The Leash Pulling Dilemma: Why Keep Slack in your Leash?
If you take a moment to study the photo above, you may notice a few subtle details. Four out of the five dogs have tension in their leashes. Also, every dog that has tension in their leash is standing still, yet they continue to brace against that tension. The dog in front is leaning forward, and so is the dog to the left. The Boxer is leaning outward away from the tension, and so is the red pup. But the Malinois on the far right has slack in the leash. That dog is not leaning. He/she only has a leg propped up on the rocks. "No big deal" you might think. "Some of the dogs are pulling, so of course they are leaning into it." But there is more to it.
In these scenarios, we tend to place full responsibility on the dogs for pulling. But it is not just the dogs who are driving against the tension. It is the handler at the other end of the leash who shares much of the responsibility.
Leash tension elicits what's called an "oppositional reflex." This is an involuntary reflex on the part of the dog that resists your pulling. They can't help it, and they can't stop doing it until you relax your end of leash first.
Why does pulling occur?
There are several reasons why dogs pull against you. One common reason is that you are pulling against them! A taut leash encourages -- or trains -- your dog to pull. Leash tension elicits what's called an "oppositional reflex." This is an involuntary reflex on the part of the dog that resists your pulling. They can't help it, and they can't stop doing it until you relax your end of the leash first.
The theory here is that leash tension upsets their equilibrium and, therefore, causes them to brace against it. We humans tend to do the same thing if someone pushes against us. We naturally brace against anything that pushes us.
Here's how it usually goes down: Your dog pulls against the leash, you pull back harder, then so do they, and round and round it goes. You quickly enter into a positive (self-reinforcing) feedback loop of pulling. To make things worse, you might even give ground as they pull, rather than make a stand. This further reinforces the behavior of pulling as your dog makes to their intended goal.
Try this experiment: put a leash on your dog while inside your home. Gently, but steadily put tension into the leash. Now hold that tension. See how your dog responds. Your dog will likely brace against the leash. Now quickly drop a lot of slack back into the leash.
What is wrong with leash tension?
Pulling the leash removes from your dog feelings of "perceived control" over a situation. They feel trapped by the tension, which can encourage aggressive behavior. This type of leash-based aggression is commonly called leash reactivity. When perceived control over situations are lost (flight), the only reasonable choice in the dog's mind is to engage in fight behavior. This is why dogs are not allowed to have leashes attached within the dog park.
You might be interested to know that employing steady tension in the leash is a training technique used by police and military K-9 handlers around the world to train their dogs to become more aggressive. For them, this oppositional behavior is desirable for working.
Self-control is developed by allowing dogs the freedom to make choices, but not allowing them freedom from the consequences of those choices.
Another reason to avoid leash tension is that holding the leash tightly does not teach them how to control themselves. Instead, you are controlling them. But do we really want to control them? Not necessarily. Instead, we want them to learn to how control themselves. Self-control is developed by allowing dogs the freedom to make choices, but not allowing them freedom from the consequences of those choices. So, even though your brain says to you "hold on for dear life," let the leash loose. Slack in the leash is far more important than a perfect heel.
If you need help your dog's pulling, please reach out for assistance.
Aaron McDonald is a canine behaviorist, author of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, and President of Three Dimensional Dog, a canine behavior consultancy firm located in Birmingham, AL. Three Dimensional Dog behaviorists offer private, in-home canine behavior and "parent training" services for the Greater Birmingham area. They can be reached at 205-563-8383 or visit www.ThreeDimensionalDog.com.