For many of us, it’s a daily ritual – we pull out our leash, clip it to an excited dog, and head out into the world to go for a walk. But for most dog owners, those daily walks are far from easy.
Loose leash walking, simply, means that your dog is able to walk with you calmly on a loose leash. Sounds easy, but many dogs pull, drag behind, or wind around our legs as we try to move. In this first of two blog posts, I’ll cover what equipment can help make your walks a bit simpler; in part two, later this week, I’ll go over the training techniques that can make your walks easier and more pleasant for both you and your dog.
Equipment is tricky. Every dog is different – some dogs are going to respond better to one tool, while others might find it aversive and prefer something different.
For most dogs, collars are more helpful for identification than walking. Even a standard flat collar can pull on a dog’s neck in a way that is painful or damaging. Very calm dogs may be fine walking on a collar; most dogs will do better at first with their leash attached to other equipment. If you do use a collar for walking your dog, a martingale collar is your best choice – these collars have a second smaller loop that tightens just enough to keep the collar from slipping over the dog’s head if they try to back out or escape, but will not tighten to the point of choking your dog any more than a standard collar.
Over time, as your training progresses and your dog is walking nicely, you may decide to switch from a harness or halter to a collar for walks. This is a great goal, but can take a long time for many people, and other equipment such as harnesses are fantastic tools as you work with your dog. Don’t try to switch to the collar until you and your dog are ready as it will be harder to keep them under control if they haven’t had the right foundational training and they could potentially do damage to their trachea if they are pulling too much.
If you are just using your dog’s collar to hold ID tags, a standard flat nylon collar is a fine choice. For dogs with fur that is prone to matting, a rolled leather collar may be a better option.
I do NOT recommend choke, prong or shock collars for a number of reasons. These used to be used more widely in training, but are being phased out more and more as training practices evolve. Aside from the potential physical damage of these collars, there are a variety of other options available now that are more effective and have less potential side effects.
There are a huge number of harnesses on the market, and some definitely work better than others. Standard harnesses are good for taking pressure off of your dog’s throat, but do not generally help with pulling. Some dogs may pull less on them, but many dogs will pull harder with them on. I recommend them primarily for small dogs who are more prone to collapsing tracheas so the pressure is taken off of their throat.
Front-clip harnesses are a fantastic option for dogs who like to pull on the leash. The leash clip for these harnesses is on the front of the dog’s chest instead of their back, which gives you significantly more leverage when walking your dog. If they begin to pull, the pressure is on the front of their chest instead of spread along their body or on their neck, and they are turned sideways instead of being able to forge forward.
There are also harnesses that tighten slightly under your dogs front legs when they pull. Some dogs seem to respond to these, but generally my experience has been that they are not as effective for most dogs as the front-clip harnesses. If you do try one of these, look for one with padding so it does not irritate the area under your dog’s front legs.
My two personal favorite harnesses are the Easy Walk Harness, which is a fairly standard and simple front-clip harness, and the Freedom Harness, which has leash clips on the front and the back and comes with a leash that can attach to both, giving you more control and more options. (Having those two pressure points can be less stressful for some dogs as well.) But there are many great options available now for harnesses that can safely direct your dog and make your walk simpler.
Head halters tend to be a little more controversial than harnesses – they look a little like muzzles, some dogs hate the feeling of having something on their face, and if used incorrectly they have more potential for physical harm. However, I have seen dogs who are completely transformed and even calmed by head halters, and if used correctly they can be a great tool.
Generally, head halters fit around the dog’s muzzle and behind their ears, and the leash clips under their chin. There are some variations on this design but that is the most common option for this tool. It works somewhat like a halter on a horse – with their head under your control, it is much harder for your dog to pull, and you are much more easily able to guide them.
The most important thing to remember if you decide to try a head halter is never to jerk it or allow your dog to jerk hard on it as it is attached to their head and they could potentially damage their neck with a sharp pull. You also want to take the time to properly acclimate and desensitize your dog to the head halter so it is a pleasant experience and not an aversive one. It is much more pleasant to walk a dog who is calmly walking with you than a dog who is pawing at his face every few steps trying to take his equipment off.
Head halters are not for every dog. They tend to suppress behavior, so they can sometimes mask issues, and some dogs find them scary or aversive. Used correctly, they should never be painful or uncomfortable, so be careful to make sure your dog is okay with the halter before using it.
Personally, I generally start with a harness and only go to the head halter when that is not enough. While they can be fabulous in some scenarios, generally the harness is more comfortable for the dog and simpler to use.
For most dogs, a standard 4 to 6 foot leash is by far the best option for going for a walk. Retractable or flexi leashes can be great on your own property or in very controlled situations, but are dangerous in public and have the potential to cause injury to you if your dog gets overexcited and wraps the leash around you. I’ve seen some nasty scars caused by retractable leashes and only recommend them with the proper training in place and in the right situation.
Later this week, look for part 2 of this post, which will cover teaching your dog to walk calmly by your side on any equipment.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.