IMPORTANT NOTE - Fear and Reactivity
Some dogs pull like crazy on leash or react aggressively due to fear. Those issues need to be addressed by a professional trainer before any of the following applies. This blog is intended for dogs who pull too much but don't have other emotional/behavioral issues.
Item 1 - Hiking Boots
For most people, the first step to leash training is increasing off leash exercise and enrichment. Leash pulling leads people to training literally by the millions. And trainers are quick to offer their protocols, and equally if not quicker, to condemn approaches of others. But the truth is in the overwhelming majority of cases the reason the dog is bonkers on leash is because they are not getting enough exercise and enrichment off leash. The only humane answer, is to get them more off leash exercise and enrichment.
I hate to be direct but it is what it is.
1. Leashed walks, let alone on neighborhood streets are not sufficient EXERCISE for most dogs.
2. Running loose in your yard is not sufficient ENRICHMENT for most dogs.
And trying to manipulate a dogs behavior or expect them to be honored to plod along at your side when you are not meeting their neurobiological needs is not only a hard slog, it is not, in my opinion, humane. No matter what harness, how incremental, and how many hot dogs you use.
The amount of cardio exercise and novel enrichment your dog needs varies greatly by breed, age, and individual dog. But young large breed dogs need at least a couple hours of cardio a day and novel environments daily. So most dogs, especially if they are pulling on leash need around 4-6 hours a week of CARDIO exercise and a lot of novel environments to investigate. So, the first equipment investment you will need to make, is a good pair of hiking boots.
Your dog is a predator. Their brain is made to problem solve as they are moving fast in the woods or other natural and NOVEL environment. That is why they love to dart and dodge and pivot as they play. They need a lot of varied tactile sensations under their feet. They need to navigate jumping over, under or through logs and cover. (Cover also provides a magical expansive world of smells we can't even imagine. It also makes some reactive dogs feel safer.) Dogs brains and bodies are meant to work together, outside, and moving fast. Their primary sensory input is through their nose, and (a long second) through tactile sensations and hearing.
In the beginning, your yard may be novel enough. But long term you need to be finding new and varied places for your dog to run and explore. If your dog is getting 4-6 hours (varies by breed and age) of cardio exercise and quality enrichment it is fair to expect them to walk nicely by your side on leash. Otherwise, it isn't.
If this comes as bad or hard news to you, you aren't alone. Lack of time, energy, and safe off leash places are a constraint for many people. Unfortunately, your dogs needs are not dictated by your capacity.
And the good news is, if you got a dog because you thought it would get you up and out more, well here you go!!!!!
If you and your dog are good candidates for a dog park and there is one near by, this makes it a lot easier. Off leash play with other dogs is great exercise. But if not, then we are going to have to find other ways. So lace up your hiking boots and learn how to go exploring with your dog.
Item 2 - A long line and/or remote collar
If you are near a lot of natural settings where your dog can safely run around that is good luck. If not, you are going to have to have a way to keep your dog from running too far off and getting lost, injured, or into trouble.
One way to do this, and what I usually recommend first is called a long line. This is just like a regular 6 foot leash but you can buy them in lengths of 15, 20, or 30 feet. (I like 20 feet either neoprene or Mendota brand). Even if you are holding the end of the line, while not off leash running, walking through a nature preserve with a 20 foot circumference is still A LOT better enrichment than walking on a city street on a short leash. If the situation makes sense you can even just let your dog drag the line so they can do some bursts of romping and have a bit more freedom to explore. It works great for many dogs. The downsides are the line can get caught and tangled and it is a tripping hazard.
Another option is a remote collar. This is a collar the dog wears and the handler carries a remote that can talk to the collar. It can send a tone, a vibration, or an uncomfortable stimulus to the dog. YOU AND YOUR DOG WILL NEED TRAINING UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF AN EXPERIENCED TRAINER.
Remote collars can have a reputation as a harsh training tool. And when they were first invented they sure were! Now the technology has come a long way, as has trainers abilities to use them humanely. And since remote containment systems (a.k.a. "invisible fence") have become common, people better understand they don't have to cause the dog stress and pain and the quality of life trade off is substantial.
Now e-collar appointments are my very favorite because I get to help the dog be a dog and not just manipulate their behavior to fit into a human world. It opens up so much quality of life for them. And usually the dog and handlers relationship gets better because the dog isn't driving them nuts with behavior from under stimulation.
Note: To train your dog on an e-collar you will need a long line anyway. So start with that.
Item 3 - A Phone
Now we are ready to go out and play! We just have to find out WHERE? Using your phone to research dog welcome hiking trails or connecting with other dog enthusiasts via social media can be good ways to find the best places for you and your dogs exercise and enrichment experiences.
On to the leash...
Item 4 - A "no pull" harness or collar
Once people and dogs are set with off leash exercise and enrichment some don't bother with leash training at all. And sometimes if a dog is satiated with experience they do fine on the leash. If not, you are ready to begin training. At this point, leash behavior is a job for your dog just like any other obedience command. And it can be kind of a fun one.
The first thing you will need is a collar or harness engineered to reduce pulling. Trainers, and even the public tend to get their undies in a bunch about what is right and wrong when it comes to anti pulling equipment. (I recently saw in an internet chat room an early career trainer ask if she should stop a perfect stranger on the street to condemn their collar).
In reality, it is all pretty inhumane if your dog isn't getting their off leash exercise and enrichment needs met. And it all can be used humanely (though not every piece is right for every dog) if the dogs exercise and enrichment needs ARE met. So you can experiment or ask an experienced and non judgmental trainer.
Item 5 - The right leash
I have seen pretty much every leash work or not work depending on the dog. But typically a 6 foot leash or longer leash work the best. Four foot leashes and retraceables are usually the least effective. If your dog is a chewer you might want a light chain leash so your dog can't chew through the nylon or neoprene.
Item 6 - Training, Time, Patience, and Commitment
You can see our YouTube video on playing Find it/Find me to keep your dog focused on you as they walk. This also teaches them to re-engage with you after a distraction, which is an important muscle to build.
Teaching your dog to heel at your side is key in stores, breweries, and to get past hard distractions on your walks. And it builds their behavior of staying by you on leash. There are also tricks such as inside turns and direction changes that keep your dog focused and in heel when they start to stray. YouTube is not short on instruction videos. Or any decent professional trainer can teach you. (Typically ones who have titled a dog in Obedience or have a military/police background are really good at it).
Anytime your dog gets forward progress for pulling they are getting rewarded with EXACTLLY what they want for pulling. So at this point the walk still isn't about your enjoyment. You need to plant your feet so they have to release the pressure on the leash to get their forward progress. The technique of using a long leash was popularized by Bailey Stickney of The Laughing Dog Fargo and is gaining popularity. The longer leash gives the dog more freedom and enrichment and less need to pull. So it is less planting, waiting the dog out, and less times the dog gets what they want for pulling (because we are, you know... human).
Your dog is almost certainly not at their natural gate while walking at your speed. So they literally have to be neurologically re-programed to walk at your pace. So if you want them to take leashed walks through the neighborhood with you, it takes a lot of practice and a substantial amount of time. But if it is important to you, go for it. If all you want is good leash behavior in public places (vet, breweries, stores etc) they can usually make it a short distance in heel with more basic training and less practice.
There are a lot of other tricks of the trade when you are getting to this point in teaching leash walking. It isn't realistic to go into detail here but if you work with a skilled, passionate trainer they will have a lot of good tips.
So, while this may sound overwhelming, remember, leash behavior is what drives people to training by the millions. And yet, no one has come up with a quick fix or an easy answer. So you are not alone, and not doing anything wrong. It is just that leash training is the most unnatural and sometimes the most necessary thing you will teach your dog. And that is a tough combo. But starting with your off leash adventures is the first step, and it is FUN!