Please Don't Make This Dog Training Mistake

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog pulling on a leash

Story at-a-glance -

  • From 2004 to 2017, fracture injuries linked to walking a leashed dog rose 163%, from 1,671 to 4,396 cases
  • About half of the fracture injuries occurred in the upper body, including the wrist, upper arm, finger and shoulder
  • The study involved people aged 65 years and older, and found the most common injury linked to dog walking overall was hip fracture; most of the injuries occurred in women
  • The No. 1 problem faced by dog walkers is dogs who pull on the leash; this is natural for untrained dogs and you’re likely contributing to the problem by pulling back or keeping a tight line
  • Training your dog to keep a loose leash while walking can help avoid injuries for both you and your dog, and training should begin the first time you use a leash with your pup

Walking your dog is an excellent way to stay in shape, both for you and your dog, but there are some inherent risks involved, particularly if you’re older or frail. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed data related to fracture risk in older adults who use leashes when walking dogs, revealing some surprising results about the occurrence of injuries.1

From 2004 to 2017, fracture injuries linked to walking a leashed dog rose 163%, from 1,671 to 4,396 cases. About half of the fracture injuries occurred in the upper body, including the wrist, upper arm, finger and shoulder. The study involved people aged 65 years and older, and found the most common injury linked to dog walking overall was hip fracture — a concerning finding since hip fractures among seniors are deadly about 30% of the time.2

"This study highlights that while there are undoubtedly pros to dog walking, patients' risks for falls must be factored into lifestyle recommendations in an effort to minimize such injuries,” study author Kevin Pirruccio with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania said in a news release.3

Why Dog Walking Can Cause Injuries

Falls can occur during any type of walk, but walking a dog may become particularly problematic if the dog isn’t well-behaved while on a leash. A dog with poor leash skills or walking etiquette isn’t a bad dog, it’s a reflection of the training competency of the trainer/owner/handler. Leash pulling, while somewhat natural for dogs, is dangerous both for you and your dog, especially if he’s a large breed.

A dog pulling on a leash that’s attached to a collar (as opposed to a harness) is at risk of laryngeal paralysis and neck and back injury. For dog walkers, there is a chance that the dog could pull you over or injure the hand or arm that you’re holding onto the leash with. In the University of Pennsylvania study, 78% of the related fractures occurred in women.

To temper these risks, regular exercise, including strength training and balance work, maintaining a healthy body weight and optimizing vitamin D intake are all important for dog owners, however training your dog to walk properly on a leash from day one is also essential.

“I would stress the importance of obedience training and making sure that the dog is taught not to lunge while on a leash,” Pirruccio told NBC News. “Lastly, if they had not yet decided on a particular dog breed, I may suggest a smaller or more easily trainable dog as a pet.”4 In my opinion, trainability is more a reflection of a pet owner’s commitment, approach and consistency rather than breed, but certainly smaller animals have a harder time pulling humans uncontrollably than larger ones.

How to Stop Problem Pullers

The No. 1 problem faced by dog walkers is dogs who pull on the leash. This is natural for your dog and you’re likely contributing to the problem by pulling back or keeping a tight line. Louisville dog trainer Tyler Ohlmann told NBC News the key is to keep a loose leash, and he couldn’t be more right:5

“Most people walk a dog wrong. People think you need to hold the dog in place [so they] pull on the leash to hold the dog. That triggers opposition reflex, and the dog pushes forward. … [and] they walk.

As long as the dog is pushing they get to do stuff, they get to explore, and dogs do what works … so [pulling] becomes the price they pay to go somewhere. You're literally teaching a dog to pull, which is probably a number one reason a dog is walking poorly to begin with.”

To train your dog to walk calmly while leashed, the goal is to create slack. Your instinct may be to hold the leash taught, but remind yourself to keep slack in the line and try teaching your dog to keep a loose leash via the following steps. In addition, use a harness for your dog instead of a collar, especially if he’s prone to pulling.

1. Allow him to walk around dragging the leash for a bit, then pick up the opposite end. Let him lead you for a few seconds while you hold the line just off the ground. Slow down so he's forced to slow down, ultimately to a stop. Take a short break for praise and affection.

2. Next, let him trail the line again, but when you pick up your end this time, call him and stand still. If he pulls, hold your ground without pulling him in your direction. The goal is to teach him to put slack in the line himself by moving toward you. When he puts slack in the line, praise him and call him to you.

3. If he comes all the way to you, more praise and a training treat are in order. If he stops on his way to you, tighten the line just enough to apply a tiny bit of pull to it. Immediately call him to come again. Give praise as he moves toward you and treats when he comes all the way back. Two or three repetitions are all many dogs need to understand lack of tension in the line is what earns praise and treats.

4. When your dog has learned to come toward you to relieve tension on the line, you can begin backing up as he's coming toward you to keep him moving.

5. Next, turn and walk forward so he's following you. If he passes you, head in another direction so he's again behind you. The goal is to teach him to follow on a loose lead.

Be sure you’re using a regular leash, as well — not a retractable one. Retractable leashes are notorious for causing injuries, as it’s easy to get tangled in the cord, leading to burns, cuts or even amputation. If your dog starts running on the retractable leash, he could also easily pull you off of your feet once he reaches the end, not to mention that the handle may fly out of your hand and the dog could run away. Plus, retractable leashes encourage your dog to pull, which is the opposite of what you want.

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There Are Many Benefits to Walking Your Dog

If you’re older, don’t let the potential for injury keep you from enjoying regular strolls with your dog. As Pirruccio said, “Our study is not meant to discourage seniors from walking their dogs. … I would absolutely encourage a [senior] looking to bring a canine companion into their home to do so, recognizing the joys that dogs bring.”6

In fact, dog walking is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, hypertension and depression, even after accounting for levels of moderate to high physical activity.7 An International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study also reported relaxation and stress-relieving benefits, even above those gained from a regular, non-dog walk, so be sure to get out with your dog daily.

If you find that your dog isn’t responding to your attempts for a loose-leash walk, enlisting the help of a professional dog trainer may be in order. As a last case scenario, if you feel you cannot safely walk your dog on your own, hire a professional dog walker to help.