As the weather is cooling off we want to take some time this month to focus on our skill of the month: loose leash walking! It is a very important behavior for a lot of owners and a skill that makes life with our dogs that much more enjoyable. Who doesn’t love to take a good walk with their dog?
While training and consistency are the true backbone of teaching solid loose leash walking skills, there are an array of tools that you can use to help you on your loose leash walking journey. In this post we will go over the pros and cons of a few different options, and point you in the direction of the tools that we have found work best for us and our clients. (Please note that links in this post are affiliate links, which means we will earn a small commission if you choose to purchase anything from them).
Before we get into the nitty gritty of everything, it is important to remember that any and all leash walking tools are on some level aversive for our dogs at least initially. Even a leash. Dog’s don’t want to walk as slow as molasses, to them, human pace in a straight line on a concrete walkway is not the most fun. They want to go crashing through the woods at full speed and zig zag back and forth following smells. They want to roll in the grass and come back covered in mud and god knows what else. Walking human style in and of itself with all it's rules may not be your dog's first idea of a good time. When you then add in tools that, even at their kindest, inhibit their movement it could be viewed as aversive to them. This is one of the reasons that we are big proponents of Decompression Walks and we also encourage keeping neighborhood walks fun for your pup. We highly encourage you to explore Decompression Walks as an alternate exercise option for you and your dog.
But anyway. Onto the tools we can use. Let’s start with the most controversial, and probably one of the most common tools we see. The prong collar. These collars are also often referred to as a pinch collar, and there are a few different versions of them, including some plastic ones that are advertised as being “less intense”. Now here’s the controversial part. For the most part, yes, these do work. Many people are able to successfully teach loose leash walking using a prong collar. However, they are not a tool that we recommend using.
Why not? Largely because these are among the most aversive options, and they really aren’t necessary. The prong collar works because the metal (or plastic) spikes dig into our dogs neck when they pull, causing discomfort and pain. They stop pulling, the discomfort stops. That’s just how it works, and we find there are options that work just as well, if not better, and do not require actively causing our dogs discomfort. There is also a very real potential for fallout with these tools if they are used improperly. Believe it or not there is a proper way to fit a prong collar, and most people do not fit their dog's prong collar properly. They are often seen as a tool you can grab at the pet store, slap on your dog, and boom. You’ll have loose leash walking. Sadly this is not true for any tool, but when it comes to a prong collar the fact that it causes pain has a potential to create issues like reactivity in our dogs.
Sometimes they will associate the discomfort they are feeling with something they are looking at vs the fact that they are pulling. They start to associate that discomfort with the thing they are seeing in general and eventually begin to feel that thing is a threat and we are left with a reactive dog. Of course, this doesn’t happen all of the time, but the risk is there. And for us the risk isn’t worth using the tool.
For those of you who are curious, the choke chain falls under the same category as the prong collar for us.
While we’re on the subject of collars, let’s keep going down the list! Martingale Collars. Now we love a martingale collar (especially all of the super cute ones you can find on etsy) however we love them for safety reasons, not as a training tool necessarily. A martingale collar is also known as a limited slip collar and was originally designed for greyhounds and other similar sighthound breeds whose necks are wider than their skinny noodle heads. The idea is that the collar will tighten as the dog pulls. A properly fit martingale shouldn’t tighten to the point where it causes discomfort for our dogs, just tight enough that they are unable to slip backwards through it.
However, it is not uncommon for people to utilize them as a training tool using the “pressure method”. This is also commonly used with slip leashes. When they are used in this method the martingale is tightened a smidge more than is recommended and the same principle of discomfort is applied as when using the prong collar. This is definitively less aversive than the prong collar of course as the level of discomfort created is much lower. But the principle is the same and still not our preferred method.
A regular flat collar is probably the most midline item you can use. It is not particularly aversive to the dog (although pulling and choking themselves on the collar isn’t ideal) but it also will not assist you in your journey to loose leash walking. When we are deciding what tool to use it is about our dog's comfort of course, but it is also important to take our own comfort into consideration and find a tool that will keep our dogs comfortable while allowing ourselves to have a helping hand.
One of the tools we most often see people pick up in a pet store in the hopes that it will help them is a harness. There are a few different types of harnesses, and then a million different options within each type. We can’t get into all of it in one post, but we will go over the broad strokes. The most common types of harnesses we see are a step in harness, which usually buckles right at the dogs shoulder blades, a back clip harness and a front clip harness.
In terms of training the step in and back clip harnesses really don’t differ much in their effectiveness. That is that they really aren’t effective at all. Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely teach your dog how to walk on a loose leash using a back clip or step in harness, and we love the idea of getting leash pressure off our dogs necks. However, they will not make it any easier on you when it comes to teaching your dog the skill of loose leash walking. If anything they might make your job a little harder when handling a strong puller.
Standard back clip harnesses are designed very loosely after mushing harnesses worn by sled dogs. Generally speaking the further down your dog's back you are clipping their leash, the better able they are to really hunker in and pull with proper muscle distribution to move a heavy weight. Mushing harnesses typically clip way behind the dog, so a back clip or step in harness aren’t going to help them pull a sled, but it definitely isn’t going to make life easier on your shoulders.
Front clip harnesses are usually our primary recommendation when it comes to utilizing a tool to help with loose leash walking. You do have to be careful about which front clip harness you use, however. There are so many different options on the market and it can definitely be confusing as to which one is the best.
When you are looking at front clip harnesses you want to look for one that doesn’t restrict movement. The ones that sit in a straight line across the shoulders (a la the Easy Walk) can create gait issues in our dogs because of how they sit straight across and restrict the shoulders. The way they sit also makes it very easy for the harness to loosen as our dog walks, and makes the harness less effective as a result. Plus easier to slip out of. Ideally you want to look for a harness that is Y-shaped at the front and sits between and above the shoulders. We also love having a harness that has both a front clip and back clip option. This not only gives us versatility of control by possibly being about to hook our leash to both spots at the same time, but also means we can create different leashed scenarios for our dogs. For example, with my personal dogs I clip to the front of a harness if we are walking nicely on a sidewalk or out in public, and I often clip to the back when we are hiking where I am okay with them pulling a little. (Sometimes I need help up a hill).
Of course that doesn’t narrow it down a ton, there are still a ton of harness options that fit that description. Our favorites are the Balance Harness by Blue-9 and the Freedom Harness by 2Hounds Design. They are both great harnesses that have worked well for many of our clients over the years. (Please note that the links are affiliate links, which means we will earn a small commission if you choose to purchase anything from them).
The final option I want to discuss is, ironically, also a very controversial option. The head halter. For a lot of trainers the head halter is almost worse/more controversial than a prong collar. There are a lot of stories that float around the dog world of dogs who have gotten severe neck and spinal injuries from using a head halter and that is a very scary prospect. However I have never seen any concrete proof from a veterinarian of injuries like that sustained by a head halter. Past a bald spot being rubbed on the nose I have never actually seen proof of any injury from a head halter. Still, they are fairly aversive to our dogs. Wearing a weird thing on your face is not something that anyone is generally super into.
They can be a really useful tool though, and they are one that I keep in my arsenal for certain cases. Some dogs aren’t as bothered by them, and that can make them an even easier option. One of my personal dogs was so upset by a head halter that he would walk just dragging his nose on the ground until it bled. We never used it with him again. Another was completely unbothered from the first moment I put it on her, so we did use it with her. I decided to use it with her largely because she is a large-ish dog (around 45-50 lbs) and was learning how to walk while I was walking with a stroller. After an incident on a harness that nearly sent the stroller toppling over, we switched to the head halter so that we could keep everyone safe. 2 years later and she walks great next to the stroller on a flat collar.
If you are going to utilize a head halter we highly recommend doing it with the supervision of a trainer to make sure that you are introducing it to your dog properly, and that you get one that’s nice and padded on the nose strap. We also recommend finding one that has an additional strap connecting to the collar for additional safety. The HALTI is a good example of this. We are also big fans of the K9 Bridle, as it attaches behind the dogs ears which does remove some of the risk of spinal or neck injuries.
In general it is also important to remember that the goal with teaching loose leash walking is to get rid of the tool you are using. If your dog really knows how to walk on a loose leash then they shouldn’t need a tool to remind them how to do it! If you choose to keep using that tool moving forward, that is completely fine and something that most people often do. Leash walking is a frustrating and arduous skill to teach and we are never against taking a shortcut. Or even using tools in certain situations! For instance with my personal dogs, we mostly walk on their collars at this point, but if we go hiking we have harnesses that we use for additional safety and to allow them to help us out and pull a little bit. I also still carry treats with me even though I don't use them nearly as much.
Have questions about leash walking or any of these tools? Reach out! We are always here to answer your questions and help you find the right fit just for you and your dog.