BEST LEASHES AND COLLARS FOR TRAINING: OVERVIEW by Pat Miller
1. Consider your own training philosophy. Be clear with yourself about how you want to train your dog. Writing it out can help you formulate and make a commitment to a cohesive training mission and program.
2. Be a critical thinker. Filter all tools and techniques through your own training philosophy and mission before adopting them for use with your dog.
The Goal of Training
We train our dog in order to produce a happy, confident, well-behaved dog, who understands how to elicit frequent praise and rewards from his happy, positive owner. His collar and leash are essentially a backup safety device to keep him attached to his owner – not necessary to physically control or restrain him.
The risks of using aversive techniques are many, and these can include the types of tools you use to train. All dog guardians will need to own a leash, and some kind of body restraint tool - a collar, or harness. The types of tools you use in training your dog will shape the nature of that training. You have to decide what techniques and tools are right for training and handling your dog, based on your unique training philosophy.
To help you analyze which tools are most likely to help you without hurting your dog, I’ll share my professional opinions about the tools most commonly recommended by positive trainers, always with an eye to whether their intended function is neutral, reinforcing, or aversive, and how they may be, in fact, perceived by the dog.
Leads and Leashes for Dogs
Basic Leashes: Cotton, leather, and nylon leashes are designed to be neutral, and most dogs appear to perceive them that way, at least initially. If your dog makes a positive association with the leash (leash means walk - YAY!) then it can be used as a reinforcer. Your dog can learn to work (sit) for the leash if he learns that “sit” means the leash appears, which makes a walk happen. If the leash is used as a tug toy (as widely practiced by some agility trainers), then the positive association is “leash means play!” and leash-play is a reinforcer for good or excellent behavior on the agility course. A leash can also be aversive, if a dog makes an association between wearing the leash and being punished during training or while walking. For some dogs, the positive associations of going for a walk or training can outweigh the negative associations of aversive tools sometimes used in walking or training. The dog may still enjoy the activity, although perhaps not as fully as if the aversives weren’t in use.
Stretch Leashes: Some dog leashes have built-in elastic pieces; others are comprised of a length of stretchy rubber tubing. The elasticity is meant to absorb the impact that occurs when your dog hits the end of the leash with his body weight. Used carefully, this feature might minimize or prevent damage to your dog’s trachea. However, these leashes are usually marketed as a way to decrease your dog’s pulling behavior. If it does succeed in doing that (which may be doubtful) it does so by working as a mild aversive. This is confirmed by makers of the products; we found the following statements in ads or packages for products of this type:
“Made from latex that stretches to six feet in length; this stretching continuously, gently corrects your pet.”
“As your dog pulls, the leash stretches, and the resistance your pet experiences teaches them not to tug anymore.”
“While softening the shock against the dog’s neck, reducing the risk of throat and spinal injuries, the leash delivers an effective correction and release.”
Note the use of terms such as “correction” and “teaches them not to” (our emphasis). These are your clues that the intent of the product is to teach the dog what not to do (not pull) rather than to reinforce the desired behavior and thereby teach him what to do (walk politely). Remember that this is the basic philosophical difference between positive training and training with aversives.
Long Lines for Dogs: Many long-line products are available, from light lines (thin nylon cords) to long lines (flat cotton or nylon) that range in length from 10 to 60 feet or more. Long lines are neutral tools that can be given a reinforcing or aversive association for your dog, depending on how they’re used. In general, the purpose of a long line is to give your dog more freedom while still maintaining control - very useful when you’re working to generalize a reliable recall, or just to give your dog more exercise. When used with proper safety precautions, I find they fit nicely into my training philosophy. My cautions include:
1) Long lines should not be used where the line might pose a tripping or tangling danger to other dogs or humans.
2) Be careful not to let your dog run full-speed into the end of a long line for fear of injury to his spine.
3) Don’t let go! If your dog runs off into the woods dragging a long line, he can get tangled and trapped.
Retractable Dog Leashes: The retractable leash is commonly seen on trails, in dog parks, and on city streets. Invented in Germany, the leash consists of a plastic handle in which a spring-loaded cord is stored. When the dog moves away from the owner, the cords unreels anywhere from 15 to 30 feet, depending on the model; when the dog moves toward the owner the cord retracts into the handle. The owner can lock the leash at any time by pushing a button on the handle. While it is neutral by design, as a tool, the retractable leash can be detrimental to training a dog to display polite leash manners. It teaches a dog that pulling against the tension of the spring-loaded cord frequently gets reinforced with greater freedom. A handler can eliminate this inadvertent reward by locking the button, preventing the leash from paying out more cord - then he may as well use a regular leash! Retractable leashes also send the dog confusingly mixed messages: sometimes you have to stay close; sometimes you can go 30 feet away. This plainly encourages dogs to pull frequently to test the distance allowed at any given time. I don’t recommend their use. The concerns mentioned above about long lines also apply to retractable leads. Here are some additional caveats:
1) If the line does get wrapped around dog or human, the narrow cord can cause serious injury - burns, cuts, even amputation of digits.
2) Unlike a long line, which must constantly be managed, it’s easy for an owner to be inattentive to the retractable
leash, since it manages itself. Inattentive users may inadvertently allow their dogs to do inappropriate things, like rudely approaching other dogs and people.
3) The handle can be cumbersome to hold and is easily dropped. When dropped, the clatter can frighten the dog, and if he bolts, he is chased by the loud, clattering handle. This can pose a disaster for a frightened dog!
Collars and Harnesses for Dogs
Flat Collars: Buckle or snap; nylon, cloth, or leather; this is a neutral, inoffensive tool. Its primary purpose is for hanging ID tags; providing an attachment for a leash is its secondary use. Of course, “the fool” can misuse a flat collar, but it’s not intended to be used aversively. The potential for misuse of a flat collar includes forgetting to adjust it as your dog grows (shelters around the country come upon dogs with ingrown collars from time to time - grounds for cruelty charges); yanking on the leash to “correct” your dog; and adjusting it too loosely around your dog’s neck so that he can back out of it and escape. Flat collars may cause real physical damage to chronic leash-pullers if used for being led. See, "Can a Collar Damage a Dog's Thyroid?" for more information. Any collar poses a risk to dogs who wear them in certain situations where they can become entangled, such as while playing at the dog park.
Limited-Slip Collars: Also called a martingale or Greyhound collar, the limited-slip collar is a flat collar with a loop incorporated into the product so the collar tightens around the dog’s neck if he tries to back out of it - a maneuver that some dogs are quite skilled at performing. Properly adjusted, the collar tightens just to the size of the dog’s neck, and doesn’t cause choking. Limited-slip collars are especially useful for dogs with narrow heads, who can easily slip out of even a moderately tight collar. I recommend them to some of my clients, and we use one on our Australian Shepherd, who came to us with a well-practiced collar-slipping maneuver in her behavior repertoire.
Head Collars/Halters: Hailed as a positive training tool when it first arrived on the scene in the mid-1990s, the head halter has stirred much discussion among trainers. This tool works like a halter on a horse; it controls the dog’s head, and where the head goes, the body must follow. Some halter proponents suggest that it also mimics the sensation of a mother dog carrying her puppy by the scruff and that this function calms the dog wearing the halter. I’m not convinced, and I haven’t seen any studies to support this hypothesis. To the human perception, the head halter appears much more positive than a chain, prong, or shock collar around a dog’s neck. To a significant number of dogs, however, the halter seems to be at least mildly (and in many cases greatly) aversive. Most dogs need to be desensitized to a head halter prior to actual use. If you put it on without a gradual introduction and lots of association with a reinforcer (treats!) you’re likely to get lots of resistance from the dog - pawing and clawing at the halter, bucking against the leash, and attempts to rub it off. Many dogs, even when they’ve accepted it, will still try to rub it off if given the opportunity. In addition, the head halter tends to suppress behavior and subdue the wearer. People often mistake “subdued” for “calm.” If your dog’s whole personality changes - his tail droops, his eyes lose their sparkle - then you’re looking at a subdued dog, not a calm one. There may be times when that’s useful, but a positive training program generally avoids behavior suppression and encourages the dog to offer behaviors that can be reinforced. There are a number of different models of head halter. Each new design that comes on the scene purports to be more easily accepted by the dog. That tells you something! This is one of the tools that positive trainers disagree about. I still have head halters in my supply cabinet and may find a rare occasion to use one, but I generally encourage clients to consider other options. Other trainers rely heavily on head halters, and report very little problem with acclimating their clients’ dogs to them. As always, your dog is the one who should decide. If he tells you he finds it aversive, listen. One of the concerns about head halter use is the potential for injury to the dog’s spine if he lunges at the end of the leash and the halter pulls his head sideways. Until recently, the inventor of the original design stoutly asserted that there were no proven cases of injury related to head halter use. In 2007, one clearly verifiable incident was reported of a dog suffering injury to the nervous system as a direct result of the head halter. The dog recovered.
Walking Harness: A well-fitted walking harness presents little in the way of aversive application. It’s an excellent option to prevent pressure on and damage to the trachea - useful for dogs who have suffered tracheal injury, as well as dogs in general. Because it is so comfortable, a walking harness can actually contribute to the reinforcement of pulling behavior, especially if the human on the other end of the leash allows the dog to move forward while pulling. Because the harness straps distribute pressure across the dog’s chest, discomfort is mild, if it exists at all, and it’s easy for the dog to pull. That’s why they use harnesses for sled dogs! Another consideration is that the leash usually attaches to a ring on the harness at the middle of the dog’s back, which gives the human very little control of the dog’s front end. Properly used in training, with reinforcement for appropriate leash behavior, a walking harness can complement a positive training program. Some walking harnesses offer a ring in front, at the dog’s chest, similar to front-clip control harnesses (below). That may be a good choice for the dog who does well in a walking harness but tends to pull. Take a look at our 2018 Best Dog Harnesses Review if you decide a harness is best for your dog. Get background information on harness types and uses by reading, "Choosing the Right Harness for Your Dog."
No-Pull Squeeze Harness: This type of harness has straps that tighten around the dog’s front legs when he pulls. There are several different brands, but they all function similarly. This tool may be mildly aversive, or simply provide a novel sensation that causes the dog to slow down. Either way, in order to be effective, the trainer must reinforce the improved leash behavior provided by the dog’s response to pressure, or the dog tends to fairly quickly learn to pull despite the pressure. In the models I’ve seen, the leash attaches to a ring on the dog’s back, again giving little control of the front end. Dogs don’t seem to find them particularly aversive, but I’m not sure they’re particularly effective.
Front-Clip Control Harnesses: This training tool offers one significant advantage over most walking harnesses: the leash attaches to a ring at the front of the dog’s chest, providing better control of the dog’s front end. The majority of dogs accept this tool without protest, and for many, there is an instantaneous and significant decrease in pulling and increase in owner control. Combined with reinforcement for polite walking this is my positive tool of choice for dogs who pull. That said, it’s not the right tool for all dogs. A small percentage of dogs do object to the harness. Also, some dogs are difficult to fit, and others experience chafing under the front legs where the straps can rub. Attaching your leash to the front ring of a regular walking harness (some have it, some don’t - shop carefully!) may be a better choice for dogs who have trouble with the front-clip control version.
What's Best for Your Dog?
Again, you have to decide which equipment best suits your dog. Keep the pros and cons of each training tool in mind, be true to your training philosophy, listen to and respect your dog, and let thesun shine.
Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is Training Editor of Whole Dog Journal.
Training your Puppy
What type of training equipment do I need?
To get started, you will need a flat collar, a leash for walking (about 6' long), a training leash (15'-20' long), a container for treats, and a way to mark behavior (clicker). For basic training, some things to avoid are: retractable leashes, choke collars, prong collars, e-collars, harnesses, head collars (gentle leader type), dog whistles and muzzles. Below is an article which will help to explain the options available for positive training.
How do I use a clicker to train my puppy?
Here are " Fifteen Tips for Getting Started with the Clicker" by Karen Pryor. They were originally published on 04/01/2002 on her website: https://clickertraining.com
1) Push and release the springy end of the clicker, making a two-toned click. Then treat.
2) Keep the treats small. Use a delicious treat at first: for a dog or cat, little cubes of roast chicken, not a lump of kibble.
3) Click DURING the desired behavior, not after it is completed. The timing of the click is crucial. Don't be dismayed if your pet stops the behavior when it hears the click. The click ends the behavior. Give the treat after that; the timing of the treat is not important.
4) Click when your dog or other pet does something you like. Begin with something easy that the pet is likely to do on its own. (Ideas: sit; come toward you; touch your hand with its nose; lift a foot; touch and follow a target object such as a pencil or a spoon.)
5) Click once (in-out.) If you want to express special enthusiasm, increase the number of treats, not the number of clicks.
6) Keep practice sessions short. Much more is learned in three sessions of five minutes each than in an hour of
boring repetition. You can get dramatic results, and teach your pet many new things, by fitting a few clicks a
day here and there in your normal routine.
7) Fix bad behavior by clicking good behavior. Click the puppy for relieving itself in the proper spot. Click for paws on the ground, not on the visitors. Instead of scolding for making noise, click for silence. Cure leash-
pulling by clicking and treating those moments when the leash happens to go slack.
8) Click for voluntary (or accidental) movements toward your goal. You may coax or lure the animal into a movement or position, but don't push, pull, or hold it. Let the animal discover how to do the behavior on its
own. If you need a leash for safety's sake, loop it over your shoulder or tie it to your belt.
9) Don't wait for the "whole picture" or the perfect behavior. Click and treat for small movements in the right
direction. You want the dog to sit, and it starts to crouch in back: click. You want it to come when called, and it takes a few steps your way: click.
10) Keep raising your goal. As soon as you have a good response-when a dog, for example, is voluntarily lying
down, coming toward you, or sitting repeatedly-start asking for more. Wait a few beats, until the dog stays
down a little longer, comes a little further, sits a little faster. Then click. This is called "shaping" a behavior.
11) When your animal has learned to do something for clicks, it will begin showing you the behavior
spontaneously, trying to get you to click. Now is the time to begin offering a cue, such as a word or a hand signal. Start clicking for that behavior if it happens during or after the cue. Start ignoring that behavior when
the cue wasn't given.
12) Don't order the animal around; clicker training is not command-based. If your pet does not respond to a cue, it is not disobeying; it just hasn't learned the cue completely. Find more ways to cue it and click it for the desired behavior. Try working in a quieter, less distracting place for a while. If you have more than one pet, separate them for training, and let them take turns.
13) Carry a clicker and "catch" cute behaviors like cocking the head, chasing the tail, or holding up one foot. You
can click for many different behaviors, whenever you happen to notice them, without confusing your pet.
14) If you get mad, put the clicker away. Don't mix scoldings, leash-jerking, and correction training with clicker
training; you will lose the animal's confidence in the clicker and perhaps in you.
15) If you are not making progress with a particular behavior, you are probably clicking too late. Accurate timing is important. Get someone else to watch you, and perhaps to click for you, a few times.
Puppy Care Questions & Answers
When can my puppy attend puppy classes?
Your puppy should start classes as soon as possible. Some trainers will let puppies start at 8 weeks of age, provided they have had their first set of immunizations. Other trainers prefer puppies to start at 12 weeks or older. If you are so inclined, you can hire a private trainer to come to your house. The 8 -12 week stage is very impressionable and a puppy is ready to start learning basic commands at 8 weeks of age.
Is it true that every interaction is training?
Yes, every single time you interact with your puppy, you are teaching him/her how to behave. Your puppy will do whatever s/he thinks will get the outcome s/he wants. So, think about which behaviors you want your puppy to have, then encourage those, while discouraging (or at LEAST ignoring) all the ones you don't want.