There are a lot of training gear choices, and they significantly impact on your dog’s well-being, behavior, and safety. The options can be overwhelming, so here’s a breakdown of what we recommend, and why we do so.
Safety is our number one priority, but that’s not entirely straightforward. The safety of the training gear is situation specific, so it is important to consider the environment where you’ll be using it, as well as your goals. We’ll mention safety considerations as we go along.
When You’re Not Home (But Your Dog Is)
If your dog isn’t supervised, he can be “naked” or he should be wearing a collar that breaks away easily to prevent accidental strangulation.
The KeepSafe Break Away Collar from PetSafe is an excellent example.
Switching tags from your dog’s collars can be a pain, but there are devices that help, such as the Rubit! Dog Tag Clip. I also like Boomerang tags, and you can buy a few for the items that you most often use.
Microchips can certainly help your dog be found in the event that your dog breaks free of his collar and tags (and I’d prefer a lost dog over a strangled dog), but be sure that your microchip company is responsible.
We recommend harnesses as a first choice for all-purpose uses. When you clip the leash to the back of a harness, you may find that an untrained dog pulls more. This is due to his opposition reflex, which tells him to push into pressure. This is one reason dogs also pull when wearing collars. (Other reasons include that they “want to go to there”.) Training can address this pulling, but most people need immediate relief. You’ll usually find significant improvement simply by using a no-pull harness that allows the leash to attach to the front of the harness.
The Perfect Fit harness allows you to buy the top piece and the bottom piece separately so that you get the best fit possible for your pet.
I also like how the Freedom No-Pull harness fits most dogs. Both the Perfect Fit and the Freedom harnesses allow you to clip the leash to the back or front of the harness, or both if you need extra control.
The Easy Walk harness works well with some dogs, but I find that others are too easily able to wiggle out of it, or that due to their conformation it doesn’t accommodate the range of motion of their shoulders very well.
Many dogs readily accept a harness, but others may be more sensitive, and it would be wise to teach them how to “get dressed” by asking them put their body into the harness, rather than you putting the harness on them. A desensitization protocol may also aid these dogs. If you have a dog that does not like things going over or around his head, try unclipping the harness so that he needs to put his feet in the holes, and then you lift it up around him and clip it on the back.
Head halters can give significant relief for an owner with an exuberant dog. That said, they do not come without warning. They must be properly fitted, and the dog must be taught to wear the head halter through a measured desensitization protocol. Healthy dogs are probably not as risk of injury due to the halters, but if fitted improperly or sized incorrectly they may seriously rub the skin of the dog’s face. The halters come with instructions to properly fit and train your dog for the halter, but if in doubt, ask a trainer to help you introduce the halter to your dog in a kind way.
Some dogs become shut down when wearing the head halter. They may become stiff, droop their head and tail, and their feet may seem stuck in the mud. Usually this means that the desensitization period was too rushed, and greater care should be taken to train the dog to accept the halter. That said, some dogs may indeed have great difficulty with the head halter, and it may not be a good option for them.
Martingale collars are my equipment of choice for dogs that are trained to walk politely on leash, and who also do not like to wear harnesses. If your dog pulls, the martingale will directly put pressure on the esophagus, which can cause a collapsed windpipe, so be cautious. I prefer martingale collars because if the dog does pull, the collar will not slip over his head and release him. This is also really useful for Greyhounds and other dogs who have a neck that is roughly the same circumference as their head, and easily slip out of regular collars. Choose a width appropriate for the size of your dog. A small dog will be uncomfortable in a 2″ martingale. However, a very thin 3/4″ martingale will concentrate pressure in a small area, and be uncomfortable for a large dog.
There’s a built-in safety mechanism in the design of a martingale collar, in that it will also not keep tightening and choke your dog, like a choke or slip collar will. For this reason, martingales are sometimes called limited-slip collars.
Although a martingale collar will not choke a dog on its own, it can get caught on branches, another dog’s jaw, fences, and other objects, so they are not safe to use without direct supervision.
This accident happened with a colleague who was actively supervising her dogs as she was preparing them to go outside. They started playing, and the collar got stuck on the jaw of the other dog. If she wasn’t there to grab a knife, free her dog, and perform CPR, there would have been a tragedy.
I do not recommend the use of pinch collars or electronic collars, as there is a significant risk of unwanted adverse effects. These collars work by applying a stimulus that the dog doesn’t like (if the dog didn’t mind it, by definition they wouldn’t work). Unfortunately, dog logic is not the same as human logic, and while we want them to associate that “pulling = poke”, they often make other associations that cause serious training or behavior issues.
Many of the leash reactive or aggressive dogs that we work with have made the association “dog approaching = poke” or “stranger approaching = poke”. They may have initially been fearful, or even friendly, when spotting a new dog or person. But if they pulled, either in fear or excitement, and received a poke, jab, or shock, they can quite easily learn to predict that the presence of this new person or dog means that they will get punished – without realizing that the pulling has anything to do with it. Some dogs never have an issue with these collars, but others seem fine for months or even years, and small signs of reactivity go unnoticed until there is a serious problem. And there are also dogs that develop issues within one session with a correction collar.
I see so many pet dogs with issues due to the use of these collars that I don’t think it is worth the risk to the owner. Rehabilitating a leash reactive dog can be very time-consuming and expensive. Most of all, it is heartbreaking to see a formerly happy and well-adjusted dog have so much fear about his environment.
Leash pulling is not always an easy skill to train – it requires a lot of self-control on the part of the dog. If you’re struggling with polite walking, my team would love to help you and your dog work as a team. My trainers have different gear at their disposal, so if you are interested in trying an alternative to a correction collar, we can discuss your particular struggles and needs, and find an option that makes sure you have control of your dog, that you’re safe (especially if your dog is big, you are small, or we’re in the middle of a Minnesota winter), and that your dog is happy with. All judgement-free: we’re only here to help.
If there is room to let you dog do a little roaming, a long line allows you to give him freedom, but still have control when you need it. I use this tool for teaching off-leash control, and for letting my dog explore new places where a leash is required. I prefer round nylon or cotton lines. Flat nylon lines can hurt your hands.
If you’re a runner, the Stunt Puppy Stunt Runner is great for trained dogs, but will work against you if you are still in the process of teaching loose leash walking.
A six-foot leash is traditionally used for walks and training classes. There are various hands-free leashes as well. When choosing a hands-free leash, keep in mind your personal physical limitations if you have balance or spinal issues.
Some hands-free leashes fit across your body like a seat belt, such as this one from Link Leash.
This leash from Stunt Puppy is convertible – you can decrease the size of the waist loop until it is small enough for your just your hand, and you have a regular leash. (Stunt Puppy has a lot of other great products, and they’re MN local!)
I rarely recommend retractable leashes. Most people choose a retractable leash for convenience, but with a little practice with a rope long line, our students become quickly skilled with letting out the long-line and looping it back up to take it in again, and can avoid the risks of these leashes.
If you choose to use a retractable leash, please be aware of some of the risks and responsibilities:
- If you drop the leash, the large plastic handle will drag behind your dog. Fearful dogs find this very scary, and many have run away from their owners while being “chased” by the handle.
- These leashes should only be used with a harness, as unless they are “locked in position”, they are applying constant pressure on the dog’s esophagus (with a regular, martingale, or correction collar), or on their head and neck (with a head collar). They are also applying a constant “correction” if they are attached to a correction collar, which is nonsensical and unfair to the dog.
- It is impossible to teach polite walking with retractable leashes, unless the leash is in the “locked” position.
- A retractable leash should only be used with your complete and active supervision. Do not allow your dog to wander into the space of other dogs or people. Do not allow the leash to become tangled around your dog’s leg or the legs of anyone else. This is very unsafe for your dog and for others.
- If you Google Image Search “retractable leash injury” there are some pretty gruesome photos of both human and dog injuries that I don’t want to reproduce here. There are now retractable leashes with a nylon ribbon rather than the thin nylon cord, which has improved safety somewhat, but not entirely.
- The locking mechanism can break, in which case you’ll have a very difficult time shortening the leash when needed.
A bulk of our work is with aggressive and leash reactive dogs, and we need to keep them safe from others, and others safe from them. This is our number one priority. No matter what gear the dog is wearing, they must wear a backup martingale collar, and attach a connecting piece from the backup collar to the base of the leash snap.
While we require these in classes, we also highly recommend them for anyone who has a large, powerful, or exuberant dog. They’re also very helpful for dogs that are very fearful (puppy mill dogs) or that simply love running (Huskies, Greyhounds) and would be very hard to catch if a piece of equipment broke and they were freed.
In the image below, you can clearly see that if any of the plastic pieces of the harness or of the Gentle Leader were to break, that the leash would still be connected to the martingale collar via the brown attachment piece (Liberty’s Attachment from Ella’s Lead). The way I’ve connected the attachment to the leash, this also provides a backup in case the leash snap itself breaks.
And yes, leash snaps can break.
Fitting & Training Concerns
Each piece of gear you choose should be carefully fitted to your dog. Some stores (especially the small, local types) have very educated staff who can help you make a great choice. You can also work with your trainer to choose and fit your gear.
Your trainer can also help you through training concerns such as desensitizing your dog to gear (such as head halters and muzzles) and teaching your dog to put on his collar or harness by himself, which is great for dogs that are fearful or touch-sensitive. These skills are part of a set of Cooperative Care skills that allow your dog to choose to take part in his own care, which reduces stress and increases positive emotions.
The giant pet stores are testament to the fact that there are thousands of options when it comes to dog gear, but I aimed to explain the basics. Did I miss anything super important? What would you like to hear about? Leave me a comment and I’ll be sure to address it!