Walking or hiking with my dogs is probably my favorite activity! It's a great opportunity for a dog and their human to build their relationship and de-stress. Sniffing on walks provides wonderful mental enrichment for your dog, and regular physical exercise helps keep them healthy too.
When walking my dog on leash, it's my job to ensure that my dog is safe and comfortable, that I am safe and comfortable, and that myself and my dog are not impairing the ability of those around us to also be safe.
A piece of this - though certainly not the whole puzzle - has to do with what equipment we use when walking our dog. That's what this post is about.
Selecting the right equipment with which to walk your dog is so important, and there are so many possibilities. Everyone who has ever met a dog has an opinion on what works best. The truth is that every dog is an individual with their own unique needs. There is no one-size-fits-all equipment.
Additionally, sometimes the conversation that needs to be had is bigger than talking about tools for the walk. If you're facing behavioral challenges on your walk like an inability to get your dog's attention or reactivity it will not be solved by choosing the right walking equipment. This is a small tangent, but an important one, so please stay with me -
When facing behavioral challenges on walks it is important that we look at the function of the behavior; the WHY. If your dog is reacting to other dogs because he is frustrated, or fearful, that emotion will not change based on the tool you use. Depending on the tool it could make the behavior worse, or you might see things get better if you stop using a tool that inflamed the problem, and you should keep reading! But please do take care to address the needs and emotions underlying undesirable behavior on the walk. It is okay if you need to walk in a quieter area, at a quieter time of day, or even avoid walks all together while you work on increasing what your dog can handle.
If you are reading this article hoping for a tool that will help you physically control your dog for their safety, your safety, or the safety of those around you, I recommend seeking professional assistance. In these situations the chances of management failure (in this case, losing physical control) are often quite high, and it's likely walks are not a safe option for your dog right now.
Imagine a dog who is routinely breaking out of the crate. They might bend the bars, squeeze through a closed door, or just thrash around until it falls apart. The answer is not a stronger crate.
Instead, the question that needs to be asked is WHY. Confinement issues? Separation anxiety? Are they being over-crated? Are their social, physical, emotional, and mental needs being met regularly? A stronger crate is a band-aid for the real problem, and actually might make things much worse.
Then there is the specific, common issue of pulling on leash. Pulling on leash can be indicative of a high state of arousal. If your dog's pulling is related to anxiety, fear, or stress please see above.
Pulling also occurs because the dog has better places to be faster than we can get them there! A dog might be excited or over-stimulated and need to move their body. The restraint of the leash can escalate this arousal as the dog naturally pulls against the tension, leading to a constant tug of war on the leash.
There are tools that can help curb pulling, and we'll discuss that below. Some options are preferable to others. It is important, though, to actively teach your pup the skill of walking on a loose leash so you can both find walks fun and enjoyable, in addition to walking them on equipment that is comfortable and safe for them.
Okay those are all of my important caveats. Let's get on to talking about equipment. If you're putting your dog on a leash, to what do you connect the leash?
This is far from an exhaustive list of all your options out there. I'll talk about some of the equipment I run into most often. If you have questions about a specific tool or usage please feel free to ask!
There are so many collars out there including flat collars, breakaway collars, prong collars, choke collars, shock collars, and martingale collars.
TL;DR: Please don't walk your dog on any type of collar.
The bottom line is that collars are a dangerous choice for walking your dog.
Pressure from pulling is related to glaucoma, spinal injuries, thyroid damage/injuries, and more.
Additionally, some collars are intended to be aversive. Aversive here means "punishing" or "something the dog dislikes".
Prong collars, shock collars, and leash corrections (yanking on the dog's leash, typically when it is attached to a collar) are all examples of aversives.
Using positive punishment (adding something unpleasant to the situation to decrease the likelihood of the behavior being repeated) increases anxiety and can cause aggressive behavior, apathy or learned helplessness, and aversion to whatever the dog associates with that punishment (you, the dog they were barking at, the leash, etc.)
Did I mention that it's really dangerous for their physical well-being?
Collars can be great for attaching your dog's tags in case they get lost, but they shouldn't be used to physically manipulate or control your dog on or off leash.
Head halters do not put the same pressure on your dog's throat while still offering control of the head, which a lot of folks find useful when their dog is a strong puller. There are several different brands, including the Gentle Leader and Halti.
It is imperative for your dog's well-being that the time be taken to acclimate the dog to the head halter. Otherwise you'll find you have a dog who is trying to paw off or slip out of the head halter. Remember, this walk is for them. If they're annoyed, irritated, or distressed by the walking equipment the walk isn't serving its purpose.
Personally, I very rarely recommend head halters. Head halters typically come into play when people are looking for more physical control over their dog. And that begs the question - why? Do we need to do some leash training? Is there high anxiety? Is the dog likely to react or try to drag their owner somewhere? It makes me very uncomfortable to consider this tool being the only thing allowing someone to physically control their dog in a public space, and that the dog cannot handle being in a public space unless they are being tightly controlled.
If things are boiling down to grasping for physical control of the dog in a public space, there is a lot of potential for things to go wrong. And if a dog lunges on the head halter they risk serious injury just like on a collar.
Because the head halter can feel MORE restrictive to the dog if the dog is not acclimated properly, I often see that a head halter increases reactivity.
When all is said and done, it's a tool that should be used with great consideration to several important factors.
So let's talk harnesses. A harness is likely your best place to start looking for a fear-free tool on which to walk your dog, but not all harnesses are created equal.
Some harnesses are designed to help curb pulling. These harnesses likely attach on the front of the harness, or on the front and back. The 3in1 Harness and the Freedom Harness are two such examples.
Some harnesses, like the EZ Walk harness, reduce pulling by restricting movement. This can cause or aggravate physical issues, and isn't great for growing dogs or dogs who are running because they can't get full extension of their legs.
When selecting a harness consider your dog's comfortability in being handled - is this a harness they have to step into or can you clip it around them? If you have to physically manipulate your dog into the harness there is a good chance they will come to dislike that process. You can fix this by teaching your dog to step into the harness, or using a harness that clips around them instead.
Always be mindful of their ears or extra skin getting caught in the clip. Sometimes these accidents happen, and dogs need help feeling safe around the harness again. Listen to your dog - if they're uncomfortable, stop.
Some more considerations: How does the harness fit? Could your excited dog easily slip away or back out? Does it rub their skin and cause irritation?
If the harness is uncomfortable for them, hinders their movement, or otherwise is aversive to them, take time to make it a positive experience.
Remember the goal: your dog's comfort and safety; your comfort and safety; the safety of those around you.
Consider your dog's physical, emotional, and mental well-being when selecting walking equipment, and when heading out for a walk. There are many alternatives for physical and mental exercise if walks are too stressful for you and your dog right now due to behavioral concerns.
Our dogs have very little control over their lives, including what they are walked on. We owe it to them to ensure that the experience of the walk is a positive experience for them, and that their safety and well-being is always a top priority.
If you have questions about how to have a better walk with your dog, what equipment is right for you, or anything else, I would love to talk with you!
Until then, take good care of you!