Trouble with Walking?

Common challenges on dog walks.

“You want the dog to learn that when the leash is loose we move, not before.”

I’m going to start this post off with just a few key words: patience, contact, and distance.

What’s so special about patience, contact, and distance?

They are your keys to addressing many of the issues that dogs and owners might have on walks. I’ll spend a little bit more time on those topics a little later in this post, but first, the basics.

Before trying to address potential behaviour problems on walks, make sure you have the basics of dog walking covered – if you have not yet read the “Walk this way” post, go read that first and come back to this post afterwards.

Pulling on the leash is one of the main issues owners have with their dogs on walks, and the pulling might occur at both ends of the leash (even though you might feel that it is only ever the dog who pulls); both dogs and owners pull on the leash to demonstrate that they want to go in a certain direction when the other party might not be so forthcoming with moving in said direction.

First, it’s important to know that dogs will naturally pull against pressure rather than give in to it. I’m sure many a dog owner has noticed that as soon as you try pulling your dog in a particular direction the dog will lean his body in exactly the opposite direction, not necessarily because the dog wants to go in the opposite direction, but because it’s a reflex reaction to the pressure the owner is putting on the lead.

Second, dogs learn by association and by accumulated experiences, so if your dog pulls and you always follow wherever he/she pulls, the dog will learn that by pulling he/she will get to go wherever he/she wants.

This is the first place where patience comes in. When your dog pulls, stop. Stop for just long enough that you feel the leash become loose, then continue. Note that you do not need to have your dog sit, or come to you, or even change direction, just wait for him/her to stop pulling so the leash loosens. Once the leash is loose you can continue. If the dog pulls again, repeat the above. You want the dog to learn that when the leash is loose we move, not before. And remember that your dog does not need to walk at heel; if you’re using a long leash, as recommended, pulling on the leash should not be an issue as often since your dog has more freedom to walk and explore at their own pace, and while they’re busy sniffing you have a chance to catch up to your dog.

“The ability to get contact with your dog is vital to preventing problem behaviour and ensuring their safety.”

Getting the dog to stop pulling is one thing, but we must also get the owner to stop pulling. One very easy way to do this is to not always impose your preferred routes on the dog. Whenever possible, allow the dog to pick the route of the walk; this will not only help increase their confidence by showing them that they can make decisions and have influence over certain activities , but it will also allow them to follow their instincts. Dogs follow their noses, and variety on walks is wonderful – it’s good for dogs to encounter new environments, smells, and experiences, so if your dog shows interest in going in a slightly different direction to normal, indulge him/her and see where it takes you.

Another way to indicate your desire in moving in a particular direction apart from just pulling your dog there is to teach him/her a “contact sound”, use clear body language, and praise your dog when he/she follows your lead.

Contact Sound

Let’s clarify what is meant by “contact” here; contact in this post is not referring to physical contact or even eye contact, it is referring to attention. When you have contact with your dog, you have their attention and the lines of communication with your dog are open. The ability to get contact with your dog is vital to preventing unwanted or problem behaviour, but is also an invaluable tool for ensuring their safety, and it requires two things; a trigger, and timing.

The trigger is a sound, a so-called “contact sound”, which you should train your dog to recognise and respond to (see an example of how you could do this in the video at the end of this post). The sound should be a neutral sound or word, but ideally not the dog’s name, e.g. a click of the tongue, or “yep”. The response to this sound needs to be attention – the dog does not need to stop or sit or give eye contact in response to the contact sound, they simply need to pay you some attention, for example, by looking in your direction.

Once you have this attention be quick and be clear with your instructions and body language. For example, when you notice that you are approaching another dog, which could result in unwanted behaviour from your dog, make the contact sound, once your dog looks your way say “come” in a happy and relaxed tone, and clearly turn your body in the direction you want to go, perhaps even moving your arm to indicate a change of direction. And remember to reward your dog for responding to your cues! By getting your dog to give you attention enables you to change direction when needed in order to create distance between your dog and a possible problem scenario. If your dog is a little bit reluctant to move in the new direction you could try scattering a Hansel & Gretel type trail of dog treats behind you – this would be a positive way of getting your dog to follow you but would also encourage sniffing, lowering the dog’s heart rate, and since sniffing is also a calming signal it may encourage other dogs nearby to also calm down a little too…win, win, win.


Distance plays a major role in any desensitization, rehabilitation, or behaviour modification training in dogs. As mentioned earlier in this post, dogs learn by accumulated experiences, so the more they react a certain way to a stimulus the more they reinforce that behaviour and that reaction for the future; some reactions can become somewhat of a reflex, where the reaction occurs without much thought or reason.

Distance will allow your dog to learn a new reaction to a stimulus. The distance from the stimulus has to be far enough so that your dog feels comfortable to observe without reacting – how far this is exactly will depend on the dog and the situation, and it may take you a few tries to figure out the right distance, but once you find it that’s your starting point. Then, in future, whenever you notice that the particular situation or stimulus which causes your dog to react on walks may occur, immediately attempt to create sufficient distance: contact sound, change direction, praise and treat. Allow your dog to observe the situation, and if he/she is calm and does not exhibit the problem behaviour, praise and treat and then continue on your way.

Over time you should be able to decrease the distance needed, and your dog should learn that he/she doesn’t need to stress about it, he can remain calm, observe from the sidelines, and perhaps there might even be some treats in store for him/her.

“The pillars in your training should be distance, patience, and contact

There could be many things at the root of problem behaviour in dogs, on walks or otherwise, but two of the most common are fear and insecurity. When a dog does not feel safe or secure he/she is likely to react with freezing, barking, growling, and the use of other distance increasing signals (read more about those here), which we owners in turn often view as annoyances and problems. There are of course also those dogs who are just so sociable and so eager to meet other fellow dogs that they stop to wait for their canine friends to approach, they might pull to try and get closer for a meeting or a bit of play, and if pulling doesn’t get them as close as they would like they might start barking and whining out of frustration. Regardless of the cause, the issues are the same; freezing, pulling, barking, lunging, whining, etc.

To address these issues you’ll need to understand the root cause. There could be many causes for a dog to feel unsafe on a walk, perhaps a lack of socialization, previous bad experiences meeting other dogs or people on walks, a lack of trust or confidence in the dog-walker, or perhaps a sudden change in habit, such as when owners allow and encourage their dogs to meet anyone and everyone as puppies, but as those puppies grow to be bigger, stronger, more confident adolsecent and adult dogs the owner might no longer feel as comfortable allowing these frequent meetings – in this scenario the dog would not understand why he/she would have been allowed to meet others on walks before but not anymore, leading to frustration, pulling, barking, etc.

Whatever the root cause, the pillars in your training should be distance (allow enough distance where your dog feels comfortable enough to not exhibit the problem behaviour), patience (slowly and gradually decrease this distance at your dog’s pace, and never so much that the behaviour occurs), contact (keep the lines of attention and communication between you and your dog open so that you can notice and react to potential issues in good time). If you can manage that, you’ll make strides towards problem-free dog walks.

If You Liked This, You Might Also Like…

join The Newsletter

Sign up for the newsletter below and be among the first to receive news and updates!