Flat buckle, limited slip, choke chain, head halter, harness… the variety of collars and “walking tools” (collars and harnesses used to faciliate a casual walk) can be mindboggling.
As a “pit bull” owner, dog foster, and volunteer dog handler, I have put all kinds of dogs on a leash, from the incorrigible pullers to the placid paw-draggers. And I have used all types of collars and harnesses. On this page, I’ll try to guide you through the sea of options.
However, if you are really having difficulties, please consult with a trainer or canine behaviorist for face-to-face assistance. Many of these collars and training tools can be tricky to use, and can put your dog’s health (or behavior) at risk if misused. Expert guidance can be a real time and money saver.
Every dog needs an “everyday” wearable collar that can hold its identification tags, just in case it strays. Even if your dog is an indoor dog, there are many reasons why your dog could stray away from home. Theft or a house fire are two possibilities.
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If you crate or kennel your dog, make sure the collar can’t catch on the crate. A dog might strangle itself by getting the collar, buckle, or tags caught between wires or in a door hinge. If you remove your dog’s collar when it is crated, consider microchipping your dog, so the dog still has identification in an emergency.
Collar materials: For a large dog, only two materials are suitable: nylon or leather. Nylon collars are the most common and least expensive. Leather tends to be expensive, but it looks good and is very strong. Do not use a metal collar (unsafe) or a cloth collar (too weak).
Collar size: For medium and large dogs, a wide (1″ to 2″) collar fits best. To determine the proper collar length, wrap a cloth tape measure around the dog’s neck where his or her collar usually sits. Don’t pull too tight—but there shouldn’t be any looseness in the tape measure either. If you don’t have a cloth tape measure, you can measure with a piece of string or ribbon. Hold the string against a regular ruler to get the length.
If you are buying a custom-made collar, the neck circumference is the measurement you will give to the collar maker. However, mass-produced collars (the kind you buy from chain pet stores) use a slightly different sizing chart. You must add about five inches to your dog’s actual neck measurement. Most medium-sized “pit bulls” have a 17″ neck; this means they will fit in mass-produced collars that are 22″ or longer.
Buckles: Plastic buckles “snap” together easily and are popular, but they are weak. Don’t expect the buckle to hold if you are trying to restrain a strong puller. Get a collar with a metal buckle if your dog is strong.
The flat-buckle collar is the most common type of dog collar. It comes in a variety of materials, colors, sizes, and buckles. This type of collar is a perfect “everyday” collar for a dog.
Please do not buy a spiked collar for a pit bull. A spiked collar makes a dog look dangerous. On a “pit bull,” this reinforces a negative stereotype. Some guys (like my husband) aren’t wild about the cutesy collars flooding the pet stores nowadays. There are some very nice “masculine” collars out there that do not have spikes. Check out Dozer’s ranger star collar. The collar makes him look like a “good guy” without being cutesy.
The ultimate goal of loose-leash training is to produce a dog that walks nicely on leash with only a flat-buckle collar. If you have a dog that pulls very hard when you walk him, you will need a special collar or training device in conjunction with loose-leash training.
The limited-slip collar does not have a buckle. It slides over the dog’s head and is then tightened to proper fit.
A limited-slip collar tightens and loosens depending on the tautness of the leash. This slight pressure provides feedback to the dog as it learns to walk on a loose leash.
The limited-slip collar has some significant advantages over other types of collars. Unlike a choke chain, which can tighten dangerously, a properly fitted limited-slip collar has metal stops that prevent the collar from tightening more than a few inches (hence the term limited slip).
The limited-slip collar will tighten just enough to keep the collar from slipping over the dog’s head if the dog tries to “back out.” At the local humane society where I volunteered as a dog handler, limited-slip collars were required for those of us who walked dogs that were more difficult to manage because they pulled, lunged, or bolted. The limited-slip collar ensured that the dog could not break loose and run off.
The collar loop also doubles as a convenient handle to hold the dog close to you.
The limited-slip collar can be used in conjunction with other training tools (see below) to teach a dog to walk on a loose leash.
Use one of the following devices, in addition to loose-leash training, to teach your dog how to walk politely at your side. These devices are effectively a temporary solution to prevent your dog from pulling while you are teaching him to walk on a loose leash. Your long-term goal is to wean your dog off the training collar or harness and onto a flat collar.** Some owners use these tools indefinitely because they have decided, for whatever reason, that loose-leash training is not possible. There is nothing wrong with this.
Every dog is different; none of these training devices are “right” for all dogs, and none of them are “wrong” for all dogs. It may take you a while to find the tool that works for you.
I strongly recommend professional assistance for proper fitting and use of these devices, as well as the correct method of loose-leash training that should be employed in conjunction with the particular tool. Used improperly, some of these tools can injure, frighten, or stress your dog.
The following collars and harnesses are not for everyday wear. For safety, when you are not walking your dog, take these devices off.
A canine head halter uses gentle pressure to guide the dog, the way a horse’s head halter does. The nylon device loops over the nose and buckles behind the ears. The leash clips to a loop under the chin. When the dog pulls forward, the owner gently pulls back. The motion draws the dog’s muzzle down or to the side, making forward motion impossible for the dog. When the head halter works for a dog, it really works.
Some people confuse the head halter for a muzzle, but it is not a muzzle. The dog can still open and shut its mouth quite normally and is still capable of biting. However, the halter can be used to draw the mouth shut temporarily.
However, the head halter can be difficult to fit properly. Also, some dogs have trouble getting used to (or simply don’t get used to) the halter. For some dogs, the head halter irritates the eyes. I know at least one dog that actually cut himself while pushing against the nose loop.
Dogs with very short muzzles (e.g. Boxers, English Bulldogs) should not wear a head halter because the nose loop will slip off or cause damage to a brachycephalic dog’s nose.
The Easy Walk harness has a loop on the chest where the leash hooks. When the dog pulls forward, the pressure turns the dog’s chest to the side and stops the pulling. The harness also hinders jumping and lunging behaviors.
This is my preferred walking tool for extreme pullers, especially foster dogs that I will not have long enough to train. The Easy Walk stops the pulling immediately and without fuss. I can even control large, strong, unruly dogs without much effort. The Easy Walk makes it impossible for a dog to gain the leverage needed to pull.
This type of harness can irritate skin under the dog’s front legs. Some owners have cut moleskin pads to wrap around the harness where it rubs.
The slip lead is a nylon or cloth strip that acts as collar and lead, and is often used in veterinary or animal control fields where a collar-and-leash combination is not practical. The choke collar is typically made of a linked metal chain. The choke collar and the slip lead work using the same principles.*
Many people disagree about the proper use of the choke collar. Some people use it to pull their dog back when it pulls forward. Others use it to issue a correction, a form of negative feedback.
The choke collar has some major disadvantages. The chain will tighten infinitely. Many people do not know that there is a right way and a wrong way to put the collar on. They also do not know how to use it. Some people choke the dog as it yanks, drags, and retches its way down the sidewalk. This is not the proper way to use the choke collar. This collar is rarely used safely.
Because of the danger that an improperly-used choke collar poses to a dog, because it is so difficult to use the choke collar safely, and because the choke collar is primarily a negative feedback device (punishment device), I do not recommend its use in most cases. Most dogs can be handled just as easily, and more safely, with an Easy Walk harness or a limited-slip collar. The choke collar has no advantages over other training devices.* The slip lead as it is used in veterinary or shelter practice is simply a convenient collar and leash in one. It is easy to store, easy to clean, and easy to use in any situation where dogs are not wearing collars. Therefore, although the choke chain and the slip lead work in similar ways, the two devices serve two different functions and are used by different types of people. I do not have the same strong concerns about the slip lead that I have about the choke chain.
The prong collar, like the choke chain, is made of metal links. Unlike the choke chain, the prong collar is limited-slip, meaning it only tightens a certain amount before stopping. The prong collar uses metal spikes (prongs) that pinch the dog’s neck when the collar tightens.
The prong collar looks painful, but, when properly fitted and used, it can be very effective at stopping some dogs from pulling. However, it is too harsh for timid dogs, no matter their size or breed. Additionally, as with the choke chain, you must understand the safe and correct way to use this collar. As with the choke chain, unfortunately, many owners do not understand how to use this tool correctly, and instead prefer to let the dog yank and drag and hack its way along.
I urge you to get professional assistance if you want to try this training tool.
I personally don’t recommend these collars for pit bulls because the collars look scary and reinforce the myth that pit bulls are unmanageable beasts that need serious hardware to keep them under control. As with the choke chain, the prong collar has no advantage over a nylon limited-slip collar or an Easy Walk harness, and seems unnecessary.