Walking dog on leash at sunrise
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos
Collars, harnesses and leashes are all used to help control dogs, mainly when they are out of their homes. Even a well-trained, friendly dog needs to learn to be comfortable on-leash as does the dog who “never leaves home” because every dog has to leave sometime.
The most basic type of collar is just a circle, usually of fabric or leather, that is adjusted to fit around a dog’s neck and buckles on and off. Once adjusted the size of the circle doesn’t change if the dog or person pulls on the collar. It should be adjusted so two fingers can slip under the collar. On most dogs this fitting will allow the dog to comfortably wear the collar without being able to slip out of it. These collars work well for holding a dog’s id or rabies tags but are not great for walking dogs.
Without training, these basic collars do little to help control a dog who is pulling or lunging, despite putting pressure on the dog’s trachea and other vital structures in his neck if he does pull or lunge. Dogs with narrow faces can slip out of these collars if the person walking them is trying to pull the dog’s leash from in front.
Martingale /Greyhound/Limited Slip Collars
These collars are similar to a basic collar in their function with one difference. A Martingale collar has a small additional loop that tightens slightly if the leash is pulled on. This extra loop prevents dogs from being able to back out of the collars. However, like a basic collar, without training, they do not provide much assistance if a dog pulls or lunges.
These collars, often made of metal chain links, tighten when pulled. The only thing that limits how small the circle is on these collars is how tight it can be pulled around the dog’s neck. Without proper training and use, these collars do little to stop dogs from pulling or lunging despite choking the dog. These collars are used as part of correction- (punishment) based training. They can be quite difficult to use correctly. The collar must be appropriately fitted and placed on the dog. As with other punishment-based training, the handler’s timing must be excellent when delivering “corrections” (quickly and firmly tightening the collar around the dog’s neck). Using punishment on behaviors that have a fear or anxiety component can often increase the dog’s fear/anxiety and may make the dog more anxious, and symptoms of that anxiety, including aggression, can get worse.
There are limited slip collars that, as the name suggests, limit how much the collar can slip or tighten. Some of these are intended to function as Martingale collars, preventing the dog from being able to back out of the collar. Others are intended to be used like choke collars with the handler tugging the leash to give “corrections.”
Like choke chains, these are usually metal collars that tighten around a dog’s neck. There are plastic versions that act in the same way. These collars are limited in how much they can tighten, unlike the choke chain. Instead they work by pressing prongs into the dog’s skin all around the dog’s neck as the collar tightens. Often people are told to use a prong collar because their dog pulls on leash or is reactive (lunges) when on leash. Many of these dogs are pulling or reactive because they are anxious. While the prong collar may decrease these behaviors, it often doesn’t. Even if the behaviors are decreased the underlying cause for them, the dog’s anxiety, isn’t decreased and may escalate due to the painful sensation of being grabbed and poked all around his neck when he pulls. This anxiety can be further heightened if the handler is actively using the prong collar to give “corrections” (quick jerks or “pops” with the collar to cause it to tighten) because of the difficulties in using any punishment-based training correctly, especially one that uses physical discomfort.
There are some dogs who do learn quickly (within just a couple of walks) that pulling on the leash will be uncomfortable while wearing a prong collar without their owners giving corrections. These dogs learn to walk calmly. In general, these dogs are friendly, not anxious or reactive and are often pulling because they want to walk faster than their handlers or prefer another direction. If the dog shows no signs of discomfort or anxiety on walks, this collar may be an acceptable tool. However, there are more humane ways to teach a dog to walk nicely on leash. These dogs tend to respond well to positive reinforcement’s loose-leash training.
Head Collars/Head Halters
Head collars/halters have the basic design of two connected loops, one around the dog’s snout and the other behind her ears. The leash attaches under her chin. It’s similar to using a halter to walk a horse. This design gives the handler the best physical control because you have control over the dog’s head. Head collars are not used to give “corrections.” They are designed to reduce pulling and lunging without the handler having to actively apply force. Although it may be somewhat unpleasant for dogs to pull against a head collar, it is rare to see an increase in anxiety or aggression with their use if the dog is properly acclimated to the collar. Most dogs will need a slow introduction because it is new and you want your dog to like whatever he has to wear.
Collars and Injuries
Any collar can potentially cause injury, especially if used incorrectly. The chances for injuries and the types seen with flat collars, Martingale collars, choke collars and prong collars are greater than with head collars. These can range from increased pressure in eyes, injuries to the dog’s throat, trachea, nerves, and blood vessels in the neck and spinal cord. If you are using a flat collar, a Martingale collar or a limited slip collar, you can reduce some risk for injury and pain by using a wider collar to distribute the force more evenly. Flat collars and Martingale collars are not typically used as training tools. They function to keep dogs “attached” to people with leashes.
Electronic training collars, especially those that deliver electric shocks (or “stimulation”) deserve special mention. As with any training technique that relies on a person applying an aversive (painful, unpleasant) stimulus they are difficult to use correctly. Because of the difficulties in using them correctly, electronic training collars can escalate anxiety in dogs, resulting in fearful or aggressive behaviors. When used incorrectly or if the collar malfunctions, in addition to the psychological pain the dog suffers, physical injuries including burns and skin punctures by the electrodes can occur. Although physical injuries are less likely with collars that deliver vibration, ultrasonic sounds, or citronella sprays they can occur. These collars can also cause increased anxiety and damage the bond between pet and owner.
There are two basic designs to body harnesses: harnesses that simply provide places to attach a leash, and those that are a little restrictive if dogs pull. Neither type of harness is intended to be used in a way that the handler actively “corrects” the dog. Harnesses don’t put pressure on the dog’s trachea or nearby blood vessels. This makes harnesses safer to use than collars in dogs with collapsing tracheas, neck injuries, or eye diseases like glaucoma.
Harnesses that Don’t Restrict Pulling
Just like a sled dog’s harness, properly fitted harnesses on which leashes are clipped onto the top or near the back distribute the force when a dog pulls. This distribution means that the dog isn’t choked, and the harness isn’t digging in and causing any discomfort. There are several different designs for this sort of harness, including step-in harnesses that can be helpful with dogs who aren’t comfortable about having their legs handled or people reaching under them, and can even teach them to pull. These harnesses are best for dogs who already walk well on leash. The even distribution of force can lead to some dogs pulling more because they aren’t bothered by how it feels when they do.
Front Attach Harnesses
These harnesses have an attachment for the leash on a strap that runs across the dog’s chest, just above the legs. Some have a second attachment point on a strap that runs over the top of the dog’s back, just behind the shoulders. Similar to head collars, these harnesses work by controlling the dog’s front end. The idea is that If the dog pulls, the pressure will turn him back towards the handler. There are some concerns that these harnesses, especially if dogs continue to pull, can cause shoulder injuries and change the way a dog walks.
At its most basic, a leash is a thing that attaches the dog to the person. There are lots of ways to improve on this basic design, but let’s we look at some common designs and what to avoid.
Most leashes are made up of a combination of the leash itself, a handle and a clip to attach the leash to the dog. For general dog walking, whether in an urban or suburban area or just going into your veterinarian’s office, keep the leash 6 feet or less. It should be a material that’s comfortable on your hands. The buckle should be secure enough that it won’t open or break if your dog does suddenly pull, but light enough that it doesn’t weigh the dog down, a problem sometimes seen with small dogs.
For leash chewers, there are a few options. One is a leash made of a metal chain. These tend to be heavy and uncomfortable in the person’s hands and can damage the dog’s teeth. There are also leashes made from plastic-covered metal cables. These are stiff and difficult to handle and can also be bad for the dog’s teeth. Instead, look for leashes made of heavy-duty rope like climber’s rope or double layers of nylon. While they are not “chew proof,” these leashes will stand up to chewing while you teach your dog other ways to behave on-leash
The most basic leash has a simple loop at one end to slip over (not wrap around) your wrist or fingers while on a walk. The leash still needs to be held in your hand (or hands) to be able to maintain control over the dog. Leashes should never be wrapped around fingers or wrists to shorten them or try to get better control because if the dog lunges, you can break your bones, or your hand or arm can be damaged if the circulation is cut off. Either use a shorter leash or fold the leash and hold the folded leash in your hand .
Some leashes have second handles half-way down the leash. This extra handle allows you to easily hold the leash with two hands. The second handle is sometimes called a “traffic handle” because it keeps the dog close to you if you’re on a busy street or sidewalk.
Another nice design is a thumb handle. They have a wider handle, usually made of neoprene, with a hole in it for your thumb. The thumbhole makes it hard to accidentally drop the leash even if your dog pulls or you’re juggling the leash, treats, and a poop bag. These leashes are sometimes called “hands-free” but you’re still holding the leash in your hand.
These leashes attach to belts or can be belted around your waist, leaving your hands free. These leashes are popular with people who run with their dogs. They can be used in training a dog to walk politely on leash. Caution must be used with these as a strong dog could easily pull over the person at the other end of the leash, especially on slippery surfaces. The best of these have releases the dog’s end can be easily released from the belt in case you fall.
Retractable leashes, which have cords that roll out and retract to plastic hand-held housing, are not recommended except under specific situations. They are dangerous to people and dogs. Some retractable leashes, especially ones with thin cords , have resulted in injuries to people either by slicing into bystander’s legs if they get between the dog and handler or cutting off people’s fingers if they are twisted in the cord. People have also received rope burns trying to reel in their dogs and because of the retraction that happens when there is no pressure on the leash, people have received facial and eye injuries when clips have broken and leashes flew at their faces.
Dogs can receive similar injuries if entangled in these leashes. Many dogs, if they are running and the person drops the leash, become frightened by the sound of the plastic handle/leash housing “chasing them.” Dogs have been injured and killed trying to run away from their own retractable leashes.
From a training standpoint, these are terrible tools. It is hard to teach a dog who is being walked on a retractable leash not to pull. These leashes reward pulling by giving him more length. They also do not give the owner much control. Once the dog has pulled out the leash, unless the dog is well trained to come back or stop on command, the owner has no way of shortening the leash quickly. The locking mechanism can be difficult to use, which can contribute to these problems. Dogs have been hit by cars, gotten into fights or bitten people while on retractable leashes. The freedom of movement that makes these leashes attractive is also what can make them so dangerous.
Retractable leashes may be used safely with well-trained dogs who will stop on command and come back when called. They should only be used in places like open fields or beaches. In other words, places where there are no other people, dogs or obstacles for the leashes to get caught on, and dogs who will not lunge after things and will come back when called. Owners still need to take extra care that no one is injured by their leash, a problem that is unlikely with normal leashes. Before using a retractable leash, check the leash laws in the area as some locations have banned their use. Others allow them to be used with limitations, such as not allowing the length of the leash to exceed 6 feet if people are nearby.
Leashes, collars and harnesses are all important tools for safely managing dogs. It’s also important that they are used humanely, which requires picking tools that fit with the L.I.M.A. principle: least intrusive minimally aversive. L.I.M.A. means that the collar or harness and leash doesn’t have negative effects on the dog’s behavior or mood and causes the least discomfort possible. The best way to achieve these goals is to not rely on leashes, harnesses or collars alone to keep a dog under control. Combine these tools with the much more powerful tool of positive reinforcement training for a dog who is happy and well behaved on walks.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.