Take a look at the key training tools you need to train your dog — collars, harnesses, leashes and tethers – and what to keep in mind when seeking the best products.
It used to be that the only training tools you needed for your dog was a six-foot leash and a choke chain. How times have changed – and for the better. In this two-part article, we’ll explore the collars, harnesses, leashes and tethers on today’s market, and the pros and cons of each. In Part 1, we’ll focus on collars and harnesses.
As a professional reward-based trainer, I believe whatever tools you choose should be used humanely, with your first thought being what is best and most comfortable for the dog.
Collars should not be used for training a dog to walk nicely on a leash. Yet, they are nevertheless often utilized for training purposes. They can be made of nylon, plastic, cotton, rubber, leather and metal, and come in a range of types – rolled, fl at, Martingale, buckle and snap. Here we’ll review the pros and cons of the most familiar and often used collars.
Choke chains and prong collars
Also referred to as “slip” collars, chain training collars and check chains have been around for over 50 years. They were originally made popular by British dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse in the 1960s. The choke collar is placed just behind the dog’s ears and constricts or tightens when the trainer pulls on the leash.
A prong collar, also known as a pinch collar, is made of a series of metal spikes, prongs, or wedge-shaped points that pinch the loose skin of the dog’s neck when the trainer pulls on the leash.
Both choke and prong collars are primarily used to control a dog’s pulling and lunging and to get him to heel. The trainer usually employs a series of short jerks on the leash, also called “pops”, as punishment to get the desired result. Ultimately, the dog learns to avoid the aversive tightening of the collar around his neck by walking near the trainer’s side.
Pros: None! It is certainly possible to force a dog to stop jumping or lunging, and to teach a behavior such as heeling, by using a choke or prong collar. However, our understanding of how dogs learn has come a long way in the past 20 years, and the training fi eld has evolved, resulting in safer, easier, and more reliable reward-based methods. Using a choke or prong collar to force a behavior is no way to educate a family member and friend.
Cons: Can cause whiplash and injuries to the trachea and esophagus; these can lead to asphyxiation (such as when a dog is hung or “helicoptered”). Other injuries may include spinal cord trauma; injuries to blood vessels in the eyes; neck sprains; bruising and damage to the skin and tissues in the neck; and/or behavioral problems such as pain-infl uenced aggression, which may lead to severe bites.
Also known as limited slip collars or greyhound collars, Martingale collars are fl at, usually cotton collars with a loop that goes over the dog’s head, and another attached loop, that when pulled, tightens the loop around the dog’s head.
Pros: When fitted properly, it doesn’t choke the dog, yet makes it virtually impossible for him to slip or back out of it.
Cons: Loose loops. People often do not fit the collar correctly. The dog’s paws or jaw can sometimes get caught in the dangling loop. It must be stressed that this collar is only safe when properly fitted.
Unfortunately, some people believe the Martingale collar is designed to keep a dog from pulling. It is not.
Lastly, for safety’s sake, it is very important to remove any collar, especially a Martingale, when dogs are playing with one another or are put in kennels. In those situations a breakaway collar is recommended.
Also referred to as remote training collars or shock collars, electronic collars are designed to deliver an electrical charge in order to communicate what the trainer wants the dog to do or stop doing. Electronic collars can be used in three ways:
- Marker: A signal to the dog that a behavior is correct and a treat is on the way. In this mode, the collar is set at the lowest vibrational intensity possible. Classical conditioning is used first to pair the tactile electrical sensation with a highly valued treat. Some blind and deaf dogs are trained in this way.
- Cue to elicit a behavior: A signal to the dog to perform a particular behavior, such as turn left, turn right, lie down, come, etc. Again, the collar is set at the lowest vibrational intensity possible.
- Cue to stop a behavior: This is the option most people are familiar with when it comes to electronic collars. If a dog is doing something the trainer doesn’t want, like jumping, barking or lunging, an electric current is delivered to him through two contact points located on the collar. In this mode, the collar is set at a level with enough intensity to force the dog to comply, because of the discomfort or pain it causes.
Pros: In the experienced hands of a reward-based trainer, an electronic collar can be an effective tool in remote training, as well as for some, but not all, blind and deaf dogs.
Cons: If all electronic collars in existence had a maximum setting of “feather’s touch”, without any option for additional intensity, they could, with strict instructions and careful monitoring, be a useful tool for many, though not all, dogs. Unfortunately this is not the case. There are several other reasons electronic collars are not recommended:
- The trainer’s skills. In the hands of anyone but the most skilled individual, who uses precise timing, consistency and awareness of the dog’s physical and emotional capabilities, mistakes and abuse are almost guaranteed with electronic collars – and that becomes a “catch 22” situation. In order to achieve an effective level of expertise, the trainer has to experiment and practice with the collar, which means the dog is going to suffer while the trainer hones his or her skills.
- Aversive training methods. If too much force or intensity is used, the dog may shut down completely and the relationship with the trainer or other humans or animals is irreparably harmed. This is especially true if shock collars are used on already stressed, fearful and reactive dogs. If too little force is used, the dog simply learns to ignore the signals. In addition, people are tempted to “speed the process along” by cranking up the intensity. If a trainer thinks a little correction works, it is easy to slip into the mindset that “a little more might work better” and the intensity of the corrections increases.
- The individual dog. The amount of pain a dog feels depends on several factors: his touch sensitivity, the thickness of hair between the collar and his skin, his temperament and past training history, and so on. Putting a shock collar around your own neck cannot compare to what an individual dog will feel. Even if you tried this, the emotional impact would be quite different if control of the collar was given to another person and you never knew when a correction was coming.
- Unintentional corrections. Dogs can sometimes experience a shock completely unrelated to the trainer’s intentions. Occasionally, an outside radio frequency, such a remote controlled child’s toy or an automatic garage opener, can set off an electronic collar.
- Ethical consideration. If a behavior can be elicited or controlled without causing pain or discomfort, why would anyone consciously do otherwise?
Stay away from choke and prong collars. Avoid electronic collars unless you and your dog are under the direct supervision of a professional trainer who is rooted in reward-based training. Wider collars are more comfortable for dogs, whether you choose a buckle, snap collar or Martingale collar. Whichever one you choose, it should be regularly checked for proper fit.
To preface, I believe that a leash should be attached to a properly fitted harness rather than a collar when walking a dog. While “no-pull” harnesses should not be used as a substitute for training your dog to walk without pulling or lunging, they can be very helpful until a dog is an accomplished “nice walker”.
Also referred to as a head halter, the nose harness is one of the most common anti-pulling harnesses on the market. It works on the principle of “where the head goes, the body follows”. A nose harness works as a form of negative reinforcement: gentle pressure is applied on the dog’s nose whenever he pulls, and is immediately released when he stops pulling. Some head halter brand names include Gentle Leader, Promise Collar, Comfort Trainer, Canny Collar, and Halti.
Pros: Used properly, the nose harness/head halter doesn’t cause pain and can be an effective, humane anti-pulling tool.
Cons: Nose harnesses won’t work for some dogs because of their physiology – e.g., they should be avoided in brachycephalic dogs like pugs and French bulldogs because the straps ride up into the eye area. Also, many dogs do not like contraptions around their muzzles (however, after a few days of counter-conditioning, these dogs can usually wear the halter without difficulty).
Using a nose harness can cause the potential for spinal injury. If a dog suddenly lunges and comes up short at the end of the leash, his head can be jerked violently sideways. And in spite of written cautions, some people use leash corrections on a dog wearing nose harnesses. Leash corrections are never recommended in training and are especially dangerous if a dog is wearing a nose harness. Quick jerks on the leash can easily injure a dog’s neck and spine.
Finally, many dogs revert to pulling once the nose harness is removed.
Front attachment harnesses
As the name implies, the front attachment harness has a connection ring situated on the dog’s chest. Some models also include a ring on the straps that meet over the dog’s back. When the leash is attached to the chest ring and the dog pulls, he or she is guided back toward the walker. This type of harness is another of the most commonly used anti-pulling harnesses on the market. I recommend that if you are going to jog with your dog, a front attachment harness is the tool to use until he is taught to no longer pull or lunge. Brand names include Freedom, Easy Walk, Sensation, and Walk-in-Sync.
Pros: When fitted correctly, a front attachment harness can be a very effective anti-pulling tool.
Cons: No one harness works best for every dog, due to different body shapes and designs. With some dogs, a particular harness’s connecting snap might end up right under his “arm pits”, which is very uncomfortable for him. In general, wider straps are more comfortable than thinner ones.
Over time, a strong puller can work the harness a little loose, so it should be checked before every walk. I also recommend attaching a carabineer to both collars and harnesses, for added safety; as well, the clip will hold the front strap in place, keeping it effective.
The ThunderLeash can be used as a plain leash or harness. As an anti-pulling harness, it is designed with a metal “harness slot” that rests between two buckles. The leash wraps around your dog and is threaded through the metal slot. It is then attached to his collar. When the dog pulls, a mild pressure is applied around his midsection, reducing his desire to pull.
Pros: Humane and easy to put on. Works very well with some dogs.
Cons: Not a lot of sizes to choose from. This is pertinent because people with smaller dogs have had problems with the hefty buckles not staying in place.
Anti-pulling harnesses are effective safety tools for walks, but no one harness works for every dog. Size, strength and body shape all factor in. A professional trainer is always recommended, not only to help you decide which harness to use, but to teach you how to get your dog to walk nicely on a leash so an anti-pulling harness isn’t even necessary.
An anti-pulling harness can teach a dog not to pull when he is wearing it, but he often reverts to pulling when it is removed. Once again, I recommend working with a professional, positive trainer.
All harnesses are only as good as their fi t. Make sure whatever product you use is fi tted correctly. And as suggested earlier, it’s not a bad idea to correctly add another connecting clip or carabineer for extra safety.
As with collars and harnesses, leash types are legion. Which one is best for you and your dog?
These are made of leather or cotton and are usually six feet in length. You can spend hundreds of dollars on designer leashes – but let’s face it, your dog probably couldn’t care less.
Virtually no dog enjoys his first introduction to a leash. Dogs hate being restrained; it triggers their oppositional reflex and they pull frantically trying to escape. With a newly adopted, never-been-on-a-leash-before dog, it is always a good idea to introduce the leash in conjunction with something positive like highly valued treats – chicken, cheese, and so on.
Let the dog drag the leash to his food bowl and while playing outside (supervised of course). It won’t take long for him to realize the leash is a good thing, especially as it now allows him to go on walks.
Pros: Virtually any basic leash will work fine. But stay away from metal chain leashes – they are heavier than a regular cotton or leather leash and more uncomfortable for most dogs.
Cons: Exercise caution with the clips on the end of the leash.Some are poorly made and can slip off the collar or harness. Others are simply difficult to operate and you’ll end up fumbling around to get them undone.
Also known as elastic or stretch leashes, bungee leashes are mostly made of rubber so that when the dog pulls, the leash stretches out. Some are straight and some are coiled. They come in a variety of lengths and thicknesses.
Pros: This leash’s “give” can be a good thing because the stretchiness can absorb the impact of a dog suddenly lunging while on a walk. I have also found elastic leashes very useful in teaching a dog not to pull. In fact, it is the leash I recommend for training purposes. That being said, it is not for everyone and you should hire a professional trainer to instruct you on how to use it for training purposes.
One of the exercises trainers use to teach a dog to walk nicely on a leash is the red light/green light game. If the dog comes to the end of the leash, the trainer stops walking. When the dog backs up and the leash loosens, the trainer starts walking again (green light). If you play this game while the dog is wearing an elastic leash, the dog quickly learns to feel even the slightest tension as the leash stretches, and will stop pulling, knowing that if the tension increases further, you will stop walking.The end result is a dog that walks while maintaining only the slightest, if any, leash tension.
The other thing I like about these leashes is that they don’t hang as low to the ground, so they don’t get tangled between the dog’s legs as much as a regular leash would. No bungee leash should be more than six feet in length; this is so you can maintain control of your dog. For dogs over 15 pounds, only thick-width leashes should be used.
Cons: Many of these leashes are marketed as “correction leashes”. They should never be used to give a dog a correction.
Also known as extension leashes, they work on the same principle as a measuring tape; when the dog moves forward, the spring-loaded leash, usually a cord of thin rope or cotton strap, extends from a plastic handle. Lengths vary from six to 100 feet. When the dog moves back to the walker, the cord retracts into the handle. There is a clip on the handle you can use to lock the leash at a specific length.
Cons: Retractable leashes can be very dangerous because they offer no control over your dog. He can suddenly be ten feet away from you, chasing a cat into the street, or just as suddenly wrapped around your legs, trying to escape another dog.
As well, I have seen many puppies, or recently adopted sound-sensitive dogs, suddenly bolt when their people accidentally drop the plastic leash handle, which further scares the dog as it rattles along behind him.
The safest leashes are four to six feet in length and well made from leather or cotton, with high quality, easy-to-handle clips. Leashes measuring ½” to 1” in width are preferred.
Stay away from retractable (extension) and chain leashes. Hire a professional trainer if you decide to use an elastic (bungee) leash.
The idea of putting a dog on a tether is a very hot topic, and deservedly so. The improper use of tethers has led to unimaginable abuse, such as dogs being left out in the yard alone with no water, exercise, play or socialization. Numerous reports link unattended tethered dogs with aggression. So let’s be clear from the outset: a dog should never be tied to anything while unsupervised or unattended. This is obvious when you think of the potential dangers. Along with the aforementioned aggression issue, the dog could get tangled up and injured, or suffer emotional trauma from being restrained and left alone. Tethered dogs are also more easily stolen.
In addition, a dog should never be tethered without shade, water or shelter from the cold or rain, or anyplace where he can’t escape from other animals, including insects. Nor should a dog ever be tethered as a form of punishment.
All this being said, a tether can be used safely and properly as a powerful management tool for training. When I suggest using a tether, especially indoors, many people cringe a little. When I point out that walking a dog on a leash is a form of tethering, the concept becomes a little more acceptable.
Positive trainers compare tethering to holding a child’s hand so he can’t run into the street or out the front door, steal candy off a shelf, and so on. Just like holding a child’s hand, tethering a dog is a temporary prevention management tool that gives the dog time to form good behavioral habits, rather than bad habits that then have to be corrected. Proper tethering helps resolve problems like jumping, stealing, running out the door, begging at the table, housesoiling, getting on the furniture, and more.
- Get your dog to love being tethered by using a step-by-step progression of systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning.
- Only tether a dog when you are around to supervise him.
- A tether can be made from rope, cable, cotton or leather (like a leash), or from chain. I recommend using a thick cable, so the tether doesn’t wrap around the dog’s legs and get tangled up. Plastic-coated chew-proof cables measuring 3/8” in width and wider are good choices. However, in a pinch and if properly supervised, a leash is okay.
- Only use tethering as part of a training program that includes teaching your dog appropriate behaviors.
- Only use a tether for prevention and management, and only do so for short periods.
When it comes to training dogs, selecting the best collars, harnesses, leashes and tethers – and using them correctly and appropriately – is paramount. Used in conjunction with a gentle, positive, reward-based approach, and the assistance of a professional trainer when and as needed, they can help ensure a happy and well behaved dog.
Editor’s note: Another leash option is the hands-free design. “It has many features that contribute to a good training tool,” says Meera Brown of Smoochy Poochy. “It has the hands-free option, and a mesh pouch that can hold training treats. The handle releases so you have the option of wrapping the leash around your waist or across your shoulders by clipping the open handle into a brass grommet.” The company’s leashes are made from durable nylon webbing and a leather-like material.
Paul Owens began training dogs in 1972. He is a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and The Pet Professional Guild. He has long been a leading proponent of force-free, non-violent training. He authored the best-selling The Dog Whisperer and The Puppy Whisperer books and is featured on the new DVD, Welcome Home! Ultimate Guide for All Newly Adopted Puppies and Dogs. Paul is director of Raise with Praise Professional Dog Training, and founder/director of the children’s after school violence prevention program, Paws for Peace.