In my opinion, teaching a dog to walk politely on a leash is one of the most difficult and frustrating things of all. Oh I’m sure there are dogs who arrive in life willing to trot along casually by their owners’ sides, but in the world I live in, those dogs are few and far between. Over the years, a wide variety of training equipment has been developed to help people control their dogs and be able to walk them safely and more comfortably. No gadget or specialized collar is a cure for lack of training, but they can be a great bandaid to help you walk your dog while you work on teaching him how to be polite on a leash.
(For help with training the skill, I refer you to your local obedience trainer, or to Dr. Sophia Yin’s excellent articles.)
The most common and familiar collar available is the flat collar. They come in a huge variety of colors, widths, patterns, materials, with plastic buckles or metal ones. You can buy one for a couple of bucks or you can spend hundreds for a customized one-of-a-kind creation. In my opinion, these collars are best for holding your dog’s identification tags. Every dog should wear id in case of emergency. If he gets away from you, even if he is microchipped, it is better to have visible identification on your dog, both so that he looks “owned” and so that people can quickly get in touch with you instead of having to track down a vet, shelter, or police officer who has a microchip scanner available. Unless the dog is impeccably well behaved, I don’t love seeing leashes hooked to these collars for the simple matter that if there is some kind of equipment failure and the collar breaks or becomes unbuckled due to pressure, your dog is naked and without identification.
A great way around this risk is a martingale collar attached to the leash and used only for walking. Your dog still wears his collar with tags, but a second collar is added for walks. Sometimes called “Greyhound” or “limited slip” collars, these collars don’t have buckles. Instead they are made of loops of fabric that are adjustable to the size of your dog’s neck, and tighten a limited amount when the dog pulls, which prevents a dog with a small head from slipping out of a collar if he puts on the brakes. I have seen so many dogs get loose due to improperly-fitted flat collars, and it’s scary and dangerous! Not to mention preventable. A martinage collar is easy to put on and take off, comes in lots of different colors and varieties, and can remain simply attached to your dog’s leash when you aren’t walking him.
A martingale collar isn’t going to do much to help you, though, if your dog pulls like a freight train. For dogs like that, there are numerous types of gadgets that can help you keep your arm in its socket. Some work better than others for each individual dog. Some are kinder and gentler. Some can do damage to your pet if not used correctly.
The old-fashioned answer would be a good old choke chain. The handler jerks the leash to tighten the chain, and the resulting discomfort is supposed to teach the dog not to pull. I see so many dogs choking themselves as they drag their owners along behind them. Choke chains come in more than just chain now- there are leather ones, nylon ones, whatever you’d like. But they all work the same way, which is usually “not that well”. They also present a danger to the trachea of the dog who is pulling pulling pulling, and also to the eyes, as pulling and choking increases the pressure inside the eyeball. Not a big concern for some dogs, but definitely a concern for other breeds.
Which brings us to the “pinch” or “prong” collar. These collars are again limited slip, but made of metal prongs that tighten and pinch the dog’s skin between them to cause him discomfort and discourage him from pulling. These collars should not be used for leash-jerking corrections, and they should not ever be used on fearful dogs or puppies. Punishment in training always has the potential for fall-out that you didn’t intend, and it is very easy to make a dog’s aggression toward other dogs or people or children or what have you much worse by creating an even more unpleasant association for him. That said, in a confident, bold dog who is not acting out due to fear, but rather just big and strong (especially with a smaller or weaker owner), these collars can give you “power steering”.
They must be fitted correctly for safety purposes. A prong collar should always fit snugly but not tightly around the middle of the neck. It should not gap away from the neck at all, as this can cause injury when the collar tightens (or to anybody who somehow gets a hand caught under the collar). It should never EVER be put on or removed over the dog’s head. You do not want those prongs anywhere near the eyeballs! Instead, two links should be separated and then rejoined with the collar around the dog’s neck. Pinch collars should not be used for handler corrections, but rather for self-corrections from the dog himself. When I pull, it is unpleasant, so I shouldn’t pull.
These collars work great on some dogs. Other dogs, however, will just continue to pull through the discomfort. A pinch collar is not an excuse to not train your dog by rewarding him for what you want. Rather, it is a tool to help you keep physical control of him during the training process.
In recent years, there has been a push toward non-painful pieces of equipment which encourage or prevent dogs from pulling. The first one to come on the market was the head-halter. There are a number of brands available– Gentle Leader and Halti are the most common– and the idea is similar to that as with horses. If you have control of the dog’s head, you have control of the dog. This is an absolutely fantastic piece of equipment to use if you have an aggressive dog (either toward other animals or toward people) because it gives you control of his face, and in the case of the Gentle Leader, allows you to close his mouth. But they can also be great for dogs who pull, because the dog can’t really brace against the head halter and drag you along.
The downside is that a lot of dogs do not care for feeling of a head halter. To do it properly, you need to take time to get your dog used to it, using rewards (usually food) to help him make a positive association and grow accustomed to it. Most people don’t do this. Some dogs adjust, others do not. Some dogs are very stressed by having a harness on the face. Others just paw repeatedly or try to rub their face on the ground on against people to try to get it off. Care must also be taken to not jerk the leash and to prevent the dog from lunging, as the force of hitting the end of the leash and jerked around to the side can cause the potential for neck injury.
But it is certainly a good tool to be aware of. It is not a training device that works on pain or discomfort, just on handler control. It is best used in conjunction with training, with the goal being weaning the dog off the head halter in the end.
Another piece of “more humane” equipment that has become popular in recent years is the front-clip harness.
Unlike the typical dog harness, the front clip harness (and again, there are a variety out there- “Sense-ation” and “Easy Walk” among them) has a leash ring at the front of the harness, in the middle of the dog’s chest. The idea behind this is that when the dog pulls against the leash, the sideways pressure causes them to turn inward and back to the owner. These harnesses can work wonderfully with some dogs, though in my opinion they work better on more lightly-built dogs. Some dogs just hunker down and pull through the sideways motion, which is completely counter-productive. They also should be used with care on any dog who has aggression issues, because a harness gives you no control at all over the dog’s head (and biting parts). Front-clip harnesses are frequently better tolerated than their head-halter counterparts, and there is really no introductory period. Just pop one on your pup and you’re ready to go.
Traditional harnesses are a fantastic choice for little dogs, and there are a wide variety of stylish options to choose from. Little dogs are more prone to problems like collapsing trachea, which can be aggravated by pressure on the neck. They also prevent increased pressure on the eyes from straining against the leash, which is an especially good thing in the small dogs with prominent eyes. Any dog with a history of neck problems is best off in a harness, whether a regular one or a front-clip one.
But for a medium to large healthy dog who pulls and pulls on the leash? Well, just keep in mind that sled dogs wear harnesses to pull sleds. A harness lets them get good leverage, and doesn’t give the owner a whole lot of control. For dogs who walk politely on leash, a harness is fine, and there is the occasional dog who walks better with a regular harness, but for the most part, they are not a good choice if you have a dog with leash-walking manners issues. As with everything, care should be taken to make sure the harness is fitted properly. You want it to be snug enough that the dog cannot back out of it or get a leg hung up in it, but loose enough that it is not rubbing and causing sores in the dog’s “armpits”.
And that concludes our overview of the different types of aids and equipment out there to help you control your overly-enthusiastic dog on walks. In the end, it all comes down to training, whether you use food treats to reward a loose leash, or the Be a Tree method in which you do not ever move forward if the leash is tight. Consistency is key, and it’s the need for absolute consistency that makes this a hard thing to teach. Remember, dogs don’t pull because they’re being bad, and if they’re pulling they typically do not “know better”. They pull because humans walk too slowly, because the world is fascinating, because they are excited, because they have a whole lot of energy to burn after snoozing on the couch all day. Hopefully these aids will help you be able to enjoy your dog more, and in turn will encourage to get your dog out on more walks, which will lead to healthier and happier lifestyles for both of you!