To say there’s a new dog walking tool on the market every month these days is only a slight exaggeration. The last ten years have seen an explosion of (often derivative and sometimes innovative) variation in dog walking collars, harnesses, and leashes. As a professional dog walker, how do you decide what to use when walking the dogs entrusted to you?
Given how rapidly the options shift these days, this article doesn’t endeavor to list and rate all the available collars, harnesses, leashes, and the like on the market. Rather, our goal is to provide a framework to help you sort through it all to make your choices.
Before getting down to any decision making, take a moment to identify your professional dog walking needs. Who are the dogs you walk? What kind of walks do you take, and where? What do you need your equipment to help you accomplish?
A dog bolting off and being hit by a car or becoming lost is every dog walker’s worst nightmare. A dog hyper aroused or excited to chase or get to something, or a dog who is frightened or startled, can easily back out of a regular flat collar. For this reason, and to avoid the common tracheal damage many dogs endure over a lifetime of pulling, don’t clip your leash to a dog’s flat collar—or at least not to that alone.
A dog is far less likely to work her way out of a properly-fitted front or back clip harness. And if you have a fearful dog you know is easily startled, you might also look at safety or martingale collars, which have an extra loop mechanism that prevents dogs from backing out of them in a panic.
Stop the Pulling
Being dragged along by one’s four-legged charges is not top of any dog walker’s goal list. And of course, pulling isn’t just about the frustration and discomfort of being dragged about. It can be a safety issue, too. Strong pullers, especially those who specialize in sudden bursts (after a cat, squirrel, or pigeon, for example), can pull out of your hands or pull you literally off your feet and onto your knees.
Plenty of equipment options are designed to significantly reduce pulling, such as the many front-clip harnesses on the market. For light to moderate pullers, a front-clip harness will usually do the trick. (A harness with a leash clip on the dog’s back will aid a dog’s pulling, rather than reduce it.)
If you’re walking a particularly strong puller for whom a front-clip harness just doesn’t cut it, a properly fitted head halter will provide you with the most control.
Manage Problem Behaviors
If you walk a dog who barks, growls, or lunges at other dogs or at people, control is paramount. For leash reactivity, a head halter is your best option. You can literally guide the dog’s head away from a trigger to look toward you instead, avoiding and minimizing reactivity outbursts and the chances of the dog you’re walking making contact with others.
If there is cause for concern that a dog you walk may bite (especially if they have a history of biting and/or a bite on record), a basket muzzle can provide an extra layer of safety and protection for all involved.
Basket muzzles can also help in situations where dogs compulsively consume items or objects dangerous to their health, like balls or rocks.
Know the Drawbacks & Risks
Most equipment choices come with a downside. Be sure to thoroughly research the pros and cons of anything you consider using so that you can avoid or minimize those risks and take best advantage of the service the equipment offers.
Harnesses. Many harnesses can create sore spots under some dogs’ armpits—particularly dogs with thin fur or delicate skin. Many harness options now incorporate extra padding to help avoid this. Look for these and check daily for any redness or irritation until you’re sure a new harness is a good fit.
Head halters. The superior control head collars provide come with larger risks, too. It’s imperative that head collars not be used with longer leads, and that dogs not be allowed to run and hit the end of even a typical 5- or 6-foot lead. Because of the way these collars work, doing so can whip the neck dangerously.
Head collars are also a new experience for dogs used to wearing a flat neck collar, so most dogs need to be eased into wearing them using a careful process of desensitization. Skipping this step will cause many dogs distress and result in obsessive attempts to remove the collar instead of enjoying their walks. For fastest results getting through this process, ask or require your clients to hire a dog trainer to teach their dog to love wearing a head collar before you attempt to use it.
A final note on head halters: These are best used in conjunction with positive reinforcement training, especially for issues like leash reactivity. Controlling where the dog looks can reduce incidents and bring you peace of mind. For some dogs, though, it can be frustrating and aversive, and contribute to the negative emotions driving the reactive behavior. Ideally, particularly in more severe cases, you would work hand-in-hand with a professional positive reinforcement dog trainer to address the dog’s reactivity while using the head halter to manage the situation.
Muzzles. The same goes with muzzles. A dog can learn to love wearing a muzzle, but that has to be taught using desensitization, too. Done properly, you’ll have a dog who eagerly sticks her nose into her muzzle, excited to have it put on. Rush or forego this training process and you’ll have a dog who’s miserable in her muzzle, unable to enjoy her walk because she spends most of it trying to scratch or rub herself free of the thing stuck to her snout.
It’s also critically important that you choose a basket-style muzzle. Cloth or grooming muzzles do not allow for proper panting and are extremely dangerous for a dog to wear while exercising. Visit The Muzzle Up Project for more information about muzzle safety, training, and comfort.
Leave Pain Behind
Leave prong, choke, and shock collars off your list. With so many effective pain-free options available, there’s no need to take on the risks associated with these tools. Research studies have clearly demonstrated both physical injury (notably to dogs’ tracheas, particularly over a lifetime of use) and negative behavioral side effects (such as development of aggression) due to the use of prong, choke, and shock collars. As a result, many countries now prohibit their use.
Making Your Final Choices
Once you’ve determined the general type of equipment you’re after—harness, head collar, safety collar, etc.—it’s time to begin your research. There are leading brands and products that are most likely to be found in your local shops, and it may be easiest to start there.
But if you aren’t fully satisfied with the most common options, take a tour around the internet and you’ll find an impressive array of variations, each with its own innovations and claims, perks and features—harnesses that are less likely to chafe, head halters dogs take to more readily, versions that are easier to fit or put on, etc., etc. With a little experimentation you’ll find what works best for you and the dogs you walk.
Need help convincing clients to go along with your equipment choices? This post should help: Dog Walking Equipment—The Choice Is Yours (Not Your Clients’)