By Tim Falk
Published: 02/24/2021, edited: 10/25/2022
If you’re trying to teach your dog the right way to walk on a leash, you might have come across the term “opposition reflex”. This is a fancy-sounding term that’s often thrown around to describe dogs that always pull on the leash.
You know the dogs we mean — when you’ve finished walking them, you’re stressed, cranky, and usually have a sore shoulder.
But what is a dog’s opposition reflex, why does it occur, and what can you do to stop it from affecting your training? Keep reading to find out.
Opposition reflex refers to your pet’s instinctive reaction to any physical pressure. Pull your dog towards you and they’ll automatically pull in the opposite direction; try to push them away and they’ll automatically push back against you.
While this is technically not a reflex, the origins of the term can be traced back to Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov (yep, the same man responsible for the famous classical condition experiments), who named it the “freedom reflex”.
It’s quite simply a dog’s natural reaction and is thought to be linked to their “fight, freeze, or flight” instincts. So if you try to pull your dog one way on a lead, don’t be surprised if their knee-jerk response is to pull back. They’re not being stubborn, deliberately naughty, or trying to establish dominance over you — they’re just doing what comes naturally.
Pulling on the leash is the most obvious example of opposition reflex in action. But this reflex is far from the only reason your pup’s leash manners leave a little to be desired. For example, if pulling helps your dog get whatever they want, such as a pat from that friendly-looking person sitting in the park while you walk past, this will only reinforce the behavior in their mind as a way to get results.
It’s also a good idea to put yourself in your dog’s shoes for a minute: "That funny-looking pile of stuff over there on the ground smells amazing! Why is my human stopping me from getting to it? It just doesn’t make any sense!" Using their nose to explore the world is simply part and parcel of being a dog, but it’s something we humans can forget about if we’re in a bit of a hurry.
Of course, there are plenty of other scenarios when your dog’s opposition reflex comes to the fore. Trying to pull them into the bath? Expect plenty of pull-back. Trying to apply gentle pressure to teach your dog to go into the “down” position? You’ll be met with plenty of resistance.
The good news is that while opposition reflex can cause plenty of stress for pet parents, it’s also a problem that’s easy to overcome. Once you know what causes your dog to respond this way, you can start finding effective ways to work around the reflex.
The first thing to remember is that responding to your pup’s pulling with more pulling isn’t going to solve anything. It’s also worth pointing out that harsh or cruel training devices, such as choke collars and prong collars, are not necessary and will only do more harm than good.
Instead, you’ll need to work on ways to train your dog the polite way to walk on a leash (more on this in a minute). And instead of using muscle power to get your dog to do what you want them to do, use treats, praise, and other forms of positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors. If your pup is a reluctant bather, for example, give them tasty treats and a whole lot of cuddle time when you want to coax them into a bath.
If your dog is a problem puller when you’re out walking, you’ll need to look past their opposition reflex if you’re going to find a way to solve the issue.
There are a few different ways to stop your dog pulling. The main focus is on teaching your dog that pulling won’t lead to a reward, but that walking politely by your side will.
One common method is quite simply to stop on the spot when your dog starts pulling on their lead. Once your dog stops and returns to your side, reward them and start walking again. Over time, they’ll gradually start to learn that walking on a loose leash will let them get where they want to go — but you’ll need to stay patient while they learn this lesson.
Another option is to stop and then walk in the other direction, so that not only will your dog not get to where they want to go, they’ll actually get further away.
You can also work on obedience training to teach your dog to “heel”. This can be a lengthy process, and one you’ll need to start in a quiet environment like your yard before moving on to a space where there are lots of distractions.
Another worthwhile piece of advice is to say goodbye to retractable leashes. These simply encourage your dog to pull, so it’s best to avoid them at all costs.
Finally, it’s also important that you give your dog a chance to stop and smell the roses while you’re out for a walk. Your dog’s sense of smell is amazingly powerful, and they can use it to learn so much about the world around them. So if your dog wants to spend a few extra seconds sniffing that lamp post, let them — this will make your dog walk a whole lot more mentally stimulating for your dog, and the walk will be a much more enjoyable experience for both of you.
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