How to Train a German Shepherd to Not Pull on a Leash

Medium
1-6 Months
General

Introduction

The American Kennel Club describes German Shepherds as the "true dog lover's dog". Known for their intelligence, loyalty, and heroics, it's no secret as to why they're the top choice for K9 units across the country. But this coveted breed is also known for its ability to be an outstanding family pet, a gentle giant that can play with the kids in the backyard but also ward off unwanted guests, keeping your property safe from intrusion. 

However, like any breed, German Shepherds can develop the bad habit of pulling while on leashed walks. While this trait is annoying and frustrating for the dog owner, it can also be hindering to a dog's journey to becoming a well-behaved, obedient companion. 

Defining Tasks

Much like any training process, it's up to the teacher and the student just how difficult it will be and how long it can take to master. If you've owned your dog for awhile and have begun teaching the basics ('sit', 'stay', ect.), helping your pet learn to not pull on a leash will be slightly easier. 

Dogs pull on their leashes because they're anxious to get to something that interests them--a squirrel, a person, another dog. Often, dogs will become frustrated or even more anxious when they find that the leash is restraining them and keeping them from moving freely. It wouldn't be a welcomed feeling for any of us, but especially for an animal that's driven by its hyperactive senses. 

German Shepherds, if they have gained the habit of pulling, may be especially difficult to teach once they're full grown. As a large breed, we may feel they could easily topple us over if they pulled hard enough. That's why this task is best taught at an early age, but, of course, doesn't mean a fully-grown Shepherd couldn't learn, it would just require some strong, secure footing. 

This task is all about teaching your German Shep restraint and obedience. These qualities are first introduced to them with the following commands:

'Sit'

Sit is one of the first tasks dogs will learn. It will come in handy with a leash-puller as it requests that they regain composure and sit instead of attempting to run or jump at something out of their reach. 

'Come here!' or 'This way!'

These are simple commands that many of us will automatically say to our walking companion to lead them in our desired direction. Repeat these if you choose to change directions. Repeating words helps your pet to recognize and follow them, making you the alpha dog.

Getting Started

Training a German Shepherd can be easy enough as their a breed renowned for not only intelligence but also a desire to please. As always, patience and a little faith in the process are requested. These help you go from dog owner to dog trainer. You'll begin to realize that because every walk is different (the weather may be clear and sunny or windy and rainy, there may be more people in the park on a Saturday afternoon than a Monday morning) your Shep's progress will fluctuant accordingly. 

Try not to become discouraged if your pet does excellent one day, not pulling at all and minding your every request, but seems to forget everything they ever learned the next. We can't see into our dogs' minds; there are a million factors that could be causing them to act up. You have to trust that these aren't setbacks as much as they are coincidences. 

That being said, some may vouch for choking or shocking collars. These are neither necessary or humane, and what's more, you'll find they won't bring the desired outcome. An animal that's given the right amount of attention and effort will learn. However, you may choose to invest in a vest or chest harness that attaches around the chest instead of the neck; these are recommended to any dog owner but may be especially useful to owners of larger breeds, such as a German Shepherd. No fancy gadgets are required for this training guide and a lot of these you should already own:

  • A trusted collar and leash 
  • Treats
  • Clicker or whistle (if desired)

The Passive Method

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Step
1
Choose the route
Ahead of time, consider where you plan to walk. A place that your dog visited before is best. Choosing somewhere new may set you both up for failure. The intention of the walk is to teach restraint, eventually alleviating their tugging, and choosing somewhere new will only excite your dog more. Especially with German Shepherds, who have both a nose similar to a hound and that quintessential desire to chase and herd that all Shepherds have--- new sights and smells may be too overwhelmingly distracting for them and just end up frustrating both dog and owner. You'll want a place that you frequent, possibly away from a busy street and with an openness that'll allow for uninterrupted walking.
Step
2
Set the tone
Before going for the walk, have your dog calmly sit for you while you put on or adjust their collar or leash. Speak to them in a relaxed tone. This helps "set the tone" for the kind of walk you're going to have as well as shows them they won't be rewarded with a walk without exercising a little cool collective of their own.
Step
3
Be the leader
Many dogs will naturally walk in front of their owner, inexplicably leading the walk. 'The Passive Method' will illustrate to your Shep that you're actually the one in control of where and how you both enjoy the walk. During the walk, if your companion begins to pull, do not pull back on the leash, but simply stop moving, widen the space between your feet if you need to be more firmly planted. Stay this way for as long as it takes for the dog to eventually realize they can't go any further, no matter how much they want to meet that cute poodle on the other side of the street.
Step
4
Reward their attention
After a few frustrating moments of straining against their leash, your pet should realize, with a bit of whining, that they can't move any further without you moving with them. This is when they'll excitedly turn to you, coming up to your side, panting, begging to go. Every time they come to you, reward them with a "Yes!" or "Good boy!", if you're impressed with their restraint, you can even give them a treat.
Step
5
Be consistent
After consistently practicing this, your canine friend will come to gradually stop pulling on their leash. Why? Because they know, it does the opposite of what they want. At this juncture you may even opt to reward your dog by moving in the direction they had intended, after you gain their attention and mild composure.
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The Zig-Zag Method

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Step
1
Teach your pup to sit
If you already have this task under your belt, move on to step two! The 'sit' command is an important basic skill that teaches a dog to listen and follow through with what you request of them. 'Sit' requires some gentle guiding from your hand, treats, and an attentive pet. Depending on the age and height of your German Shepherd, this trick is best taught sitting down for a puppy or smaller German Shep mix or standing up for full grown dog or larger puppy. Show your Shep you have an enticing treat and let them get a taste of how delicious and rewarding it is. Then say "Sit!" and gently guide their bottom to the ground. Most dogs will sit just to resist the pressure of your hand. Once in the sitting position, reward them with both words of encouragement and a treat. Next, walk or run around the room to keep them interested and to get them up from the seated position. Then repeat the "sit" command and rewarding desired behavior.
Step
2
Find an open, obstacle-free space
This could be indoors or outdoors, with indoors being a great beginner's start as there are little to no distractions, and outdoors may be a starting point if you feel confident in your connection with your pup already. If your home is relatively large, clear a space by moving furniture to the side or against walls, creating a kind of dance floor area. Another great space would be your backyard, if you have one, and if it's at least 400 sq. feet. The objective is a training place that is large and open enough to walk your dog in a exaggerated zig-zag pattern.
Step
3
You make the rules
Once your gentle giant is leashed and you're armed with a bag of treats, begin walking in a pattern that you're determining. Walk in one direction for a number of steps and then just as your student feels comfortable, change direction, saying "This way!" or "Come on!". If they follow without resistance, shower them with words of affirmation so they know what a good boy or girl they are.
Step
4
They make the rules
Another game you can play that will help your pet learn not to pull is to allow them to lead your walk, only to catch them in "teachable moments". Teachable moments will happen when your dog begins to lunge in the direction of a passerby or at your house cat. Whatever the distraction may be, begin instantly walking them in the opposite direction, no matter their opposition. While walking an open field or space, continue to move in another direction when they tug . Eventually this will create a large zig-zag grid, if done properly.
Step
5
Teach obedience
After practicing steps three and four throughout a week or two, you may notice your German Shepherd putting two and two together. What you've been teaching with the steps so far is that following you while on walks is fun and exciting, and tugging while leashed results in them being taken away from the item they're desperately trying to get. Now the key is to take these lessons learned and add some structure to it. Next time you practice the 'Zig-Zag Method', have your dog sit and give their attention to you every time they willingly follow you away from their direction or away from a distraction that's causing them to pull. If they're able to calmly sit and give you even a second of their attention despite the fact that there's a ball less than two feet away from them, reward them with a treat.
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The Leash Reactive Method

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Step
1
Learn about reactivity in dogs
"Leash reactive" is a common term used in the dog training community to explain simply in just two words that the animal in question is likely to "misbehave" while on a leash. Only, dogs aren't so much misbehaving when they lunge and/or bark at other dogs, people, or cars (all common stimuli for dogs) as much as they're communicating an emotion. Typically this emotion is fear (of the stimuli), excitement (from the stimuli), or frustration. Frustration is the result of fear or excitement with the dog realizing that their leash is keeping them from running away or running to something. If your German Shepherd is leash reactive, they're not a bad dog. They're simply expressing any one of these emotions. Luckily for us, however, we can effectively teach a leash reactive canine that these behaviors aren't necessary or rewarding.
Step
2
Reward attentiveness
The most important quality for a student to have is attentiveness. Together you can play a simple game that's designed to be both fun and effective for your furry student. In a low-key, familiar environment, call your dog's name. If they readily greet you, reward them. Move about the room or enclosed yard, doing this up to 10 to 20 repetitions. You may even try hiding to make the game more enthralling for that tail-wagger of yours. This is showing your pet that, no matter what, when their name is called if they come to you, they'll be rewarded--a great lesson to learn for a leash reactive dog.
Step
3
Be alert during walks
Treat every walk as a training session. Always have treats on hand and always be alert. You should see another dog or person (or whatever it is your Shep tends to lunge at) before they do. Take advantage of them not knowing it yet and get them to calmly sit for you, feed them treats while you both witness the stimuli go out of sight or pass you by. This is an important step, because you put yourself in the situation to reward the actual behavior you're wanting in the animal, instead of setting them up for failure by allowing them to be startled by the stimuli, react by pulling on their leash, and then not being able to reward them for any desired behavior. Eventually, with enough practice of this step, your dog will come to associate not pulling on his leash and keeping calm in the presence of whatever causes them to react with positivity.
Step
4
Learn your shepherd's "safe space"
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to personal space. While some may not mind someone they barely know hugging them, others may find this socially awkward or uncomfortable. Dogs are no different from us, and they all have their own unique personalities. It's your job to observe your German Shepherd to determine what their comfortable social distance is. If you aren't able to gain the attention or get them to calm down and sit for you in the presence of their stimuli, then take a few steps back and try again. Again, if they are still pulling or even looking in the direction of what they're trying to get to, add more distance. Get to where you can have the full attention and obedience of your dog before continuing the walk.
Step
5
Respect your dog and others
A leash-reactive dog can be dangerous to itself as well to others. When they feel restrained and trapped (caused by being on leash) and can't flee a dog or person that frightens them, they will turn to aggression. While your Shepherd is learning to not pull on his leash, try to avoid other dogs and people while walking. If you're in a situation where you're walking down a path or sidewalk, head-on, towards another person or dog, then find a place you and your pet can retreat from the path. Here, at a distance, continuously feed him or her treats while the stimuli walks by. Eventually, your pet will stop lunging at others, effectively attempting to pull your arm out of its socket and you can enjoy long walks together without any set-backs.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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