I realize I've talked about leashes many times here on my blog, but I get questions about leashes and leash walking more often than almost anything else. It doesn't matter if a dog has anxiety or is anxiety-free, his or her owner likely still has questions about the leash. Some people want to know what the "right" leash is for their particular dog, many want to better understand why their dogs pull on the leash, and more importantly, how can they stop that behavior. And for my clients with anxious dogs, how they use those leashes is critical to helping their dogs manage their anxiety on a daily basis.
First and foremost, never use a retractable leash on any dog. Yes, I know people who can use these leashes with some success, but the majority of the dog owners I've seen using them are having trouble. Plus, they truly aren't safe for dogs; I could tell you horror stories about dogs who've died on retractable leashes, but I won't. Most small to medium sized dogs need a 4-6 foot leash for walking; medium to larger dogs, a 6-8 foot leash is perfect. If you want your dog to have more freedom to explore, but still be on leash and under your control, get them a long line as well. Long lines are made of the same material as most leashes (nylon), have a similar metal thumb release clasp, and come in varying lengths from 10 feet up to 100 feet! For my dogs, I'm comfortable putting them on a long line that is 20 feet in length for safe exploring and for practicing their recall.
How you attach the leash to your dog makes a difference as well. If your dog pulls, regardless of size, then a collar may not be your best option. Particularly for smaller dogs, collars can put a lot of undue pressure on their necks which could result in damage to their trachea. Even for medium to large sized dogs, hard-core pullers will be gasping, coughing, and gagging while they pull on leash, and that could result in tracheal damage. While I know that there are people who put pinch/prong/correction collars on their pulling dogs, that will never be my go-to solution. Rather, I'll be suggesting a head halter for that dog or a "Freedom No-Pull Harness" from 2 Hounds brand. Why? Because if a head halter can control a horse, it can certainly help control a dog. And the harness from 2 Hounds has a better design and fit than other no-pull harnesses AND you can order a double connection leash to go with it. I love these leashes for pulling dogs as they utilize the two points of contact on the 2 Hounds harness, thus evening out how much pressure you and your dog feel when they pull. Plus, two leashes leading to one handle makes it feel like reins on a horse and I love that. Much easier than trying to use two separate leashes which is something I've done with clients in the past. If your dog isn't one to pull, but perhaps is one who falls behind, stops frequently, or zig-zags in front of you, then my choice for that dog would be a martingale style collar. These collars come in different widths for comfort at the neck and work well on dogs who don't pull.
Now, on to the actual walk. Walks are not about cardio exercise for you, but rather about sniffing, exploring, and relieving themselves for your dogs. You want a cardio workout? Take a brisk walk without your dog. Yes, I know that there are dogs who don't sniff, explore, or relieve themselves on walks, preferring to power walk with their owners and then head home. That's great for those dogs, but the average dog? He/she wants to sniff and explore. When they are sniffing or relieving themselves, give them enough leash to do so without feeling pressure on their neck or body. Keep the leash loose (a smile in the leash, so to speak). When dogs are doing something pleasurable, we want them to make an association between those behaviors and not feeling tension in the leash. This means the person holding the leash needs to pay attention! Don't walk with your phone in one hand, doom-scrolling, or trying to talk to someone on the phone while you walk. Focus on your dog and what they are doing. Redirect them from areas where they shouldn't be sniffing or exploring, and encouraging them to do so in areas that are safe for those behaviors. In between sniffs, your dog doesn't need to be in a competition heel. Save that strict behavior for tight spaces where you need to pass other dogs and people, or move through high traffic areas. For general walking, focus on having your dog near you, either in front, alongside, or even behind, as long as your arm isn't taut and the leash isn't straining. If you've ever seen me walking my dogs, you know that I allow them to move from side to side, walk in front of me, etc. I'm fine with all of those things as long as my arm isn't getting yanked out of the socket and we aren't trying to maneuver in tight spaces. In tight spaces, I keep my dogs next to me, not by shortening up the leash, but by using my voice and encouragement to keep them there without signaling danger by tightening that leash. How does that even work, you ask? Let me explain.
My dogs learn to walk on leash with me inside my house first, then in my yard, and then out on the street at off peak times. We move up to high traffic walks as they become more skilled at listening to my directions. Before I ever put a leash on my dogs, however, I walk them without one all around my house and yard, luring them into position with my voice and treats. That way, they learn the value of listening to me in a low pressure/low stress situation. Walking my dogs on an invisible leash means I have to get really good at keeping them focused on me as I can't resort to pulling on the leash to draw their attention back. See? Training for humans as well. I do this invisible leash walking, moving up to leash walking on home turf, with every puppy I work with, as well as every adult dog experiencing leash anxiety/reactivity/aggression. For many clients and adult dogs this seems like a step backwards, but ultimately retraining those humans and dogs on how to use a leash properly is critical to the treatment of the anxiety that drew them to contact me in the first place.
For those of you who are skeptical, thinking that's all fine and well and good, but those dogs aren't getting nearly enough exercise walking around the house and yard, my response is this: Better to have shorter, more frequent, successful, stress-free walks in your home and yard than stressful, anxiety-provoking walks of any length out in public spaces. Plus, there are all of those judgy people watching you get dragged around by your dog, yanking your dog into position, and struggling to maintain your control of the leash and your composure. I'd rather you were in a better head space and less stressed out yourself before you get out there where other people are watching you.
Anyone can put a dog on a short leash, attached to a prong/pinch collar and yank them into submission. But is that okay? In my opinion, absolutely not. Forcing a dog into submission is to ignore what they were trying to tell you with their pulling. Using force to get a dog to walk nicely on leash doesn't get at the underlying issue of why they were pulling in the first place. So, if you want to know why they are pulling AND how to fix it, then definitely let me know. Leash walking is an art as far as I'm concerned. Having your leash walks go well is such a joy and really does make you want to take your dog out to more places more often. Not to show off, per se, but to help them to see what the world has to offer if they can listen and stick with you when on leash.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.