Your Dog’s Leash – Is it a Steering Wheel or a Communication Tool?

I see it all the time. I bet you do too.

The dog wants to sniff something. His person wants to keep walking. She grabs hard on the leash and pulls the dog in a new direction.

Sadly, I’ve done it myself. Treated my dog’s leash like a steering wheel. But I’m trying to remember it works much better as a communication tool.

Honey the golden retriever walks nicely on leash.

You may think the leash communicates. But I think the treat pouch says a lot more.

What is a Dog Leash For?

Do you ever stop to think about what a dog leash is for?

When you look around, you’ll find lots of different reasons for having one:

  • it’s the law
  • a leash keeps your dog safe
  • they make beautiful fashion accessories
  • leashes make other people feel safer around your dog
  • it keeps your dog close to you

But they make horrible steering wheels. Just try pulling a 75 pound dog in a direction she doesn’t want to go.

I find leashes are much better at helping me talk to my dog than at steering her.

Honey the golden retriever waits with her leash dangling.

Don’t get too far away from me, woman. I worry that you’ll just wander off if you’re not attached to my leash.

Talking Through the Leash

It wasn’t until Honey came to live with me that I started thinking of the leash as a way to talk to her. Maybe it’s because she’s a much better listener than my previous dogs.

Or maybe I’m learning to speak dog better.

Humans are so verbal. And some of us are talkier than others. We often forget how physical dogs are.

Sure they bark, whine, or growl at each other. But more often, they nudge each other out of the way. Put their paws on another dog’s back.  Or turn their heads away.

Dog physicality means that very subtle leash work says something to your dog. And sometimes Honey even talks back to me through the leash.

Honey the golden retriever runs off leash.

Honey – unleashed!

Leash Communication with Honey

Here are just a few of the ways a leash says something to Honey:

  • the act of putting it on her tells her we’re going outside
  • when I drop the leash and let it trail behind her, she knows she has more freedom to sniff and go off trail but she should stay close
  • when I unclip the leash outdoors, Honey knows she is free to roam where she likes as long as she comes back to me to check in
  • a subtle turn tells Honey we’re going in a new direction
  • a change of pace tells her to look at me so we continue traveling together
  • shortening the leash, with or without the cue “with me,” tell her to stay by my side until I give her a release cue, “go sniff”

And recently I noticed that Honey uses the leash to say things to me:

  • pulling followed by hesitation and more light pulling means she’s excited (usually when she realizes we’re near her favorite park for playing ball)
  • standing perfectly straight and still so the leash becomes taut if I keep walking means she really doesn’t want to go somewhere (like inside)
  • when I let Honey drag the leash, she checks in with me often because she doesn’t have the security of knowing I’m attached to her but I also haven’t given her the ok to run

Knowing that Honey takes and gives cues through the leash makes me less likely to use it to steer her around.

I used to use a front-fastening harness with Honey all the time. It gave me a greater sense of control over her.

With my last dog, Shadow, the harness was a necessity. She always followed her nose right into trouble. No matter how much training we did.

But Honey is different. And as long as I use every tool possible to talk to her, I don’t usually need a steering wheel.

Your Turn: How does a leash work best for you? Do you and your dog talk to each other using a leash. Or are you so in tune you don’t even need one?

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  1. Around here, leash laws seem to be made to be broken. There are signs all over the park where I occasionally walk Callie and Shadow (while Ducky’s at daycare) telling people they must have a leash on their dogs at all times except in the dog park. Yet, I see people in the big open area allowing their dogs to run around at will, off leash. And where are the city police who are supposed to be patrolling the park, looking for such offenders and keeping us all safe? Who knows? They certainly are not at the park. So, when no one else is at the ball field across the street from the house, we go over there and I let them run around some to sniff the different smells.

    Okay, so now that I got that off my chest, the leash as steering wheel or communicator…in our own back yard, it just depends on the dog at the other end and the situation. If I have to go somewhere — and as usual am running late — I’ll put both Callie and Ducky on a leash to be sure they don’t dilly-dally. Shadow has always had a good recall, unless of course, Callie instigates a little mischief, so I normally don’t bother with a leash for her in the yard. If time isn’t an issue, I just let them run around for a while. At bedtime, though, I leash-up Callie and Ducky again. It gets really dark in the yard, especially at this time of the year, and I want all 3 of them in full view. Sam takes Ducky, I take Callie, and Shadow just goes to her favorite spot near the gate. And we let the girls tell us where they want to relieve themselves. But Ducky is quite the puller, so I have to admit that I tend to use the leash as a steering wheel more with her than with the other two. Funny thing is, Ducky is really good about coming back inside once she has had a chance to do her zoomies around the yard for a few minutes while I usually have to go get Callie and Shadow and “steer” them a few steps toward the back door. Oh well, cest la vie.

    • You mentioned putting Callie and Ducky on a leash so they don’t silly-dally. I wonder if the presence of the leash sends a message of what you want from them regardless of how you handle the leash.

      As for people who disregard leash laws, they’re the ones that cause dog haters to crack down on all of us. Errrgh.

  2. We definitely NEED a leash. It’s an area which me and Del struggle with, but we definitely talk to each other with it. The very site of it makes him excited to be going out. And the noise of me unclipping it makes him go wild- running around the whole place in circles like a little mad man :) Leashes are so important and a lot of our bonding is done while they’re wearing one, so it’s understandable that we create our own little leash-language in the process :)

    • I personally don’t believe all dogs are capable of learning to go off leash, no matter how much training they have. It’s probably a dog-by-dog case.

      And now I have an image stuck in my head of Del doing zoomies after his leash comes off. How am I ever going to get any work done? :)

  3. Wilson hates being on the leash…so he tortures me by walking at a snails pace when it’s on. The second I unclip it, he moves ahead at a nice brisk pace. He has trained me with positive re-enforcement to let him off-leash :-)

  4. Kind of both. I am not always the best at stopping just for a sniff break, so I will steer them along. Unclipping the leash is the signal for run and be free though. Torrey is great at checking in if she is free. Roxy weighs 7 and a half pounds. But if she puts on the brakes to go potty, she can rip your arm off.

    • And isn’t it often the little ones that stop on a dime? Maybe it’s because they’re close enough to the ground to catch all the smells.

  5. Oh, gosh…no, I’m afraid we’re not that in tune. Lamar is pretty attentive because I always carry treats in my pocket, but Fozzie I’m afraid is such an environmentally aware and distracted dog that we still do a fair bit of yanking. Thank you for reminding me that there is another way:) He has made progress in that he can *sometimes* look at me and acknowledge my existence when we’re on a walk–but not often!

    • Shadow wasn’t able to notice me much when we walked either. Her nose just took over.

      So I did my best to remember that we were walking for her. And if she was happy sniffing her way down the street, who was I to argue? :)

  6. We’re trying to work our way up to “communication tool.” Somedays we do pretty well. Other days, Silas can’t listen to *any* kind of communication, leash or words or whatever, because he’s so stressed. Those times, I just try to steer as humanely as possible.

  7. Winston does tend to pull abit at first on the leash (or lead in Britain) but he soon eases up. I think its just the initial excitement. I tend to let him steer me when he is on the lead. After all it is his walk, a slight tug if I have a certain destination in mind. If we are walking in the streets then I let him sniff at his liesure as I want him to feel stimulated and enjoy his walk. However, on days when I let him off I’m pretty sure he can tell as that is when I do use the lead to steer him, normally to the playing fields near our house so he begins to pull because he knows where he is going. We’re pretty much as bad as each other when it comes to using the lead as a steering wheel! Lol

    Laura & Winston

    • Excitement causes Honey to do the same thing. When she knows the park is coming, she can’t contain her glee. She keeps looking back at me as if to say “We’re really going, aren’t we?”

      But isn’t it nice to give our pups something to smile about? :)

  8. My dogs have taught me that they don’t like running free with the leash attached to them. They did this by somehow always finding something damp and disgusting to drag the leash through so that I would have to hold on to something damp and disgusting when I took hold of the leash again.

  9. Oh gosh. Brooks was so amazing, he walked right beside us, matching his pace to ours, never pulling. This was from an 11 year old dog who had been on his own for more than a year! He could be trusted outside without a leash, although we didn’t risk it often just in case. Walking with him was such a bonding experience. Kelly is pretty good on the leash, and will respond to subtle cues very well. Ike is getting better but he does tug and pull some. We use a front clip harness with him and if we didn’t, there’d be absolutely no control.

    • But isn’t that an interesting demonstration of how unique each dog is?

      I’ve always admired people who walk side by side with their dogs like you did with Brooks. I knew a man who had a standard poodle who walked by his side like that off leash. The man was legally blind. And although the dog was not his guide, he seemed to take responsibility for sticking close to his person.

  10. Nice post. Glory doesn’t walk well on leash the other two do. I really have a mess thou when I use three leashes and put them on a carabeaner and go for a walk. LOL

    • The only time I’ve had to walk three dogs at a time is when I’m fostering. It’s such a challenge, I don’t know how anyone does it. Especially since every walk is a training opportunity, whether you want it to be or not.

  11. This is such a great discussion! My ideal? Communication tool! My reality? It waffles between the two. There are times when I have to steer them faster than I can communicate, but we’re working on it. Emmett’s funny with the leash, though. If I drop the leash, he stops in his tracks. I swear he’s like, “Oops! Lost my lady! Better wait for her!”

  12. This is my greatest weakness as a pet guardian. I strive to use it as a communication tool but oftentimes resort to the steering wheel method. Especially when the Badger hunkers down on a chilly 20 degree day for a good 5 minute cat poop sniff. My new walking methodology is helping though – we’ve recently approached walks as decision-making exercises for the dawgs. I still decide where to go but they decide how quickly we take that route by walking nicely on leash (they pull, I stop and wait for them to decide to return to my side). When they want to stop, we do but they get rewarded for heeding my “Let’s Go” and making the right decision (the right decision according to Mom of course 😉 ). It’s helped a lot to take the leash as steering wheel out of the equation by shaping their behavior to be more mindful that we are both on this walk and it will be much more enjoyable if they follow directions and walk nicely.

  13. Since Bailie is in obedience 1 right now, we are all going back over the leash thing. For Katie and I, it is to keep us from racing off more than anything as we listen pretty well to most commands. Bailie is still all over the map and is working on learning to listen, where to walk, etc. As for the steering feature, it isn’t used for that much at all unless we are after a critter in which case mom has to real us in like a big fish.

  14. You’re so right! I’ve never thought of the leash as a communication tool, but you’re dead on. Thank you! I need to become more fluent in leash speak.

  15. I see a leash (and reins) as communication tools. I teach new and old dog walkers how to use a loose leash; that a taut leash, especially from the human, may communicate fear/concern to the dog, who then will try unnecessarily to protect/guard. This is not to say I haven’t hauled a dog away from what I do not want her to be around, but I strive to train her before hand. When we go new places, I need to relax and know a lot more sniffing will be going on and make it a zen walk instead of aerobic.

    Love Kirsten’s remark about Lamar and the treats in her pocket. Read today about the first female assistant rider at the Spanish Riding School and how they all ride, very formally dressed, but with sugar cubes in their pockets.

    I may try that front leading harness on Nev, my new adoptable big Beagle mix who totally resists a leash…but I’ve been here before – we’ll make it, especially with help from posts and comments like this.

    • Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t made the connection between a leash and reins. I don’t ride, myself.

      But I’m guessing horse people understand the idea of leash communication better than many of the dog people.

  16. I use a leash as a communication tool and a guide. We are constantly negotiating different types of thing throughout the walk depending on where we are or how we are feeling. Things like speed, moving to the side to sniff and dig, when they can pull or not, as well as direction. It makes me feel very in tune with them because we are communicating back and forth to each other what we both want out the walk and it makes it easier than fighting with my dogs about where we are going.

    It’s become a really cool experience walking my dogs when I get MY expectations out of the way. :)

    • “It’s become a really cool experience walking my dogs when I get MY expectations out of the way. ”

      Amen. And isn’t that true with all of life? Expectations are a killer.

  17. I always like to think of the leash as if it isn’t there at all. I talk to my dogs all the time about which way we are going, when I want them to ‘heel’ or ‘this way’ I am even working on left and right and pointing where to go (with limited success). I also use ‘come back’ (when BD is too excited) or ‘catch-up’ (that last one is only used on Mity as for him a walk is not a walk unless he has sniffed every single blade of grass and peed on it for good measure!)

    To say the lead is an enforcer is wrong, but I think of it more as a safety-net that keeps them out of harms way but I don’t want it to be my main or only form of communication while out on walk. Plus if I am talking about them to ‘wait’ I will then continue to chat with them when we are walking and point out stupid things to them – which helps BD feel safe and secure.

    • I like the analogy of a leash to a safety net. If you’re totally connected you really only need it for safety.

      I’ve also experimented with silent walks. I also talk with Honey the way you do. But sometimes I experiment with silent walks. She’s quiet so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s an interesting process to try to communicate only with your body and not your words.

  18. I use a leash when walking my dog if it is required either by law or needed for safety purposes. I believe that a walk with my dog is really a walk for my dog, not me. I’m more than happy to wait during frequent sniff stops, since that’s predominately what a walk with a dog is. His walk takes a very small percentage of my day, but means everything to him.

    • Very well put, John. I agree 100%.

      Our dogs find walking very stimulating. It is all about them and we’re just along to keep them company.

  19. I’m on my lead alot and I’m fine with that but we do have some yanking when I want to go somewhere mummy doesn’t. I think it would be better if she just followed me lol

    • You need to work on your training skills, Misaki. If you’re patient and consistent, I’m sure you mummy will eventually learn to follow where you want to go. :)

  20. I see it as a communication tool. We are working on obedience and have moved beyond “leash as steering wheel” (yay – finally!). It was never very effective as a steering wheel, anyway, and just caused us both alot of frustration when used that way. It is much better as a communication tool and safety device. He is still a very impulsive dog, and for his safety and the safety of those people and / or animals he sees, the leash is a necessity. Also – I finally got the post written about Lightning’s response to Thumper stealing his bones. Such a crazy life lately……little time for blogging.

    • Unless you have a very tiny dog, a leash is never like power steering. Glad to hear of your success.

      And thanks so much for telling the rest of the Thumper and Lightning bone wars. It’s very amusing.

  21. I wish I trusted Zora enough to let her walk off-leash, but there are too many distractions in my neighborhood – kids, dogs, squirrels, etc. The one time she did get off leash and start to run across the yard, she stopped when I called her, which made me happy since I didn’t really want to chase her around the woods behind my house. She generally walks well on the leash with a minimum of pulling, and I try to be cognizant of what I am doing – letting her explore rather than just dragging her along so we can get back home as fast as possible.

    • The truth is that some dogs are absolutely trustworthy off leash–until they aren’t. Honey has good 97% of the time. But it’s that 3% that is terrifying.

      I’m sure Zora is happy to walk with someone who respects her natural exploring instincts. :)

  22. What a wonderful post! I absolutely loved reading it, very interesting!
    That being said, I am guilty of using the leash as a steering wheel. At least with one of my huskies. Mila, my oldest was very easy to teach leash manners, and she doesn’t like the leash being tight on her so she walks beautifully…..Lexus, my youngest, oh……boy!
    I have been trying for a long long time to teach her, she is very smart and knows a ton of things I have taught her but refuses to walk without pulling! I’ve tried everything! So yes I do use the leash as a steering wheel with her….:(

    • Gee, a husky who pulls? Who’d have thought? :)

      My last dog, Shadow, ignored me totally on a walk. Her nose drove her forward. And she pulled so hard my hands bled.

      We eventually found a balance between training (using the clicker to reward her for paying attention to me) and management (using a no-pull, front fastening Easy Walk harness) to walk together.

      Truth is, we do the best we can with what we’ve got. I don’t believe every dog and person will communicate perfectly all the time. Any more than I could become an Olympic swimmer with practice.

      I bet Lexus will become easier on the leash as she gets older. Or maybe not. :)