Whoa Nelly: Tools for Better Walks
Without a doubt, the one thing I hear people say they struggle with more than anything when training their dog, is teaching their dog to walk on leash. "He got sit, down, stay - no problems! But walking him is a nightmare!" Now I'm not a dog trainer, and I'm not even going to attempt to teach you how to walk your dog on leash in a blog post, but what I can do is discuss some of the tools people use in an effort to teach their dogs to walk with you, as opposed to pulling you down the street.
First things first: don't use a retractable leash. I know, they are easy and convenient, and you feel like you have more control over your dog. I hate to break it to you, but it's all a lie. The ultimate goal of teaching a dog to walk on leash is for them to feel little to no resistance on the lead, encouraging them to walk closer to you; the leash should be slack when they are walking, not taut and pulling on their collar or harness. Using a retractable leash teaches them the exact opposite - that there is always resistance on the leash - and that pulling actually extends the leash in the direction they want to go. What's more, and this is a shock to some people, retractable leashes can be dangerous to both you and your dog. Getting tangled up in the thin cord of the leash can cause burns, cuts, and even amputations. Yup. My own family doctor told me about a young patient who had a finger all but severed by a retractable leash that got caught around one of her fingers. Dogs can also suffer injuries to their neck & spine from coming to a sudden stop when they run out of leash. A fixed leash, no more than 6-feet, is your safest and best bet.
Also, a word about pinch or prong collars. I personally do not use them, nor do I advocate their use. I understand many people have success with them, but when used incorrectly they can cause serious injury to a dog. Several trainers will recommend them, and they can be very effective, but for the average dog who needs minor to moderate corrections while walking, there are safer alternatives out there. Most trainers will only recommend these collars for dogs who lunge or may have aggression issues. Again, that is my humble opinion; feel free to do your research on both sides of this argument!
Okay, so now what? Your dog pulls on the leash while walking, dragging you down the street. It's not fun for either of you, so what do you do now? There are lots of people out there who say they have "The Ultimate Walking Tool" that will teach your dog to walk properly in no time, you just have to give them your money. What they leave out is that you still have to do a lot of work to teach your dog what walking well on leash actually means. Walking on leash is not instinctive to dogs - it's not something that comes naturally - so they genuinely have no idea what leashed walking should be. When out roaming off leash, or naturally in a pack, dogs will often stay within range of each other (or their human) but will wander and explore as they see fit...basically the exact opposite of walking nicely at an even pace beside you! This means that there is a substantial learning curve for dogs when they are first introduced to leashed walking, and regardless of the tools you use, it is your job to fill that knowledge gap. As always, there are some great articles & videos online that can give you tips on how to teach your dog to walk on leash, and I strongly recommend working with a trainer to build on these tips. Training is an ongoing process that requires a lot of patience, but is worth it for both you and your doggo in the end.
Okay, you've been doing your homework and you've got your training method down pat, but you would like a harness or collar to help with corrections while training your dog to walk properly. There are a bunch of options out there, but we'll focus on two I've personally tried.
The Easy Walk Harness
This style of harness, which goes around the body of the dog similar to a traditional harness, is one we used on our previous dog. Instead of attaching the leash to a ring between the dog's shoulders, the leash clips to a ring on the dog's chest. It helps to correct pulling in that when the dog puts resistance on the harness, it pulls the legs in, bringing their front legs together and pulling them to the side, affecting their gait. Watch the promotional video to see how it works. We found it really effective at teaching our Golden Retriever (a moderate puller) to walk with us.
The Gentle Leader
There are several brands & style variations of this harness, but the Gentle Leader is probably to most popular, along with the Hatli. We currently use the Gentle Leader with Winnie when we are going places that require more control - think dog-friendly stores or events, places with lots of people to meet and things to explore! This style of harness is fitted around the dog's muzzle and the back of the head, giving a higher degree of control. It should be said that most dogs are not a fan of this style of harness at first, and it takes a lot of rewards and positive reinforcement to get them used to it! However, I personally find this is one of the best options for dogs that are moderate to intense pullers on the leash. When the dog pulls using this harness, it brings their head down and to the side, putting gentle pressure on their muzzle. You can see this one in action here, or come to a Squad Sunday and see Winnie model it in person!
There are so many other options for harnesses & collars that are designed to teach your dog how to walk with you, and this is a great list of pros & cons for several of the most popular options. With training & patience, most dogs will learn to walk without the harness, but they can also be used longterm to reinforce positive behaviours.
No matter which option you choose, the only way to teach your dog how to walk properly is with training. It is still up to you as their owner to help them learn the basics, which can be much easier with the use of tools like these. With time and patience, walks can be a rewarding way to spend time together.