As doggie caregivers or future caregivers, we all have this romantic image of taking our favorite companion on long morning walks to the coffee shop, afternoon strolls through tree lined streets, and even late romps on warm summer nights. Unfortunately, these dreams can become shattered when our walking companion turns into an on-leash nightmare. One of the biggest complaints I get from caregivers is that their dog doesn’t walk well on leash; they pull, they’re all over the place, they go for other dogs, etc. Going on walks with a dog that wants to walk you (no matter what their size) can not only be unpleasant, but it can be very stressful. I’ve even had caregivers who claim that they dread taking their dog for a walk and are less likely to do so because the experience is so terrible. When I’m out walking with my dogs, I see all types of dogs with all types of devices that claim to prevent pulling and aid in training. Some work, others don’t, but what is the best? Everyone has a theory but I want to go over each devise, the science behind it, and why it’s either good or bad.
The Choke Chain – Everyone seems to be generally familiar with this type of collar. It was designed to train strong dogs to walk on leash without pulling by pinching the brachial nerve and causing discomfort. In theory, the dog will stop pulling to avoid the discomfort. I would never use this devise for many reasons. This type of negative learning doesn’t actually train your dog to do want you want. It only reinforces what you don’t. I’ve actually never seen a choke chain work and watch with horror as dogs pull their owners down the side walk, all the while wheezing and coughing because they are literally choking. The idea of avoiding discomfort never works because the dog is continually uncomfortable and becomes tolerant to it. Also, the risk of injury is very high. The improper use of a choke chain can cause neck and spinal cord injury, collapsed trachea, and can even cause behavioral issues like aggression. I would NEVER use this devise. It’s outdated and cruel.
Pinch or Prong Collar – I see these all the time and they seem to be very popular with dog owners who have strong pullers. The science behind these is nearly the same as the choke chain. When a dog pulls or does something incorrectly, the dog is “corrected” by a leash tug and the prongs pinch into the neck causing discomfort. In theory, this will stop the dog from pulling or doing whatever it did that was not right. My big problem with this type of collar is the long term negative effects on your dog, even if it doesn’t pull. Let’s say you and Duke are out for a walk and Duke sees another dog. His natural inclination will be to pull toward the dog. You give a quick, unpleasant, painful correction and pull him the other way. You round the corner and Duke sees another dog to which he naturally moves toward. You again give a quick painful correction. Maybe it doesn’t work this time and now you must give another correction and pull Duke in the direction you wish to go (note – we cannot know how painful or uncomfortable these corrections are because our dog cannot look at us and tell us. We do know that these corrections and even anticipation of these corrections increase levels of cortisol which is a hormone that is released due to stress and pain). While you think you are training Duke to not pull, essentially what is happening is Duke is forming an association: Another Dog = Pain. As a result, it’s not uncommon for dogs to become aggressive on and even off the leash. Other trainers have found that the use of this collar has little or no effect when trying to train you dog. All they do is increase your dogs will and tolerance to pain, making walking and training even more difficult. If a prong collar is used on dogs who are shy, timid, or exhibit behaviors we associate with fear, this type of forceful training will only cause your dog to shut down and will result in all sorts of behavior issues.
Electric Collars – NO! NO! NO! NO! If I was sitting at work and there was a risk of painful shock every time I went off task or did something wrong, I’d be a nervous wreck, always on edge, and go into panic mode every time I saw my boss walk around the corner. This is actually the same for dogs. Studies have shown that dogs who wear e-collars are more stressed and frightened not only in a training situation, but whenever their caregiver is around as they expect the aversive shock. Again, we are not training our dog for behaviors that we want, we are only teaching it what we don’t and most of the time, they won’t make the association anyway. On top of everything, the use of an e-collar is unethical and cruel.
*There are plenty of websites and plenty of trainers who continue to use these types of collars. At the end of the day, they all do work (if used properly) and are continually used because they work fast; which is what most caregivers want…the fastest results with the least amount of work. This is understandable because we are all busy. We work, we have families, kids, significant others, and social lives. We DO NOT want misbehaved companions. HOWEVER the results on the physical and mental well being of your BFF when using the above listed collars can be catastrophic.
The Head Harness (Halti or Gentle Leader) –The use of gentle leaders is becoming more and more popular. These are great because not only do they give you more control of your dog and really work at preventing pulling, but they allow you to get the attention of your dog and reward them when they are behaving. I’ve had a lot of success with these types of collars and some dogs really do well with them. The biggest complaint I get is that initially dogs hate them and will paw and jump around in an attempt to get it off. The strap does have a tendency to rub the hair across the muzzle and create irritation. This is not to say that this happens with all dogs and most will acclimate after a few uses. The most important thing is to reward your dog during the entire process and make it something to look forward to.
Body Harness – A body harness is generally what I recommend to my clients and what I use for my dogs. There are many different types and styles, but the ones which clip on the chest work the best (not the ones which clip on the back and not the one which squeezes the ribs should the dog pull). These work as when the dog pulls, it is steered to the side, redirecting its attention back to you. It makes keeping control in any situation easier and training stays positive. I recently adopted a 4 year old 130lb Great Pyrenees who wants to attack every car, truck, or bus that drives by (and I live in the city!). He could easily pull me into traffic if he wanted to. We are working very hard to desensitize him, but using the easy walk harness keeps me in total control and keeps us from getting run over!
*It is important to note that the use of a head or chest harness is not the final answer in training your dog to walk properly on leash. They are only tools to make training more positive and help to yield the results you want.
At the end of the day, we want what is best for our beloved companion and there is so much information on all different types of training devices. Working with your dog, using proper training tools and using positive rewards (super tasty treats and lots of praise) will always make training a great experience for all involved and make those long and (most important) leisurely walks what you always dreamed of.