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Is a dog walking in front of the owner necessarily a problem?

Hi Alan,

I am an owner of two 1 year-old German Shepherds. They are pretty smart. For examples: I can remote control them to sit, drop and stay. And, especially the male, he is very good at scent discrimination and searching. But when I walk with them with leash or without leash, most of the time they walk ahead me, especially the bitch. I try many different approaches such as a treat (cooked dried liver treat), gesture eating, and drop them when they try to walk faster than me. Nothing has worked. I don’t know what to do now and I hope you could give me some advice. By the way, one thing I would like to mention that I used to shout at my dogs. Would it badly affect our relationship? If it would, what can I do to make it up?

Thank you and I look forwards to hearing from you.


I receive many emails from owners regarding their dogs pulling on the lead and trying to be out in front of them. This is a very common difficulty if owners see it as a problem. Even dogs that walk by the owner’s side on the lead often prefer to be in front of the owner when off the lead.

However, is this really a problem does depend if there are in fact other problems that we can relate to leadership in the dog when it should be in the owner. When I am walking, I often let Winston walk ahead of me but I know that he sees me as the leader nevertheless that does not stop him trying.

When humans lack leadership skills and own a dominant dog then problems becomes more noticeable. How often do we see owners trying to call their dogs back without success because it has found something that interests them? It is not so bad if the dog simply wishes to play and is good-natured but when it is aggressive trying to get to a dogfight and pulling them apart is a difficult and dangerous task.

Most of us will have seen working dogs walking behind their owners and it is only when directed to do they venture out in front in order to round up sheep or collect game birds and even to catch the odd criminal.

Being out in front is therefore not necessarily a problem but as with these dogs, they both speed up when the owner tries to get in front. This would indicate that they do see their owner as lower in the pack and nearly all dogs given the opportunity of such lack of leadership skills then they will take advantage when they wish to.

The owner says that he even used food to encourage them back but all that is happening here is a simple recall for which their receive a titbit. No more titbits and off they go once again out in front.

Yes, we have all seen dogs training at obedience competition style where the dogs wraps its head tightly round the handlers left leg looking up at the owner and they possibly were trained using food or a toy. This method will encourage dogs to walk to heel perfectly but for ordinary people this is a bit over the top. We wish to relax whilst walking our dogs so a dog grafted onto our left leg is hardly the way most of us want to go out for a walk. Even competition dogs walk in front when allowed to.

The owner says that he has had to shout at his dogs and wonders if this would affect their relationship. It certainly would and why I do not use word commands if I can help it. To call in Winston I use handclaps, a squeaky toy, a clicker, or even a child’s party whistle. The tone change carries anger in our voice as our dog disobeys with the command so the dog fears that it is best to keep out of the way.

Coming back often means chastisement even when the dog has come back following the owners shouting spree. Once you have shouted at the dog it will remember this with some fear but never shouting again and only use praise the dogs will return once again to their normal happy characters.

If the dog does eventually return, you have no option but to praise your dog. The only way to be almost certain that your dog will come to you under almost all circumstances is practice and more practice using a consistently happy tone with the occasional titbit.

Again, walking to heel needs the owner to look happy at the dog working and the dog knows it will gain some reward for its efforts. This is all well and good but what happens when it is not walking to heel. Many dogs will walk just about anywhere around the owner and being in front is not necessarily an important issue to them.

Quite often when walking Winston I will make him walk behind me using the command “Back” and he will stay there most of the time but on occasions he will try to slip by. The reason I do this is simply to maintain my influence over him. Watch any pack of wolves moving through their territory and they walk in line in order of their hierarchy within the pack.

Having Winston behind me, he understands as well as accepts my influence and having submitted to being behind knows I have taken command. If he gets ahead of me, he may feel that he could do as he pleases and go up to people or other dogs. This is not advisable, as many people or other dogs may not wish to make his acquaintance.

If you wish to teach your dog to walk behind then there are a number of ways. The normal one is to use an already trained dog that is more dominant that would not let a younger dog go past them let alone the owner. I have heard of some farmers giving their dogs the command “back” and enforcing this with the use of a cattle prod – ouch!

For me once I have taught a dog redirection so they go where I point then they understand when I point behind me they go. If they try to come past, I give that gruff bark of the dog’s equivalent of NO with the command back. It does require patience and be consistent with the dog made to stay behind unless given some command like “finish” so the dog can now go in front. I must never let Winston come past me without a finish command as this means I will have to start the training all over again.

Do not forget that when you turn round the dog is now walking behind you and for those dominant dogs, they will often shoot past the owner to maintain their position. Simply turn round again repeatedly until the dog finds this tactic pointless. This method can take an hour or so to achieve before the dog finally gives up trying and walks by your side.

You can find with a very dominant dog that feels it is leader and so the pack goes where it wants to go and humans must simply follow. In such cases, there is a need for the owners to begin learning how to become a leader and maintain this with their dog if they wish to be able to stop them taking he lead position whilst out walking.


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