Teaching a dog to walk nicely on the lead without pulling can be the most difficult part of training a dog. It can be very frustrating for owners to have a dog that pulls like a train, drags on the end of the lead like a sack of potatoes, or stops to sniff at every lamppost. So much so, that some dogs are sentenced to a life without walks, or life stuck in a 'training aid'.
The Right Attitude to Training
One of the main reasons that lead training fails is because it is not usually considered part of training. The dog is expected to be able to walk nicely, but no time is given over to teaching the dog what this means. When time is given, it's usually during a walk, which fails due to the owner expecting to get somewhere, as well as possibly using different methods and inconsistent commands. The owner often then gives up and lets the dog pull for the sake of getting to their destination.
There are ways to teach any dog to walk nicely on the lead - but the owner has to accept that training while on a walk doesn't work, and that most of the work has to be done in, or very near, the home. The dog should not be allowed out to walk on the lead until it has learned the basics. To continue exercising the dog, a training aid should be used. This allows the dog to get out for a walk, without pulling, so that all the good work done by the owner is not undone.
How long it takes to train a dog to walk nicely depends mostly on how long it has been allowed to pull, its basic level of training and to some extent, its breed.
The right collar and lead are very important. A flat collar and normal rope or nylon lead are perfectly adequate and are the best choice. Extending leads should not be used for training, and chain leads worthy of a bull elephant are unnecessary unless the dog has a habit of chewing up leads; even then, a thin chain will do just as well as a thick one. It needs to be comfortable for both dog and owner.
Training aids are just that, aids. They should only be used during training. Unfortunately, however, many owners used them as a substitute for training rather than an aid. This isn't the idea.
Walking training aids usually come as a halter for the dog's nose, or a harness, and the idea is that they are designed in such a way that the dog cannot pull while wearing them. Think of a horse - when an owner puts something around a horse's neck, they usually want it to pull a heavy weight. When they want to be able to guide it, they put a halter on and 'steer' by the nose.
With the halters (sometimes called 'head collars'), the lead is normally attached under the chin, so the dog cannot throw its weight behind it and pull. If they do try to pull ahead, they 'pivot' around the lead because they don't control their heads - the owner does. Some makes of halter work more by pressure - the loop over the nose and one behind the ears encourages calm behaviour in the dog. Dogs use both these areas to calm each other down - either by gripping the muzzle with their mouth, or as when a mother picks up her puppies by the scruff of their neck - they automatically relax.
Harnesses work by controlling the dog's shoulders, so helping them to stop pulling. They usually have the lead attached to the front of the chest, so if the dog does pull, they are guided back towards the owner, rather than allowing them to move forward.
The idea of a training aid is that the dog can be walked between training sessions, so still gets some exercise. Allowing the dog to pull on their normal collar will undo any work already done. Training aids are also useful if a powerful dog has to be walked by someone who is not used to its ways. Even the best-trained dog may decide to try its luck with a different walker.
Training with Pain, Fear or Discomfort
There are some products on the market which pinch, poke, choke, shock (with electricity), spray or squeal. These are considered aversive training and are not recommended. It is 'easy' to force a dog to do things by hurting or scaring it, and this can result in aggression or fearful behaviour, and doesn't train the dog to do anything.
The first lesson always happens indoors, and off lead. Decide where you want the dog's walking position to be - ideally this will be on one side of the owner, close to the leg, as this allows greater control. Choosing to walk the dog on the right hand side means that when walking down country lanes with no pavements the dog is out of the way of traffic (or the other way around in countries where traffic is on the right side of the road). Most training schools will encourage you to use the left hand side (competitive obedience uses this side), so that is where we will assume the dog to be. If an owner is really dedicated, they can chose to train to both sides (with a different command for each side).
Once you have chosen the position, you need to name it. 'Heel', 'Walk', 'Side', 'Close', or even 'Nicely' will do, as long as you stick to the same command each time. You could use 'Rhubarb' or anything you like; the dog doesn't understand it's a word, just a sound. You will be the one who has to use the word in public though, and remembering lots of strange words will become more difficult than commands that reflect what the dog is doing. Also if the dog ever has to be looked after by someone else they'll be wondering why you've not trained your dog! Try to stick to the same command, but if you need to change the command for any reason, either start back at the beginning, or introduce the new word with the old word, using it first. Eventually you will be able to stop using the original word.
Now you need to teach the dog the position, and the word for it. In that order. There is no point in shouting a word at a dog when it has no idea of what it means. So encourage the dog to your left hand side, facing the same way your feet are, and then praise and reward. You can encourage by calling, patting your leg, or even running away a bit and letting the dog catch up. Anything that gets the dog to your side. You could move the dog into position, but it won't learn as quickly. If you've got a small dog, you can teach this sitting down.
Repeat until the dog can't wait to be there. Once it gets the idea of where it is supposed to be, you can introduce your chosen command. So, the dog arrives in position, you say 'Heel - good dog!' and reward. This will need to be repeated a lot before you can trust the dog to come to heel when you tell it to - don't be in a rush to go too far. When you think the dog understands the word, shuffle forward a bit, and say 'heel'. The dog should come to heel if you've practised enough. If it doesn't, as you've said it, you should gently encourage the dog to come to you - try patting your leg, and if that doesn't work, move the dog forwards. Do not repeat the word because that teaches the dog it is just a sound that doesn't mean anything. Go back to saying it when the dog is there, and praise and reward.
The more you practise, the easier it will be the first time you try with the lead on. You should be able to call the dog to heel from anywhere in the house or garden before you try with the lead, especially if they associate the lead with excitement. Do train in different rooms in the house, in the back garden or in a secure front garden, or any other secure area you can think of. Dogs do not generalise and will not always realise that a command means the same thing when they are in a different place.
Once the dog understands the command completely, the lead can be introduced. At this point the dog will act as if it's never had a day's training in its life because it will know that exciting things happen when the lead is on. So go right back to the beginning and teach 'heel' again. Right from the beginning. You shouldn't be attempting to move forwards at this point, just praise and reward the dog for being where you want it.
Once the dog has understood that heel means heel whether on or off lead you can begin to move - still indoors if you have space. If not, then in the garden. If you don't have space indoors, or a garden, this can be done anywhere, but the less distractions the better. Near shops, other dogs, or lots of traffic will make the training so much harder.
Get your dog into the heel position, making sure your lead is loose and you have plenty of slack in it. Reinforce 'heel - good dog', and take a step forward. If the dog stays where it is, keep going, encouraging the dog, and when it moves forward into the heel position, praise and reward. If it doesn't stop there but keeps going past you, stop your praise (in mid-word if necessary), and turn right to face the opposite direction and keep going. If this happens don't use the heel command until the dog is in the correct position, even if just as it zooms past!
If your dog heels nicely give it much praise and love and lots of practice. You can begin to take the dog out of the house, although to start with assume that the minute you get out on the street it will need to be trained all over again - but each time you have to train it again it will take less and less time.
If the dog carries on pulling (either on the first lead trial, or once you get outdoors), despite all your early training, you either haven't practised enough, the dog is a stubborn so-and-so, or it's so easily distracted it can't remember its own name, let alone its training.
Whichever it is, the technique is simple. Making sure the lead is loose, walk forward. The moment the dog goes ahead of the heel position, turn and go in the other direction. Do not jerk the lead, or talk to the dog. If you turn quick enough the dog should still be going the wrong way, will get to the end of the lead quickly and have no choice but to turn and follow you. Praise the moment it's in the correct place. Don't use the Heel command at this stage - for whatever reason, the dog is not paying attention anyway. As before, if the dog moves past, stop the praise, and turn again.
The dog needs to learn that the best place to be is by your side, so continue praising when it's there, even if not for very long! After some practice, the dog should get the idea and, although it may still be passing you, will not be going so fast. It's always wise to stop on a good note, so if the dog does really well give it lots of praise and end the session - even if really well is getting as far as 'good d…' rather than just 'g…'.
Practise, Practise, Practise
This will need to be practised as much as the dog needs. It may take two or three ten-minute sessions, it may take 20 minutes to get a good enough success to stop, or it may take weeks of practice. It depends on the dog, how many sessions you can manage, and how resilient you are to funny looks from neighbours.
A guide to how the dog is getting on will be how many steps you can get with the dog by your side. Ideally, they will be by your side all the time, but just getting to the end of the road without pulling will be a huge success for the dog. Don't ever expect to get out for a walk while training is going on. This is for training, not for walking. The dog can be walked on their training aid until they are good.
Each session may need to start from further back than the last one ended, so give the dog a chance to remember what they've practised.
Once they've got the general idea, keep practising. It may take a few weeks before the dog can get out without a training aid, and it's always wise to keep one with you on a walk even when the dog has 'graduated' out of one. If the dog has a set- back of any kind, it's better to go back to the training aid than allow the dog to pull. Try not to walk down any very long straight roads when newly trained, as this could put the dog back, all the straightness may be too tempting! If it's unavoidable, cross the road occasionally to give some variety.
It is possible that a dog that has got to a grand age can be trained to stop pulling using this method, but after a lifetime of pulling it may never really be free of the urge. So every now and then, go back to basics and practise at the beginning again.
This method is suitable for puppies, but be very gentle and patient with them. Young pups have soft bones and joints and jerking them around on the end of the lead is not a good idea - when they go ahead and you turn, turn slowly and gently, keeping an eye on the puppy as you do so. They can also be traumatised for life if they have a bad experience at this age. It would be a good idea to let the puppy walk around indoors with the lead dangling - this lets them get used to the feel of the collar when they step on the lead without associating it with the owner. Don't leave them alone in case they get tangled and trapped.
Sessions should be really short and sweet - a few minutes to start, building up as the puppy grows.
A Method That is Not Recommended
One method that is advised by a lot of handlers (including the big dog rescue centres) is that when the dog pulls, the owner stops. The dog stops as well. The theory is that the owner encourages the dog back to the owners side, the walk continues, and the dog learns where it should be.
It doesn't actually work like that. It may work with children who are running ahead, to sweet talk them into coming back, but dogs are not as clever as children. Speak sweetly to a dog in the wrong place, and it will think it is praise and therefore it will think it is where it is supposed to be, and although it may well return to the owner's side because it's been called or physically moved there, it will have no understanding that this is where it is supposed to be.
All this teaches the dog is that if the owner stops, so does the dog. It gets praised for stopping, then the owner recalls it and the walk starts again. With the dog pulling.