These tools were made for (dog) walkin
Mikkel Becker is the lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. She is a certified behavior consultant and trainer who specializes in reward-based training thats partnered closely with the pets veterinary team. Mikkel is the co-author of six books, including From Fearful to Fear Free, and was the featured trainer on Vetstreet.com.
A walk in the park should be just that for both the dog and the owner. Read up on these leash, harness and halter options so youll be ready to help your veterinary clients find the finest fits for their canine companions.
This pooch is prepped for a peaceful pace. (emmapeel34 - stock.adobe.com)For many dogs, a walk with their owner is the most highly anticipated event of the day, and we know it's good for the bodies and minds of the creatures at both ends of the leash. But when a dog's on-leash behavior is out of control, walk enjoyment (and frequency) can plummet. To help owners control the chaos of leashed walks, consider these humane walking tools.
Fixed-length leash: A standard, fixed-length leash is an absolute must because it's the perfect tool to help teach dogs to walk politely. Leashes that stretch or are retractable can actually teach and reinforce pulling behaviors. Instead, a fixed-length leash is just that, meaning there's no guesswork on the amount of space the dog can venture away from its owner before hitting the end of its rope (err … leash). The set length is important for teaching the dog that the freedom to move forward doesn't come until the dog feels slack instead of tension.
There are a variety of options within the fixed-length family:
- Length. A 6-foot leash is ideal for most dogs. A 4-foot leash increases the likelihood that the owner will grip too tightly on the leash without allowing for slack, thereby increasing the likelihood of tension in the dog (and increasing the likelihood of reactive behavior).
- Material. The standard nylon leash can be an excellent choice, but climbing rope material leashes are an increasingly popular option. Both materials are ideal for their strength, durability and limited flex. In most cases, a leash with built-in bungee stretch will cause challenges for owners trying to teach loose-leash walking skills. It can also make it more difficult to reel in the dog when needed. However, for owners with pain or mobility issues, these options can help reduce the jarring pull to joints if the dog suddenly lunges and hits the end of the leash.
- Other features. Some leashes are equipped with carabiner clips that allow for a quick clip to an eye bolt or around a fixed point (like a tree) for a hands-free training session or around the waist for a mobile, hands-free walk or training session.
Rein in retractable leashes
Retractable leashes prove problematic in almost all situations. Most (if not all) of us are familiar with the unwelcome greeting of a dog rushing up to clients from across the waiting room that results in distress for the pets and a tripping hazard for the people, or the fearful dog that panics and flees away in desperation when the leash handle slips out of its owner's hand and “chases” behind the fleeing dog.
But if they are going to be used (and they will, regardless of our warnings), educate your clients on where it's safest to do so. These are not devices to use in crowded spaces like sidewalks, the veterinary office or a training class. Rather, they need to be limited to an open area, such as a large park, where the dog can actively move and sniff with freedom without impeding upon other dogs. If clients are using a retractable leash while leash training, encourage them to use a back clip harness rather than one that clips in the front or clipping the leash to a flat collar. This can help the dog differentiate the situation and, by extension, reduce the unwanted pulling.
Waist-worn leash: Waist-worn leashes are excellent hands-free options for jogging and multitasking situations (such as pushing a stroller and walking the dog at the same time). They can also work well for dog-training class or training while out on walks as the owner's hands are free to reward the dog for right behaviors. Tell clients to look for waist-worn leashes with a quick-release option in the event of an emergency, such as the Buddy System Hands Free Leash.
Jogging-specific leashes may use a stretchy material for the length of the leash. This can be beneficial for reducing the jolt to both the owner and the dog as changes in pace or direction are made. However, for teaching and retaining loose-leash walking skills, the stretch can cause problems.
Long line leash: Long line leashes allow the dog to have more freedom without the owner losing control. Lengths vary, but 15-, 20- and 30-foot options are common. Long line leashes are a better way to allow a dog to explore at the end of its leash than retractable ones. (Read more on this in the sidebar to the above.)
Cut out corrective collars
Any device that causes fear or pain to incentivize the dog to remain close to its owner (such as prong, pinch, choke chains and shock collars) comes with risks. These include creating unintended negative associations as well as causing repeated physical pain and psychological trauma without actually teaching the dog what to do instead.
Harness: Harnesses can be a great option, but the structure and fit are important considerations. Certain harnesses cross over the front of the dog's shoulders and chest, and while these can be helpful for deterring pulling in some instances, they can cause mobility challenges and their use is limited to a shortened period of time. Other options center in the front of the dog's chest, which allows for more free movement of the dog's shoulders as it walks, jogs or runs and increases the amount of time the dog may be comfortable wearing the device.
Another important consideration is where the leash clips to the harness:
- Back-clip harnesses can be an excellent option for allowing dogs to freely explore (as may be done on a long line). However, for dogs that pull or are difficult to control on the leash, the back-clip harness adds to the owner's challenges.
- Front-clip harnesses that clip at the center point of the dog's chest, such as the SENSE-ation Dog Harness and Wonder Walker Body Halter, use the dog's own motion and center of gravity to gently deter pulling. These harnesses are relatively easy for dogs to acclimate to and offer increased directional control over the dog that helps deter pulling and increase owner control.
Other harness options include:
- Tightening harnesses, such as the Easy Walk Harness, have a limited slip function that provides gentle pressure to a fixed degree as the dog walks to help deter pulling in a gentle manner.
- Multifunctional harness and leash systems allow for varied hookup points, including those that allow the leash to be attached at a fixed point on both the back and chest (like the 3 in 1 Harness from PetSafe and the Freedom No Pull Harness). This flexibility in functionality can prove to be a handy tool for adjusting to the given walk scenario and allow for graduation during the training process of teaching the canine to walk nicely on a leash.
Forget flat collars?
Flat collars offer an option for ID tag holding and a quick clip for walking the dog. However, they may also add additional stress to the canine's throat and do little to decrease the strain with dogs prone to pulling.
Head halter: Head halters like the Gentle Leader Headcollar and HALTI Headcollar give owners control without compromising the dog's trust. They control the dog's nose, mouth, head and, by extension, its entire body, in a way that's similar to how horse halters function and are especially helpful for dogs with pulling issues and those that would benefit from increased direction (such as reactive dogs).
Dogs will need an adjustment period to get used to the halter, and owners will need education from you. To ensure they're used correctly, teach owners how important it is to achieve the right fit and to desensitize dogs to the device (a Victory Visit is a great time to do this). Teaching a dog to put its nose willingly into the device rather than immediately placing the equipment will help decrease the dog's apprehension and increase its compliance and comfort when wearing the device.
Now that you have this knowledge, share it! Don't hesitate to bring it up with pet owners in the exam room. There's a good chance that several of your clients are struggling in this area, and they may not know that you're the perfect person to offer advice. Even if a dog comes in with all the right equipment, that doesn't mean its owner is using it properly or that it's working for the dog. By doing a little gentle conversational probing, you can help protect and enhance the human-animal bond and keep your patients safe at the same time.
Mikkel Becker is the resident trainer for vetstreet.com and works in conjunction with veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists to address behavior issues in dogs and cats. Her four-legged best friend is Willy the pug, a certified therapy dog through the Delta Society. They are both adventurists and enjoy traveling together to experience the great outdoors, from visiting the farm animals on the family ranch to taking hikes around their home in Seattle.