According to the 2020 PAWS survey by the PDSA, pulling on the lead is the most common canine behaviour that dog owners would like to change. A dog that pulls constantly on their lead can be exhausting for both parties and spoil what should be an enjoyable walk. There are lots of different options for leads, collars, harnesses and head collars. Many are marketed with the claim that they can help prevent this frustrating behaviour. When deciding which option is best for you and your pet, it is important to consider safety, the mental and physical effects on your pet in addition to their effectiveness.
Table of contents
- Collars are one of the oldest and most widespread types of restraint for dogs
- Head collars and figure of 8 harnesses have become a popular choice for dogs that pull
- For dogs that pull, many experts now recommend the use of a well fitting harness
- For most of these devices a lead is also required and the choice of lead is important
- The best way to stop a dog pulling on the lead long term is through positive, reward based training
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Collars are one of the oldest and most widespread types of restraint for dogs
An enormous variety of colours and designs are available. Some collars claim to be more comfortable due to them being wider or more padded. Generally however collars are not a good choice for dogs that pull on their leads. Even the best designed collars have been shown in studies (Carter et al 2021) to cause very high pressures when your pet pulls against it. These have the potential to cause pain and damage to your pet’s neck.
Even worse are collars specifically designed to cause pain or discomfort when a dog pulls on the lead. This includes prong or pinch collars, shock collars and choke chains. Many owners turn to these as a last resort when they feel nothing else works. Shock collars are soon to be banned in England in line with countries such as Wales. The RSPCA, Blue Cross and Dog’s Trust have also called for Prong / Pinch collars to be banned. The BVA and BSAVA have issued a joint statement advising against their use. Choke chains have traditionally been used to prevent pulling but have been associated with serious injuries including damage to the dog’s windpipe or oesophagus and fainting. Slip leads are somewhat gentler and are more commonly used. But they still have similar potential for damage if used in dogs that pull excessively for long periods.
Head collars and figure of 8 harnesses have become a popular choice for dogs that pull
Many organisations have recommended their use as a safe and gentle alternative to the devices described above. However, their use is not without risks and some behaviourists and trainers no longer recommend them. The concerns mostly centre around the potential discomfort or even pain dogs may feel over their faces and the strain placed on their necks when they pull against them. There is little evidence at present for risk of severe injury as is the case with some other methods. However these devices still represent a form of aversive training where the dog suffers a negative consequence for their “bad” behaviour. Many older training methods relied on these principles. But there has been a recent move towards more positive reinforcement and reward based techniques.
For dogs that pull, many experts now recommend the use of a well fitting harness
In other words, one that does not restrict the movement of the front legs and that has the lead attachment around the front. When a dog pulls on this type of harness it tends to twist their whole body away from the direction of travel and prevent the behaviour. This is in contrast to the older styles of harness where the lead attaches to the top. These tend to encourage pulling as dogs can easily lean their whole body weight into them
For most of these devices a lead is also required and the choice of lead is important
There is a growing consensus about the dangers posed by extendable leads. Their length means they can easily become tangled, the handles are often cumbersome and hard to hold and it is not uncommon for the brake function to fail at a critical moment meaning a sudden loss of control. There have been many reports of human injuries including serious falls from people being pulled over, friction burns and severe damage to fingers from the moving parts. Most trainers recommend a solid lead that is around 1.75 metres long. This allows some amount of freedom but retains control.
The best way to stop a dog pulling on the lead long term is through positive, reward based training
These techniques reward your pet for the desired behaviour. They have been shown to be at least as, if not more effective than, traditional punishment based methods (Ziv, 2017). Punishment based training has been shown to increase the risk of stress and behaviour problems such as anxiety or even aggression. It has also been suggested that it may damage the human / canine bond. The use of head collars, figure 8 leads and slip leads may be indicated for short term use in certain circumstances, for example where there is an issue with human or canine safety. But they should not be relied upon long term.