when the lungs are unable to take in enough oxygen, leading to muscle fatigue, fainting, and sometimes even brain injury. Excessive pressure can fracture the cartilaginous rings of the trachea or cause tracheal collapse. 

Nerve Injury 

The nerves that supply the forelimbs run down the front of the neck. When a neck collar crushes these nerves, it can cause temporary or permanent tingling sensations or numbness in your dog’s front legs, which dogs react to with limping or paw licking. Studies show that just 2 G of force applied to a nerve can reduce its function by up to 50%.

Disturbance of the vagus nerve branches on either side of the neck can present with a wide variety of symptoms. These range from coughing and difficulty swallowing to alterations in the heart rate and rhythm and sudden fainting. 

Increase In Eye Pressure

A frequently diagnosed complication of pulling too hard is an increase in the pressure within the eye caused by occlusion of the jugular veins in the neck that impairs the passage of blood away from the head and back to the heart.

This is especially detrimental in dogs with thin corneas, glaucoma, or conditions for which an increase in intraocular pressure (IOP) could be harmful.

Impaired Blood Flow

The obstruction to blood flow can affect other structures of the head such as hearing and balance centers as well as the brain itself. Although rare, cases of hypoxic brain injury or brain injury due to a lack of oxygen have been reported with strangulation with a collar. These dogs may exhibit neurological signs such as an altered gait, circling, head tilting, fainting, or seizures.

Dislocations Or Fractures 

A sudden jerk may cause dislocation of the vertebral bones of the neck. These injuries are more common when dogs are walked with a retractable leash attached to a neck collar. The dog runs at top speed until it gets to the end of the leash. Then it’s suddenly jerked back, making injury much more likely. A dislocation severe enough to disrupt the spinal cord can cause partial or complete paralysis. 

Hypothyroidism 

The thyroid gland is located behind and on either side of the trachea in your dog’s neck. Constant pressure may cause damage to the organ’s structure and function and impair the production of the thyroid hormone. Hypothyroidism is a systemic disease that affects multiple organ systems. It will commonly lead to lethargy, weight gain, and hair and skin changes.

Many of these injuries can be mitigated by using the correct equipment. But your dog should still be taught how to walk correctly on a leash. A trained dog that feels safe and calm on a leash walk is less likely to react to distractions such as strange dogs or loud noises that they may encounter. In the meantime, a head collar or a harness is less likely to cause injury during the training process.

How Do I Stop My Dog From Taking The Lead On A Walk?

It’s best to start training during puppyhood before your dog has had a chance to learn bad leash behaviors. But with consistent training, bad habits can be replaced with good behavior. It’s important to remember when your dog pulls, it’s only doing what’s natural to it. Be patient and use the correct tools and techniques to help your dog learn.

Equipment

When training your dog, having the right equipment can make the process much easier and safer for both of you. If you decide to use a collar, choose one that is the correct size for your dog. Choose a collar wide enough to disperse the pressure applied on the neck as your dog pulls. Most medium-breed dogs do well with a collar 1-3 inches wide.

A better alternative to a traditional collar is a head collar. Head collars apply forward pressure on the back of the neck where there are fewer sensitive structures that may be damaged. They are also protected by thicker ligaments and muscles of the neck.

The best option for safely training your dog to walk calmly on a leash is a harness. Harnesses come in many different types. Of these, no-pull harnesses with the leash attached low on the front of your dog’s chest are the safest choice. They work by minimizing your dog’s ability to pull forward on the leash. It may take some practice to get your dog to accept wearing one, but they are definitely worth the effort.

Never use prong or choke collars on your dog when attempting to train them. Both can be acceptable tools when used correctly. But without the supervision of a reputable behaviorist, the risks far outweigh any benefits in the hands of inexperienced users.

Finding Incentives And Training Your Dog

Modern behaviorists favor positive reinforcement techniques when teaching dogs new behaviors. Outdated methods such as using choke chains and prong collars, or using a quick jerk on the lead to stop your dog from pulling can cause your dog to develop a negative association with walking. Instead of learning to walk calmly on a lead, your dog may become too scared to go on walks with you!

Motivating Your Dog

To effectively train your dog, you need to figure out what motivates them. For most dogs, the act of walking forward and exploring is enough incentive. When your dog pulls on the lead, stop walking immediately. Do not move forward until your dog stops tugging and allows the lead to slack. Your dog will soon learn pulling does not get it what it wants. It will learn walking calmly actually gets them to its destination faster.

Also, some dogs may require food as motivation (fruit anyone?). Use some of your dog’s own kibble or treats to tell your dog when it’s doing a good job. A great tool to use with this method is a clicker. Using the principles of clicker training, you can teach your dog a loose leash earns it a click and a reward before the walk continues.

Calmer dogs are easier to train. Some owners find it helpful to allow the most hyperactive dogs to expend some of their energy before attempting training. If you have a fenced-in area where your dog can safely run around off-leash, it may be more attentive when it begins its lesson. If this isn’t an option, maintain a regular schedule with relatively long walks and consistent training. A dog that regularly receives adequate exercise and has the opportunity to go outside and explore is less likely to go nuts every time you pick up the leash.

Start Them Young: Training A Puppy For Walks

Although being walked on a lead doesn’t come naturally to any dog, puppies acclimatized to wearing a harness and feeling the sensation of being tethered from a young age, are less likely to reflexively pull away than a dog that first experiences leash walking in adulthood. 

The first step is to introduce the items to your puppy. Some puppies may allow you to put the harness on them directly, but others may require some coaxing. If your puppy seems paralyzed with fear while wearing the harness, take it off immediately so as not to form a negative association. Instead, do the following steps.

Steps For Harness Training

  1. Gently drape the harness on your puppy’s back for 1-2 minutes at a time to allow them to acclimate to the weight. There is no need to clasp the harness on at this point unless your puppy seems comfortable. At this stage and throughout the training, use treats to make the process enjoyable for your puppy. 
  1. Once your puppy is comfortable with the harness’ weight, loosely clasp the harness around your puppy. Do this for 30 seconds to 2 minutes at a time, gauging your puppy’s tolerance. If your puppy attempts to remove it, do not take off the harness. Instead, distract them with toys or games. By taking them out of the harness at that point, you are reinforcing the removal attempts by giving them what they want.
  1. Gradually fasten the harness more securely, tightening the straps to the intended size. Take it slow and offer plenty of praise and treats to remind them good experiences come with wearing the harness.
  1. Once they are comfortable with having the harness on their body for up to an hour, take them through the motions of putting it on and taking it off as you normally would when preparing to take them for a walk. It’s okay to go slower at first and make sure you give them a treat and lots of praise before taking it off. Also, play with them with the harness on their bodies so they learn the time spent having a harness on can be enjoyable.

In Conclusion: Should I Let My Dog Take The Lead On A Walk? 

Being dragged along by your dog while on a walk can be harmful to their health and can make the time you spend together less enjoyable. But dogs aren’t born knowing how to walk calmly on a leash, and pulling is a natural reflex. In short, a dog wants to take the lead on a walk because they want to walk!

Training your puppy or adult dog to walk on a loose leash can be a fun way to strengthen your bond while teaching them a useful skill. You’ll soon be the envy of all the dog parents being pulled around at the park as your dog walks calmly beside you. It’s never too late to start!

Have you had any rough experiences or funny stories with your dog pulling on their leash? Let us know what happened in the comments below!

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