Not all dogs love to go on walks, especially if they’re out in the big, scary, and loud world for the first time. One minute, you and your dog could be getting down the street just fine, and the next minute your dog could be fleeing towards home and pulling on the leash for dear life. No matter how much you might try to push forward, your dog will dig its paws in and pull for home. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Crowded neighborhoods and heavy street traffic do not make for the most assuring and calming training grounds for dogs learning to take their first steps. Instead of fighting your dog every time you go out, try understanding where your dog is coming from, and work from there. Here are some reasons that your dog might be pulling to get home.
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The Root of the Behavior
Home is where the heart is. For dogs, it’s also the only truly safe and secure place for them to be. It doesn’t take long for a young puppy to begin to create positive associations with a home environment. It is where you are, for starters, and it is also where they learn to play, rest, and eat. All of these happy feelings can change suddenly when your puppy goes on a walk for the first time. Everything in the outside world is loud, big, fast, scary, and dangerous. If your dog was raised indoors, it may not immediately get used to all of the new smells, new people, new animals, passing cars, honking horns, sirens, blaring music, and neighborhood stimuli that is regularly encountered on a walk. Some of these things might even stress you out, so imagine how your dog must feel!
When your dog gets truly scared, it goes into the same fight-or-flight mode that you do. This is a built-in survival response that all creatures have when they feel seriously threatened. The fear isn’t rational, oftentimes, but it is paralyzing nonetheless. It may be difficult at first to identify what is causing your dog to panic, but the result will be that your dog pulls against the leash and does everything that it can to escape the threat. Since home is the only place that your dog feels truly comfortable, your dog will most likely point towards home while pulling with all its might. If you are confused by this behavior, you might try to urge your dog forward, but this can often lead to mixed results.
It can be difficult to overcome this behavior, because every instinctual reaction on your part will tend to reinforce the behavior. For example, breaking out a treat and offering it as incentive to keep the walk going inadvertently teaches your dog that pulling against the leash leads to a reward. Pulling your dog past the stressor also reinforces the behavior. Your dog won’t realize that you were the one leading your dog out of danger. Rather, it will identify the act of fleeing—pulling on the leash—with escaping the threat. Of course, allowing yourself to be pulled back home is the ultimate reward for your dog, although usually the opposite for you.
Encouraging the Behavior
After some time of dealing with a dog that pulls towards home in a panic, you might start to get nervous or frustrated, wondering if you will ever be able to take your dog out on a walk. Ironically, your attitude towards your dog is one of the primary factors in how well it will get along in an unfamiliar environment. If you are stressed out or uncomfortable around passing strangers, your dog will pick up on your cues and have a similar response. Many trainers recommend taking a family member or two along for a few walks to see if they notice anything going on with you during the walks which might be contributing to your dog’s fears.
Of course, your dog’s fears are also unique to his personality and character. Like any fear, becoming familiar with the trigger and learning to have an appropriate response is the only way to truly combat fearfulness. Behavioral trainers teach various techniques to desensitize dogs to their stressors and condition a healthy response. By gently exposing your dog to his triggers, you allow him to explore the threat at his own pace, and from there you can focus on rewarding your dog for having positive, non-fearful reactions. Furthermore, praising every small accomplishment and boosting confidence overall is an important part of overcoming fearfulness. Encourage your dog to explore new things and in time, your dog will learn how to engage with the outside world.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Many dogs pull on their leashes and for various reasons either pull forward or pull backward and refuse to go forward. These reasons include excitement, frustration, having a strong reaction to something, or tiredness. In most cases, when a dog pulls for home, the reason is fear. If your dog stops responding to you, treats, or any incentive to move forward, your dog is most likely paralyzed in sheer terror. Watch for signs of increased breathing and blood flow, as well as signs of straining or shaking. If you use a standard buckle collar, be aware that the act of pulling could be contributing to your dog’s anxiety, constricting blood flow and potentially choking your dog. Needless to say, choke collars are never a good solution for an immobilized dog. Do your best to identify the root of the issue and address it accordingly through desensitizing and encouraging your dog to have a positive response to its stressors.
Everyone wants to enjoy a nice morning or evening walk with their dog. It is a good form of exercise, not to mention incredibly relaxing and stress-relieving. Just make sure that your dog feels the same way about it. If it seems at first like your dog is having a hard time, you can work with him until the two of you are power-walking up hills and jogging away from home comfortably.