Leashes and Collars and Harnesses! Oh My!
by Barbara De Groodt
Is it any wonder why training can be confusing? There are head halters, collars, harnesses, short leashes, long leashes, and retractable leashes. There are leashes of made of cotton, leather and poly.
Where to begin?
From a trainer's point of view, it should never be about the equipment. You must have a good relationship with your dog and realistic expectations. If you don't spend the time training, don't expect results!
Back to equipment. As with most things, there are pros and cons. Many problems arise when the equipment is not used properly, and they can lead to more harm than good. There are some tools I recommend more highly than others.
The standard for leashes is six feet. Six feet is a good length for walking on trails as well as in the city. It allows your dog a little bit of distance to sniff a little while walking, but is still manageable without too much excess hanging. Most people prefer leather because it lasts the longest. However, there are nice cotton leashes. Although cotton can burn your hand, it is much kinder than the poly or nylon leashes. Chain leashes are still made, but I don't usually recommend them; they are heavy on the dog's neck and very hard on your hand.
Retractable leashes have been very popular, but the inherent problem with the retractable leash is that in order to get more leash, the dog must pull. Typically, pulling is not a behavior we want to encourage in our dogs unless they are service or working dogs.
When used properly, the retractable leash can be a piece of safety equipment. When used in open-space areas where you would like to give your dog the freedom to run around a little more than a six-foot leash would allow but do not want to let him off the leash, the retractable leash can be a useful tool.
Unfortunately, because of improper use, there are safety concerns with retractable leashes. There are serious problems when people use them in crowded places and dogs become tangled and cause injuries to themselves and others. Never leave a dog on a retractable leash unattended on a tie-down. The dog can become entangled in the rope and become seriously or fatally injured. When not using retractable leashes properly, people can inflict damage such as deep cuts and rope burns on themselves and others.
Two dogs should not be allowed to play while each on a retractable leash. If one or the other gets a leg or neck entangled in the leash, it could result in a serious injury.
There are cotton, chain, prong, electronic, martingale, and training (choke) collars, and many more.
My preference is a martingale, also known as a half-check collar. If fitted properly, a dog cannot slip out of it. However, for many small dogs who pull, I might suggest a properly fitted harness. Again, there are pros and cons from a professional standpoint. A harness is used when we want a dog to put all its strength and movement forward, such as in tracking, protection work, or weight pulling. For small dogs, who are more prone to a collapsed trachea, a properly fitted harness might be the answer. A harness might also be appropriate for a large dog with cervical or spinal injuries.
Harnesses are also excellent for newly adopted dogs or foster dogs who may be fearful and not yet bonded to you. If spooked, a dog may slip out of a standard collar, but a harness is harder to slip out of. For extremely fearful dogs who are a flight risk, using two leashes with one attached to the collar and one to the harness can provide extra security until the dog is more confident out in the world.
In the last several years many new pieces of equipment have emerged, one of which is the “no-pull harness.” With most designs, the leash attaches in front rather than from behind. The principle of these harnesses is that when the dog pulls, the front-attached leash applies pressure and turns the dog back. I find that for some dogs they work, and for others not so much. The no-pull harness can be difficult to fit on some dogs, particularly shorter breeds. Again, not all equipment works for all dogs.
There are several types of head harnesses on the market, and all except one (at this time) attach the leash under the dog's jaw. The Canny Collar attaches behind the head and is strictly for pulling. The others are good to control pulling as well as for turning the dog's head away from staring or fixating on someone or something such as another dog or a cat. There is a little learning curve for the guardian and for the dog, but used correctly, the head harness can make a big difference for both—and walking can be fun again.
The tools I do not recommend are prong collars, choke chains, and electric shock collars. There are humane alternatives to each of these. The training tool for your dog should be tailored to your dogs needs, should be humane, and should allow you to train without pain.
If you’re still confused, seek professional advice. A good trainer should be able to explain the benefits and shortcomings of all equipment and help you find the right fit for your best friend.