A leisurely walk is an activity both people and dogs can appreciate. It’s a great way to take in some sunshine, get in some exercise, and explore what’s new in the neighborhood. However, the fun can turn to frustration if your dog is determined to pull on the leash, and you can never quite figure out who is walking who.
Leash pulling is a fairly common problem. Some experts attribute the behavior to a dominance issue; the dog wants to show he’s the pack leader by deciding where you go on your walks, and at what pace. Other experts believe that the reason is far simpler; dogs pull because they are inquisitive and excitable, and they live in the moment. Without guidance or training, a dog will choose to do what makes him happy. And, as long as he’s getting positive reinforcement even some of the time, he will keep on doing it.
Regardless of expert opinion on why pulling happens, the fact is that that it’s a problem that needs a solution. Good doggie manners are all about self-control, and a properly leash-trained pup will be disciplined enough to walk calmly beside his owner with constant slack in the leash, even when distractions arise.
The best way to discourage pulling is through the use of determined, consistent training. A well-trained dog won’t pull, regardless of which collar or harness he’s wearing. With that in mind, there are a number of collars, harnesses and other devices available that are specially designed to supplement the training process and curb pulling during walks.
Pinch (or pronged) collars feature interlocking links that tighten quickly around a dog’s neck when the leash is pulled. Their special structure prevents them from causing real pain to the dog. However, they do cause discomfort, which is meant to help correct the dog’s behavior. Each time the dog pulls or lunges, he immediately feels the discomfort, until he eventually understands that pulling has unpleasant consequences.
While pinch collars are used by many people, and many believe that they are effective training tools, they aren’t without risks, or detractors. If misused, they could reasonably cause pain or injury to a dog’s neck or throat. Some experts believe that this type of negative correction is ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.
Because of the way they’re structured, many people assume that traditional harnesses – those that are fitted around the dog’s chest and back -- keep dogs from pulling, as they give the person walking the dog more control. However, these types of harnesses can actually make pulling worse, as the dog ends up with more physical leverage. After all, these are the types of harnesses that sled dogs use! A dog with this kind of harness is more likely to spend a lot of time up with his front paws in the air than he is to stop pulling.
Headcollars feature two straps. One strap goes around the dog’s head, and the other goes around his muzzle. Each time the dog pulls, the pressure is exerted on his muzzle, which causes him to pause, relax and stop pulling. While these collars are very effective, dogs don’t tend to take to them right away. Some pre-training may be necessary to teach the dog to tolerate the collar before it can be used for leash training.
There are several harnesses on the market that are specially designed to address pulling and jumping problems. They typically have extra straps, extra martingales, or other features that actively discourage pulling and provide easier control during training and walks.
An Expert Weighs In
To get a professional’s perspective on the best products for phasing out pulling, we talked to Elsa Larsen of My Wonderful Dog in Arlington, MA. Elsa has been training dogs for more than 17 years, and she offered us her insight on her go-to products.
“My tool of choice is the Gentle Leader Headcollar,” she notes. “It really is effective at managing both dogs who pull and dogs who are jumpers. The reason it’s so effective has to do with physics. The collar uses the dog’s head as a fulcrum, and it’s easier to control the head of an animal than its body. That’s why harnesses are used for horses -- you would never be able to control a horse effectively with a buckle collar. The downside to the Gentle Leader, I feel, is that it takes some time and effort to desensitize the dog to it.”
Elsa has also enjoyed success with the Easy Walk Harness. “It’s a great tool for pulling, although it doesn’t do anything for controlling jumpers,” she notes. “The only drawback I have found is that one size doesn’t fit all – it might work really well with one dog but not necessarily another. You might have trouble fitting it to smaller dogs or dogs with narrower chests.”
The Freedom Harness is another option that works well, and offers a good amount of flexibility. “The Freedom Harness has the same premise as the Easy Walk, but it has an additional strap that makes it easier to adjust to provide a better fit,” Elsa explains.
When it comes to traditional and pinch collars, Elsa notes that she has not found any that work well to discourage pulling. “In my opinion, if you’re looking for a humane effective way to control your dog on walks, a specialized harness or head collar is the way to go,” she advises.
However you choose to address your dog’s pulling, compassion, patience and consistency are really the best tools for success. Always keep in mind that your dog is learning a new skill, which requires time and effort from both of you. If you hang in there, you’ll eventually be rewarded with a well-mannered dog who is as much of a joy to walk as you had always envisioned.