When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara pulls on leash edited

Is there actually a situation in which it’s OK for your dog to pull on leash? Oh, yes. For fearful and reactive dogs there are at least two!

  • One is when you are practicing desensitization/counterconditioning with your dog in public and can’t ask her for an operant behavior.
  • The other is later, when she is approaching something she used to be scared of with joy and enthusiasm.

Those of us who have fearful, reactive, fear-aggressive, or feral dogs and are using desensitization and counterconditioning with them out in the world are working on giving them a positive conditioned emotional response. We do this by building associations between triggers that formerly scared them and wonderful things.

Working on these associations first and foremost affects other decisions we make when we have our dog out and about.

Doing DS/CC Correctly

The guidelines for doing successful DS/CC call for great clarity. It has to be absolutely clear to the dog that the great treat exactly follows the appearance of the trigger and nothing else. Each time and every time.  We work on our timing, and on making the relationship between those two things completely salient, doing nothing to muddy up the works. The CARE for Reactive Dogs website has great instructions for the mechanics of clearly pairing the trigger with the treat under the 2nd section: CAREMethod.

In addition, our dogs’ behavior doesn’t matter. Yes, you read that right. As opposed to operant learning, which is about the consequences of behavior, respondent learning does not depend on the dogs’ actions. The pairing of the stimuli to create a new emotional response is the whole game. Of course we take great pains to keep everybody safe and make sure our dogs are under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, but if we screw up on the latter and they see the stimulus and bark or otherwise react, they still get the goodie.

How can walking on a loose leash fit into this scenario? It can’t. Not at this point. It is a trained behavior that asks a whole lot of the dog. However, it is not at all ruled out as a learned behavior after the dog has become comfortable in the world.  Many fearful dogs go on to be wonderful family pets or even competition dogs. And even those who never get completely comfortable in public situations can enjoy learning all sorts of tricks and other behaviors for enrichment and to help them fit into the human world at home better.

So I’m not saying “don’t train your dog.” Working with your dog at home is wonderfully enriching for both of you. You can include some behaviors that will help you when you are out doing a session of DS/CC. Most people pretrain some behaviors that can help them move their dog around the environment and get out of sticky situations. The important thing is not to try to train your dog during a session of desensitization/counterconditioning.

Loose Leash Walking

Loose leash walking is a great skill. It not only makes life much easier and more pleasant for the human, it is of great benefit to the dog. If your dog has been taught to walk at your side before you ever put the leash on, and proofed and taught in progressively more difficult environments, she may never run to the end of the leash and get stopped in her tracks, or experience the nagging discomfort of pressure on some part of her body when she forges ahead.

But doing leash work in progressively more difficult environments is a problem for the fearful dog. If she is still fearful, as soon as the environment holds any challenges at all, you need to be working on the pairing of stimuli to create a positive conditioned emotional response, not trying to practice a difficult behavior.

Pavlov Wins

Text box: "Holding to strict criteria for walking on a loose leash and maintaining the clarity of pairing in classical conditioning are mutually exclusive

Asking for loose leash walking, a difficult behavior, from a dog whose fears you are trying to rehabilitate, not only won’t work, it will likely set your dog’s progress back. Not only does it throw you into the world of operant learning, leaving the dog’s emotional state by the wayside, you are also diluting the purity of the pairing of two stimuli. You must have a one-to-one relationship: experience trigger, get great food. If you start giving the same food for behaviors as well, you are shooting yourself in the foot. (Some people carry two kinds of food, and use the lesser value food for working on other behaviors during “down time.” Others prefer the clarity of not using food for anything else during this period.)

The good news is that if you are consistently treating your dog at the perception of triggers, they will probably develop the operant behavior of sticking close by you anyway. You may “accidentally” make staying or walking at your side a very strong behavior. But you can’t insist on it. And it may break down when your dog gets so comfortable in the environment that she stops noticing the triggers, or chooses other delights like a good sniff of the bushes instead of the treat. But what a happy day that is!

After DS/CC

Conditioning your dog doesn’t happen all at once. She may be completely happy in several public environments, but you still need to generalize to more. If she was feral and humans are strange to her, there are still new challenges to be had even after she is largely happy among people. For instance, although my formerly feral dog Clara has gradually gotten used to people who are flamboyantly dressed, people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers, children swinging bags, workers doing noisy construction,  and many other variations among the human population, there is still the occasional challenge. Last week she got slightly worried about a woman who had a jingling ankle bracelet, just enough to decide to go the other direction.

During this period of training as well, letting the dog lead the way pays off. Clara is now at a stage where she is comfortable enough that she can explore her environment, even with people all around. She often pulls forward excitedly when we are approaching her friends or a favorite part of the shopping mall or some good pee-mail. Likewise, she can “vote with her feet” in a non-panicked way when occasionally she doesn’t like the looks of something.

Even with all her progress, it is too early to ask her to walk strictly by my side.  I need the information that her movements give me. She generally needs very little intervention from me nowadays except to put the brakes on if she is in danger of being bothersome to a stranger or getting in over her head. (She is a very curious dog.) But I still carry the high value stuff in case a new challenge arises.

I do ask for some operant behaviors, and as she gets even more comfortable, it will be possible to work on walking consistently at my side. But frankly, at this point, she is enjoying the world so much that  it gives me great joy to be led around!

Clara stops to smell the roses
Clara stops to smell the roses

What It Looks Like

This video shows Clara at a large public shopping mall where a lot of her socialization has taken place. This is a place she is comfortable, and you won’t see me doing any classical pairing with treats in the video. She can now walk happily down the sidewalks there among groups of people, even next to doors that might pop open at any time.

In the video I show her both eagerly pulling towards things she is interested in, and meandering around checking the pee-mail with me in tow.

Most of the footage was taken on an extremely hot day. We were only out for 10-15 minutes at a time, but the heat is the reason she is panting.

Even though I have to allow the leash to become taut at times, because of her speed or because I am trying to handle a camera and treats in addition to a leash, it pleases me to see that there is no reactivity caused by frustration with the leash. When she is pulling ahead, she is doing so because of excitement and enthusiasm, and that overrules everything else. She just tugs me along.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Pulling Isn’t Comfortable!

That’s right. Much of the gear we use, from flat collars to front attach harnesses, has the effect of making pulling uncomfortable.

So what do we do when we are breaking all the rules, and the dog is allowed to pull?  I used a front-attach harness in the beginning with Clara. Most people with fearful or reactive dogs in public need the control that affords. Now that Clara can do so much more in public,  I’ve gotten her a padded back-attach harness that does not discourage pulling. All dog owners can investigate different gear and see what is the most safe and comfortable for their dog.

But let me be clear: it can be unpleasant for a dog to be restrained, by whatever method. When Clara is “in the lead,” I do my best to minimize physical discomfort and frustration from gear and the “slow attached human.” See the video in the Resources section below for some great ideas on how to do that.


If you have a fear-aggressive dog, or any dog that makes noisy displays in public, you have experience with the stigma of a “misbehaving” dog. There is immense social pressure for you to make your dog shape up. Total strangers are completely comfortable giving unwanted advice, or shaming you in public, or even trying to discipline  your dog themselves. Most want you to get tough with your dog and show your dog who is boss. (And all the time your dog is essentially crying for help.)

It can be extremely embarrassing to have a dog that is acting up. But if you have made it through that phase and your dog’s fearful displays are gone, you can certainly deal with the occasional snotty comment that comes by about your dog pulling you around. You know, like, “Are you walking your dog or is your dog walking you? Heh heh heh!” Perhaps you can come up with a clever comeback.

Clara and her buddy taking a break from shopping
Clara and her buddy in a department store display window taking a break from shopping

For me, it warms my heart to see my formerly feral dog having a great time exploring and checking out the pee-mail and pulling me around, while either ignoring the proximity of humans or actually tailing them curiously. When we started, her comfortable proximity to a single non-moving human was about 60 feet, and she was extremely sensitive to any situation where she might feel like her escape options were limited.

I think some people still have an image of a classically conditioned dog as being robotically controlled and micromanaged. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching Clara that the proximity of humans predicts great things has allowed her to get huge enjoyment out of environments that would formerly have been impossible for her to even enter. Also, from the earliest stages of the process, she was free to move around.

Isn’t Sniffing a Stress Behavior?

It can be. But with a little experience, it’s not hard to tell the difference between a stress sniff, and exploratory odor sniffing. I have a followup post about this coming soon.


Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Sniffing for Joy
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube


31 thoughts on “When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

  1. HI Eileen, great post. It conjures up the analogy given to clients “you don’t want to learn Japanese and how to play piano at the same time.” Let your pup focus on one important exercise/protocol at a time especially when it comes to DS/CC.

    I also hook pups up to the rear attaching harness when going for a roller blade, run or bike with them. Especially when I am on wheels, it gives me a little time to relax and let them pull me along if they like

    @ “Are you walking your dog or is your dog walking you? Heh heh heh!” My reply is that we take turns, and then I hand them a business card. 🙂

    This cracked me up “Clara has gradually gotten used to people who are flamboyantly dressed”. You should take her to South Beach where I am located. Flamboyance is the norm not the anomaly. However it makes for a great resource for DS/CC! 🙂


    1. Hi Russ! Great retort to the silly question! I imagine “flamboyantly dressed” around here ends about where yours starts!

      Thanks for the comment. I like your analogy, too.

  2. There’s another time when I feel it’s OK to have a dog pull on lead. That is when the trainer has put the behavior on cue! For example, my late great therapy dog, Sioux, was trained to pull me a little because I have arthritis, and her gentle tug up inclines made it easier, when we were going up ramps to health fair venues, for me to drag my rolling cart, use my cane, and handle her. She was out front, ahead of the cart and me, where she could not be stepped on, hit by the cane, or rolled over by cart wheels:-) No rule is hard and fast if there’s a good reason to break it and it’s improving the situation for dog and/or handler, while not hurting anyone else. Fabulous blog post, as always, though, Eileen. Yours is always one of the first I read.

  3. Eileen, I love your blog unconditionally, but your latest post is particularly thought-provoking. This question of ‘what comes first’ in the hierarchy of training emotions and behaviours for a troubled dog is one that I sometimes found hard to call, and often suspected that I was getting wrong … your careful and clear explanation confirms that I suspected right, sadly, so you might imagine I read it with a mixture of emotions! Trying to encourage our fearful and reactive dog to walk without pulling ahead seemed like the obvious thing to do – the harness won’t hurt, she’ll be nearer us and more focused, etc – but I see now that it did get in the way of the bigger picture. Circumstances dictate that we are ‘between dogs’ at the moment, but blogs like yours offer a much-needed virtual doggy ‘fix’, and give me a lot of hope for ‘doing it better’ next time …

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Caroline! Even if you are dealing with the emotions first, there may be times when letting your dog go out in front would not be the best decision. I bet your instincts were better than you think. Thanks for reading and commenting. We’re all trying to do better next time, I think.

      1. It’s true, there were times when it may have helped her to get the damn walking thing ‘right’ and to be together with me rather than ploughing a lonely furrow out ahead, but also those when it was creating a conflicting ‘goal’ for us both. Oh for the wisdom to always know the difference!

  4. Thank you for this piece. This is definitely something I need to give more thought and attention to as I walk my dog. I’ve run into trouble with this because I’ve reinforced loose leash walking so much that I have difficulty getting him to take in the environment, so sometimes we can get too close to something. Initially, my dog would rush up to things he was anxious about, pulling on leash, and after he got there decide it was not ok with him and start reacting. So I concentrated on loose leash walking, throwing in the Look at That game for things at a distance. We’ve come a very very long way but haven’t been making the kind of progress I would like lately and I think this piece explains some of the reasons. Thanks again

    1. Hope it helps! I understand the “too much attention” problem too. I’ve had that with one of my other dogs. She actually works too hard at loose leash (my fault).

      We all have to constantly assess what stuff is OK for our dogs to rush up to. For the first year or more of my work with Clara, I would come home exhausted because of having to be hyper vigilant–so as to protect her from aversive exposures. I wouldn’t have been able to let her rush up to stuff then. I still have to careful now, of course, but I feel like we are over at least one hump of late. Good luck with your guy!

  5. I love this so much–it’s a beautiful articulation of my vague “this is not a situation where I care about leash manners” rules. For instance, Silas is finally taking a tiny one minute walk on our sidewalk. He will *haul* me out of our garage to get out there, and I love that he’s excited to go out. Once we’re outside I will walk/jog/trot however fast I need to walk to keep tension off the leash, because I don’t want him to associate physical discomfort with the sidewalk. I don’t care what he’s doing–he’s on the sidewalk! Near the cars! Last week he dragged me over to greet another dog (after I hastily called out for permission), and my only feeling was genuine joy that he would pick meeting a dog, which took him further down the sidewalk than he’s been in years, over darting back in our front gate.

  6. Thank you for another really helpful post. I will be sharing this with several students who have fearful/reactive dogs. I do recommend CARE site and Fearful Dogs sites now. I really love reading all the success stories!

    1. Thanks, Linda! And stay tuned for a bit more detailed success story from us!

  7. Really excited for the upcoming post on stress sniffing vs. exploratory sniffing. Admittedly, I have a hard time being able to decipher the difference.

    1. It’s pretty hard to generalize, but I do have a couple of examples from my own dogs. We can all compare notes, perhaps! Thanks for the encouragement. Always nice to know someone is interested in an upcoming post.

  8. There are times for us too that pulling on the leash is OK. At agility trials for example. The enthusiasm is worth the slight discomfort to me. Jarah was so eager to get to the treat table after one run that she nearly knocked a woman over! To her credit, the woman found it humorous.

    I also let Jarah pull “gently” – I call it guiding me – to places she wants to sniff or go. In that case, Jarah puts a bit of tension on the lead, and it’s my job to release the tension. It’s her way of communicating that she wants to take a different route. I’m happy to let her make those decisions whenever it’s appropriate. IMO, dogs don’t have many opportunities to make a decision. Most all of what appear to be a dog’s choice is really more like asking a kid whether she wants peas or carrots (instead of do you want vegetables).

    Good post and so lovely to see Clara happy and confident in a formerly scary environment.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, jarah’s mom. I have struggled so long with the walking thing. I really really want my dogs to be able to go where they want on walks, even when we are trying to do LLW. Agree so much that we frame so many of their decisions for them.

      Completely with you about the enthusiasm, too.

      Stay tuned for a real update on Clara if I can get a little more video tomorrow.

  9. You said: “The important thing is not to try to train your dog during a session of desensitization/counterconditioning.”

    I feel that’s only partly true here. Teaching the dog specific fear-lessoning behavior applies, as it will directly effect their emotional state. Granted, calm leash walking itself is not in this category, and that’s your point, and I agree there.

    Some of the respondent/operant distinctions here do seem a bit fuzzy, such as operant never effecting emotional state. It’s more that the effect is not as immediate. On the article’s basic direction and emphasis, however, I really do agree. For problem dogs, following your advice will often turn failure into success.

    When starting, however, I do focus first on two commands. One is a momentary “stop”, which allows gaining some control without having to strain against the leash, especially when I have several dogs. Another is whatever is needed for a simple fear-lessoning behavior for that dog. From that point, I’d follow much of what you wrote, and complete it before starting the actual leash training.

    On a dog pulling during walks, there’s also the question of intent and degree. Similar to what “jarah’s mom” noted, my dog will gently tug on the leash to guide me to a smell he wants to track down. If I give him slack he moves, or if I jiggle the leash he returns. I mention this as I’ve seen people trained that their dog must always be in full control when walked, removing a great deal of enjoyment from the dog’s life.

    1. Gerry, I like your points about alternative behaviors (Clara has a default Down that we did practice even from the very beginning of counterconditioning work) and the relationship between operant and respondent. I also am dedicated to letting all my dogs enjoy their walks and do all I can for a good give and take about allowing them to go sniff. We don’t have such a nuanced system yet as you describe, but I do have “you are free to go sniff” on cue, and I let them do so when possible. I try to cue it as well in sync as when they actually want to as I can.

      Since I wrote this post I have started working on attention and walking nicely on lead with Clara as well.

  10. Hi Eileen! First, thank you so much for your inspiring articles! I love your blog!
    This blog post in particular has opened my eyes. But now I’m not sure to what extent it applies to my situation. Maybe you can help me out here.
    I’ve started to counter-condition my 5-month old puppy Yuki to the sight of dogs and to dog barking. She is scared of them and barks in our apartment when she hears a dog outside. I was very motivated at first, and it even seems to work with dogs, but during the past week she’s become more and more fearful of SO many different things, not just dogs. It becomes worse when it gets dark outside. We leave the house and she’ll growl at rustling bushes, at people far away who seem to look spooky to her … Often she just stares into the darkness just opposite our front door and starts growling. She won’t take her favorite treats in those moments. I know that means she’s over threshold, but I can’t figure out what it is she’s scared of so I don’t know how to use desensitation. That’s the one thing. But most of the time, when we start our walks (provided it’s during daylight), she seems just fine, very curious, and very focused on me when I have treats. She doesn’t seem to be fearful at all and does a great job walking on a loose leash next to me while I click and treat her continuously for that. I let her sniff around, too, and she comes back to me quickly because I have the delicious treats. But sooner or later, we often (not always) encounter something that scares her or makes her very nervous and reactive, be it another dog, or just distant barking, or (that’s new) even a lady approaching us with a huge bunch of flowers bobbing up and down (she got extremely scared of those flowers). But it’s weird, on some days she’s doing just fine, no fearful episode at all, and on other days, the entire walks are just stressful and chaotic. Now I’m not sure if your article applies to my situation as well – should I put the leash training aside first and focus on her checking out everything, and on DS/CC? Or am I good to train her not to pull, i.e. to stop when she pulls (at least in situations where she’s not scared but just being too fast)? Another thing that you mentioned is that the treats should be reserved for the CC, so only after the trigger. But right now it’s really important for us that I also reward her heavily whenever she refocuses on me after a distraction. I’ve been training a default “Look at me”, so without a verbal cue, but with the distractions as the trigger/cue for looking at me. She’s already getting that and I really don’t want to stop giving her treats for that behavior. So she gets lots and lots of treats on walks just for looking at me while walking. Do you think I should use 2 different treats? The highest value ones just for the CC? Sorry for the outburst of thoughts and questions. I hope this is not too overwhelming. Anyway, thank you so much for sharing your blog with the world, it’s so refreshing and inspiring. I’ve learned a lot from it.

    1. Hi Yamuna,

      My apologies for not answering sooner! You are asking great questions, and most them are above my level of expertise.

      First, I have carried two levels of treats before. I need to say that I don’t think this has been scientifically tested as effective, but it appears to go along with what we know of the science–that it helps to have something very novel and attractive and use it exclusively for the CC.

      That is a tough situation that you need to teach loose leash but still have unexpected times when she goes over threshold. You sound like an experienced trainer but if there is anyone trustworthy around you, you might want to get another pair of eyes on these situations. The nighttime thing is rather troubling.

      I’m sorry I don’t have better answers. If you aren’t in them already, I would advise to join the Reactive Dogs Facebook group and view and/or join the Fearful Dogs group (it’s public to view, but there is a webinar requirement if you want to join and post). There are some really good pros in those groups.

      1. Hi Eileen,
        thank you for your answer! No, I am far from being an experienced trainer – Yuki is my first dog and I’ve had her for only 3 months, hehe. But since I spent the past six months reading and reading training advice and watching R+ videos on youtube, I feel like I’ve taken in so much knowledge that it is pretty overwhelming at this point. Every time I read something which makes a lot of sense to me (which happens a lot on your blog), I get so excited and I think: Yay, this is the solution to our problem! And then on our next walk, reality kicks in and I see that actually doing things with your dog in real life is so much harder than just reading about it.

        I am now at a point where my dog gets so anxious and is stressed out so often, even getting extreme itches and diarrhea as a result, that I think I should consult with a professional trainer here in Germany.

        Thank you for your advice about the Facebook groups! And thank you again for your enlightening articles, your way of writing is so motivating and I can absolutely identify. Thanks!

        1. Thank you for the kind words! I know what it’s like to get all that overwhelming information. It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. I also know what it’s like to read about something and think–yay, that’ll work–and then real life hits. That still happens to me ALL the time. A professional trainer is always a good idea if you can get one who is positive reinforcement based. Here is a link from the Pet Professional Guild where you can ask to be put in touch with a trainer. (There are six listed in Germany.) http://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Behavior-Hot-Line

          Take care and let me know what happens!

          1. Thank you! Unfortunately there is no listed trainer in Leipzig, where I live, but I’m sure I can find a positive reinforcement trainer with some research 🙂 I will keep you posted!

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