It is important to have equipment that is safe and comfortable when teaching your dog to walk on a lead so the experience is enjoyable for both of you. Remember that teaching your dog to walk on a lead is one of the hardest skills to teach, as dogs often wish to explore the world at a much faster pace than we do.
The RSPCA recommends teaching your dog to walk on a lead by ‘loose lead walking’. Loose lead walking operates on the basic principles of reward-based training. Essentially, if a dog is walking on lead without pulling, the owner can keep walking and reward the dog for that desired behaviour. However, if the dog starts to pull, the owner should stop and stand still like a tree. By stopping, the dog is not rewarded for pulling and the dog learns that when they pull they won’t go forward.
The dog learns that when they don’t pull (and the lead is ‘loose’) they are able to continue walking forward (which is rewarding). It’s also important to reward heavily (with a small tasty dog treat, every few steps) when the dog is in the correct position – this achieves the required outcome a lot faster.
What walking equipment should be used?
Step 1: Collar and lead
First of all you need to select a suitable and comfortable collar for your dog. Collars need to be in good condition, adjusted to fit correctly and comfortable for your dog to wear. The general rule of thumb is that you need to be able to slide two fingers comfortably under the collar. Puppies grow extremely quickly so you need to check the fit of your puppy’s collar at least a few times a week. If you have a medium or large breed puppy, you will need to purchase a small collar initially, and reinvest in new collars as your dog outgrows them.
Check chains (choker chains or slip collars) or pronged/pinch collars must not be used as they cause pain and distress to animals.
Martingale collars can be a good choice for a dog whose neck is not appreciably narrower than their head (e.g. a greyhound or whippet), or for when you really want to make sure that the dog can’t slip its collar. These should be fitted so the 2 rings just meet when the collar fits snugly (it is very important to ensure the martingale collar does not choke the dog when the collar tightens). Check with your reward-based trainer.
Secondly, you’ll need to select a suitable and comfortable lead (leash). Leads need to be in good condition and of a suitable size for your dog. Thick leads with large clips are often too weighty for small dogs and can put undue pressure on the neck and spine. Thin leads with small clips are unsuitable for large dogs as they will break. Leads should be long enough to allow your dog some range to explore when on walks, while staying within the limits of the lead length (approximately 2 metres). A short lead will set your dog up to pull.
Extendable or bungee leads are not recommended for walking as they give you less control and, if your dog takes off and reaches the end of the lead, they can receive a jerk which could damage their neck. They also encourage pulling.
What if my dog is still pulling after trying ‘loose-lead walking’ with a suitable collar and lead?
Step 2: Front-attach harness
Some dogs pull strongly on the lead no matter how much training you put in, and some owners are unable to invest the necessary time to teach their dogs loose-lead walking with a collar and lead. The most appropriate management tool in these instances for most dogs is a front-attach harness. This is a gentle training aid that helps to stop dogs from pulling. Ask your reward-based trainer to assist you in fitting a front-attach harness for your dog and how to use them.
We strongly recommend that you use a double-ended lead with a front-attach harness. A double-ended lead can be made by threading the handles of two normal leads together, or you can purchase one. One end of the lead is clipped to the front of the harness and the other to the back of the harness or normal neck collar. The dog is led from the back attachment and the front one used for turning if they start to pull.
What about head collars?
While head collars were often used in the past to control pulling, their place has largely been taken by front-attach harnesses, which are very effective and generally well tolerated by the dog. If used inappropriately, head collars can cause discomfort or injury as the dog’s head can be jerked to the side. Dogs also have to be trained to accept them. Many dogs do not tolerate head collars and appear to find them uncomfortable and distressing: they should not be considered without first trying loose-lead walking and a front-attach harness as the first options.
If your dog is still pulling, consult a reward-based trainer for further advice. If your trainer does recommend a head collar (after having first tried other options), they will fit it and explain to you how to use it.