Opposition Reflex: Control Pulling on Walks

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You’re on a pleasant walk with your dog when they stop to sniff something on the ground. You give a light tug to keep them going. But your dog pulls against the leash. What gives?

Turns out, this behavior might be due to something called the opposition reflex. If you don’t know what the opposition reflex is, don’t worry.

We’ll break it down in detail for you below. We’ll also go over how you can control pulling on walks. By the end, you’ll know how you and your dog can enjoy each daily stroll calmly and safely.

What Is Opposition Reflex?

The opposition reflex is an instinctive reaction to a sudden and potentially unexpected physical pressure. For example, when you pull your dog toward you, you may find that they pull in the opposite direction. This is where the reflex gets its name.

By the same token, if you try to push your dog away, they may push back against you. If you haven’t experienced this yet, gently give it a try.

While it is called the opposition reflex, it’s technically not an automatic reaction. Instead, it’s a natural but semi-conscious response your dog may have to certain stimuli. Some scientists believe that the opposition reflex is related to your dog’s fight or flight instinct. This is the same instinct we humans have when we are faced with a sudden stimulus.

Some pet parents notice that their dogs pull against the leash or push back against them. They may think that their dog is being deliberately ornery or stubborn. That may not necessarily be the case. Their dogs might just be following their natural responses.

History of the Opposition Reflex

The opposition reflex was first known as the “freedom reflex” by renowned scientist Ivan Pavlov. This is the same scientist who came up with Pavlovian conditioning. He helped us to understand how we could train dogs to react to certain stimuli automatically.

Pavlov came up with the then-called freedom reflex when he noticed escape behaviors from dogs who resisted harnesses. He then generalized the idea to all similar organisms. Later science has cast some doubt on this generalization. Furthermore, Pavlov was known for naming a lot of things "reflexes" even if the term didn’t exactly fit.

Regardless, modern scholars believe that Pavlov overgeneralized the opposition reflex to dogs.

Does the Opposition Reflex Explain All Leash Tugging?

No. While the opposition reflex may explain a lot of leash tugging, it’s not responsible for all of it. For example, imagine that your dog never learns how to walk properly on the leash. Then, whenever you take them on a walk, they may pull against the leash out of habit.

Alternatively, your dog might pull on the leash because they see something interesting. If you have a puppy, for example, this is much more common. Your new puppy might see something or smell something novel ahead. They pull on the leash to go after it, then find that you are pulling them back. They pull against the leash harder in response.

Your puppy isn’t deliberately trying to be bad. They’re just interested in whatever they smell or see. Other common scenarios may also cause your dog to pull against or push against you. If your dog doesn’t like a bath, for instance, expect a lot of pull back when you try to put them in the tub.

So you can’t use the opposition reflex as an excuse for your dog’s bad behavior while on a walk. That said, understanding the opposition reflex is the first step toward understanding your pup’s instincts while leashed.

Why Do Dogs Have an Opposition Reflex?

Technically, the opposition reflex isn’t a “true” reflex. But it’s likely that your dog opposes pulling or pushing automatically on some level.

The opposition reflex could be due to several reasons, including:

  • Animal instincts. If your dog wishes to be free, they may instinctively pull against your leash when collared.
  • Furthermore, the opposition reflex might be partially trained. Imagine that you have a puppy and allow them to pull you along while they are leashed. They learn that pulling in a direction gets them what they want. This could encourage the opposition reflex in the long term.
  • Some breeds may be more prone to the opposition reflex, especially if they are stubborn or independent.

Regardless, all dogs will display some amount of the opposition reflex no matter what. The important thing to remember is that it’s not necessarily a bad sign. It’s just something to keep in mind when training your pup to be polite and walk properly on a leash.

Can the Opposition Reflex Be Overcome?

Yes, especially through positive reinforcement and good training. At its core, the opposition reflex demonstrates a lack of inherent trust in a pet’s parent. When your dog pulls against the leash, they don’t trust you to bring them where they need to go.

If you can overcome this instinct, your dog will walk much nicer on the leash. Furthermore, they may trust you to pick them up or put them down in places like a bathtub.

Overcoming the opposition reflex will take some time. This is doubly true if your pup has already been trained by another person improperly. The older your dog is, the more time and energy you have to spend overcoming their opposition reflex.

How To Control Your Dog Pulling on Walks

For most pet parents, the most common time they experience the opposition reflex is while on a walk. You can learn to control your canine companion by following a few key strategies.

Above all else, remember positive reinforcement training. Positive reinforcement training is far and away superior to harsh or punishment-based training. With positive reinforcement training, you show your dog what you want them to do. You don't spend as much time punishing or berating them for things they are not supposed to do.

In this way, your dog voluntarily chooses to do the right thing and forms a positive association with training. This is better for long-term training and the pet-parent bond.

Introduce Your Dog to the Leash Carefully

If you’re training a new dog, show them their leash for the first time with a treat. This should help to alleviate fear and teach them that the leash isn’t something to worry about. Of course, be sure to get a comfortable, adjustable leash like Wild One’s Leash. Our leash is made for durability and flexibility, so it’s safe and secure for your walks.

Don’t Walk When They Pull

Here's a basic scenario all pet parents experience sooner or later. You leash your dog and take them outside. As soon as you hit the grass, your puppy starts to pull in the opposite direction.

It’s tempting to simply pull your puppy back, especially when they are young and light. But you should never do this under any circumstances. Even if your dog is an adult, you still shouldn’t yank them back.

Why? For a few reasons:

  • Pulling your puppy or dog back tells them that they aren’t in control of their movement. This can lead them to resent the leash and not look forward to going on a walk with you.
  • It could potentially hurt their neck, especially if the leash is only attached to a collar instead of a dog harness. Even if your dog is wearing a harness, yanking them back suddenly could cause them to pull a muscle.
  • It seems more aggressive and violent to your dog, even if it seems gentle from your perspective. This, in turn, could cause your dog to fear you. You never want this as it can affect your relationship overall. It may also make them resent going on walks.

Small, Simple Steps To Start Correcting

So, what should you do instead? Simply root yourself like a tree to the ground and don’t move. This strategy works wonders on young puppies, who have a tendency to run out of energy quite quickly. If you don’t move when your puppy pulls on the leash, they learn that tugging doesn’t get them anywhere.

This trick also works with adult dogs, though they are stronger than puppies. So you may need to hold yourself in place for longer.

Regardless, rooting yourself to the ground shows your dog that you are in command and in control, calmly yet firmly. If your dog continues to pull in a random direction, don’t give up. Simply wait for your dog. We guarantee that you have more patience than they do!

This practice is even more important if your dog lunges after something it notices, like an animal. Teaching your dog not to bolt after other pups or critters is vital to ensure your walks are safe.

Teach Obedience Commands

You can also opt to teach your dog some obedience commands. Obedience commands are any single-word phrases that capture your dog's attention and redirect their attention to you.

For instance, say that your dog spots a squirrel scurrying a short distance away. It lunges after the squirrel and starts to tug on the leash. You can say a command word and recapture your pup’s attention immediately. This redirects their energy into a positive outlet (obeying you) without harming them or causing them to resent the leash.

Your obedience command can be anywhere you like, so long as it is distinct from your other commands.

When teaching your dog the obedience command, be sure to reinforce their behavior with treats regularly. Natural and organic treats are best since they are healthy and tasty without any added hormones or artificial ingredients.

Here’s a breakdown of what you should do:

  • Say “watch me” and reward your dog with a treat when they look at you.
  • When on your walk, wait for your dog to be distracted and pull toward something.
  • As soon as they pull, say “watch me” and reward them with a treat only if they look at you. If they ignore you, wait a few seconds and try the command word again.
  • Only reward your dog when they look at you and stop tugging.
  • After a dozen repetitions of this sequence, your dog will learn the value of paying attention to you instead of tugging after whatever they are interested in.

As with most aspects of training your dog, the sooner you start, the better. You can still teach an older dog to learn and obey obedience commands. But it might take a little more time for everything to sink in.

Playtime Recalls

When your dog is still a puppy, you can teach them to walk nicely next to you without putting them on a leash. How?

It all stems from playtime recall training. Here’s how it works:

  • Let your dog play freely in a yard or in a dog park with other puppies.
  • In the middle of play, call their name or use a summon command to bring them next to you.
  • Once your dog arrives, reward them with a treat and tons of praise.
  • Then, start walking and call them with you again. Your dog will likely follow close behind, hoping to get another treat.
  • Give them another treat after a few seconds and continue the process. After a minute or so has passed, let your dog go back to play.
  • Then repeat this playtime recall sequence again and again.

This sequence teaches your dog a few key things. It teaches them that they should come when they are called. It also teaches them that they are rewarded when they walk nicely right next to you.

When the time comes to walk with your dog or fit them with a leash, they’ll remember these lessons instinctively. In this way, you can teach your dog to walk nicely without having to walk them at all!

This technique might not overcome the opposition reflex by itself fully. But it will do wonders to help your dog not see the leash as a bad thing.

Try Clicker Training

Lastly, clicker training is always your friend when trying to teach your dog something important. Through clicker training, you use a clicker tool and treats to form a positive feedback loop with your pup.

Here’s how it works:

  • Take a clicker tool and click it once. When your dog notices, give them a treat immediately.
  • Do this a dozen times so that your dog knows to associate the clicker with being rewarded.
  • Next, take your dog on a calm walk. When they notice something or pull against you, summon them with an obedience cue or by saying their name.
  • The moment your dog returns to your side, click your clicker and reward them with a treat.
  • You must be consistent and reward them each time you click the tool. Otherwise, they may become confused.
  • By doing this, your dog learns proper behavior and won’t feel like pulling against the leash is worthwhile. After all, they get to choose between tugging against you or receiving a treat.

Clicker training can be used for all sorts of different behaviors, as well. You can use clicker training to teach your dog to sit, play, come, bring, and anything else.

How Not To Control Your Dog’s Opposition Reflex

While there are lots of great ways to overcome your dog’s opposition reflex, there are also some things you should avoid.

Specifically, never pull against your leash or yank your dog backward. As touched on above, this can cause your dog to develop negative habits or see the leash as bad.

Furthermore, you should never punish your dog if they pull on the leash. Don’t hit or yell at your dog. All it does is make them afraid of you and teach them that their natural instincts are bad. This could cause your dog to develop anxiety or fear, which may lead to other behavioral side effects or disorders.

If your dog still continues to pull against your leash even after training, speak to a vet or training specialist. Your dog might just be more stubborn than usual and could use a little professional help.

Enjoy a Controlled Walk!

In the end, the opposition reflex is just another natural part of dog behavior all parents need to learn about. Once you understand the opposition reflex, you can train your dog to overcome it and walk nicely by your side.

Of course, training your dog to walk nicely will be easier when you have the right materials. That’s why Wild One offers not only a quality leash but also a great harness, collar, and even delicious, healthy treats you can use during training.


Understanding a Dog's Opposition Reflex | Pet Helpful

"Reflexes of purpose and freedom" in the comparative physiology of higher nervous activity | NCBI

Positive reinforcement training | Humane Society