In this series we have written time and time again that equipment cannot replace training and you should not use anything that causes them discomfort and pain to make dogs stop pulling (or barking, or jumping…). At the same time, many dogs are very strong and they pose danger:
- to their owners (sprained wrists, leash burns, injuries from falls…),
- to themselves (running blindly under cars), and
- to other dogs (especially if they get loose).
In this post you will learn how to manage the situation while you train them to stop pulling (preferably with a competent professional).
You have the right to feel safe when you’re walking your dog, no matter what their problem is. In fact, you can’t help them unless you can manage the situation confidently.
Before we talk about management and training, here is a couple of tips on what you can use to stay safe:
- a safety harness, so that your dog can’t wiggle out of it
- two leashes, one fastened on top of the harness, the other to the ring in the front; now remember: the second leash is for emergencies only and should remain loose at all times that are not an emergency!1
- gloves to avoid leash burns
- a belt – you handle the leash with your hands but the end is secured to a belt for additional hold2
- a shock absorbing leash – this will reduce the force on both ends, protecting your dog as well as your spine
Management, management, management
People tend to underestimate the value of management in dog training or think that it means you suck at training. In reality, good management is key to successful training. Basically, management means that you try to tweak the situations to your advantage, so that your dog doesn’t get the chance to perform the undesirable behaviour.
For example: if your dog starts barking at other dogs from 50 meters, you cross the street and hide behind a parked car before you get that close. This is crucial to changing your dog’s behaviour, because the more they perform any behaviour, the stronger it becomes.
Ideally, once your dog has seen the trigger, you react before they become too aroused to stop responding to you. These are your basic options:
- distract them from the trigger until it passes (with a toy, treat search, trick – whatever works),
- lure them away and start walking away from the trigger, or
- block their view of the trigger and then distract
When your dog is too aroused to respond, they are also too aroused to learn. There is nothing to be gained from this situation – leave the scene as soon as possible and reward your dog for any behaviour that is not barking/lunging. At the same time, try to learn from these instances – at home write down what happened and how you could handle it next time.
If specific situations occur a lot (say, off leash dogs running towards you), it might be helpful to write down what you will do: if… then I will… if this doesn’t work, then I will… – and so on. Once you wrote down the specifics, you will be able to react faster in real life, because you’ve already worked through it in your head (and on paper!).
The grey area
There is a lot of equipment promising to teach your dog not to pull. Let us repeat: no piece of equipment can replace training and if someone is telling you otherwise, they’re trying to rip you off. However, equipment can be useful – mostly because it can give the human companion the feeling of safety and they can remain calm..
The following sections introduce two pieces of equipment that can help you control your dog: the no-pull harness and the head halter. Before you consider using them, think about the following points:
- A frequent cause of pulling is stress. You can often improve their “loose leash walking skills” simply by walking in calmer areas and allowing them to go back home when they’ve had enough. After all, the walk is for them.
- This equipment can’t be used on a long leash (because of the force involved), but your dog can only move – and communicate – naturally when they are on a long leash. The inability to move and communicate can result in stress and frustration, which in turn make unwanted behaviours more likely.
The no-pull harness
All „no-pull” harnesses are aversive3 but the basic version can be used responsibly, even if it is not a tool of first choice. In its basic form there is a ring located in the front (on the breast), as well as on top of the harness. If the dog pulls while wearing it, they will get turned away from the trigger.
There are a couple of points to keep in mind:
- always lead your dog on two leashes, the one attached to the front ring is for emergencies,
- always use a well-fitted H-, Y- or X- harness, avoid harnesses where the straps go over the dog’s shoulders (read here to see why)4
- reward the dog as soon as they do anything other than pulling, and
- they should always be only a temporary measure – due to the repetitive turning-around motion, the anti-pull harness puts a strain on the dog’s muscles and spine.
And – we cannot say this enough – only you can teach your dog a new behaviour, the equipment simply causes them discomfort and nothing more.
The head halter
Head halters (headhalters) arouse mixed feelings, because they have the potential to be very, very harmful. By design, all force put on the lead gets distributed over the dog’s nose, which gives the handler much more leverage. This way the dog can’t resist their owner, even if the owner is weaker than them, which can be an advantage when falling could easily cause serious injury to the owner (for example femur fractures in older people or the risk of losing pregnancy).
There are significant drawbacks of using a head halter:
- putting tension on the leash (intentional or unintentional) can lead to spine injuries,
- the dog can’t communicate with their owner or other dogs (as their movements are severely limited), and
- fearful dogs can’t avoid their triggers (be it by turning away or walking away from it), which can worsen their condition and general welfare
You cannot just put on the head halter and go, you need to train your dog to accept it first. The steps are similar to muzzle training – starting with teaching the dog to put their face into the head halter voluntarily, moving step by step, until you can fasten all the straps and they turn their head at the gentlest pressure. Depending on how mistrustful your dog is, this can take a long time. (Consider if it’s not better to spend that time working on your dog’s triggers, their arousal level or their general leash walking skills.)
In summary, head halters are only appropriate when the dog is much stronger than their owner and they should always be used under the guidance of a trainer. They can make the owner feel safe, which allows them to walk and train their dog again. They should always be a temporary measure and the main training goal for that period of time is helping the dog and the owner reach a point when the head halter is no longer necessary.
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Check out my other equipment posts
These posts were created in collaboration with Donau Dogs.