Barely a week goes by in my world without someone asking about my opinion on leashes or collars or even fences and what kind(s) are right for their dog. It's a much more complicated question than it appears on the surface so I figure I would tackle all 3 topics today. There are so many of these pet products available on the market today and, make no mistake, with a pet industry boasting annual profits of over a $6 billion/year these companies are looking to sell you as many as they can and are hoping that you try them all. In writing this blog, I am hoping to help my readers to invest their hard earned dollars on what they need and prevent the unnecessary spending on products that may be ineffective or worse yet, harmful to your furry friends.
COLLARS - there are so many styles, colours, materials, sizes and brands out there that it's easy to be drawn into the "collar aisle" in your local pet store for a half hour picking out Fluffy's brand new "look". Basically we recommend a flat nylon adjustable collar for the vast majority of cases. They can be sized correctly and washed frequently so they are great for everyday use in the average home. These collars make up the majority of the collar aisle so there are plenty of colours and patterns to choose from to get Fluffy looking dapper in no time. Having said this, sizing is the most important element when selecting one of these collars. Save yourself some time and take a measurement of the circumference of your dog's neck before heading out. When fitted properly, an adult should be able to easily slide 2 fingers (holding your hand flat against the dog's neck) between the collar and the dog. If you can only slide 1 finger (without pushing in against the dog) then it's too tight and likewise if you can slide 3 or more fingers, then the collar is too loose and poses an increased risk of collar injuries/fatalities or having the dog back out of their collar. If your dog spends a lot of time in the water/snow, you might want to consider the same type of flat collar in a rubberized material to prevent having a wet collar sitting on your dog for hours on end (hello "hot spots"). Rubberized collars don't usually hold a scent and are easy to keep clean and dry but they don't come in nearly as many bright vibrant colours and patterns.
Let's move on to a few of the other types of collars that are available in the collar aisle. No matter how cruel or unusual they seem to be, punishment collars remain very popular in the marketplace. When I refer to punishment collars, I am referring to choke chains, slip collars and prong collars. All of these types of collars have been developed for the sole purpose of inflicting pain or discomfort to the animal when the handler or dog tightens the leash. Many people use them to prevent a dog from pulling on their leash or for increased control over the animal when they need it (i.e. when passing another dog on a walk and your dog gets too stimulated). Keep in mind that whatever your dog is looking at when the pain is experienced is exactly what they will associate with this pain and discomfort. If your dog pulls, jumps or lunges at people or dogs passing by them when they are out for a walk and they are wearing a punishment collar, the dog will start to associate passing people and dogs with pain and it is highly likely that their negative reaction to these stimuli will intensify. The same holds true when talking about shock (aka static) collars and spray collars. Whether it's controlled automatically or manually, the owner must understand that these are training collars NOT control collars and they should only be used by a trained professional and only after all other training options to correct the behaviour have been exhausted. Even then, in my 20 years of training dogs, I have yet to find it necessary to use a static/shock collar on an animal. When comparing static vs spray collars keep in mind that static collars insert pain/discomfort into the training equation and spray collars insert distraction.
If you have chosen a choke chain/collar before or are considering one now because you're afraid that Fluffy might slip out of his collar while on a walk or heading into the vet, a viable option to consider is a Martingale collar. The Martingale is a collar that tightens with additional pulling BUT will only tighten slightly before it stops and will not choke the dog. Understand that any type of collar that tightens should not be worn on a dog at all times as a basic house collar, and should be removed promptly after training/walking periods with your pet. If you're looking for additional control, try a head halter (i.e. Gentle Leader). Your dog might not be a fan at first because it feels funny on their muzzle but it does lend to increased control of strong dogs who pull or become reactive while on leash. Keep in mind that even the head halter is a training device and should never be used in a situation when the dog would be at a running pace when they reach the end of the leash and the head halter engages.
LEASHES come in as many styles, colours, materials and sizes as collars do but to make things simple a basic 5 - 6 foot nylon leash is usually all that's required. Try to avoid leashes that are rounded like rope or those that have any type of "give" or "bounce" type of elasticity as these lend to having much less leash control. We could delve into leashes at the same rate as the collar details above and I would be happy to do so in a future blog entry if people are interested but in this case I am going to take a few moments to break down the uses for the traditional flat leash vs. the retractable leash (aka Flexi leashes). Both the traditional flat leash and the retractable leash have their time and place when it comes to taking Fluffy for a stroll but owners should be aware of the so-called ups and downs of each. Generally speaking, most dog trainers cringe at the thought of someone arriving to a group class using a retractable leash and when this happens I always swap out the retractable for a standard flat leash for the duration of the class. I do this for a couple of reasons but mainly for the safety of my four-legged students. Retractable leashes come in a variety of lengths from 6 - 26 feet and with either a flat tape style or a thin nylon cord serving as the lead itself. Due to the convenience of having a leash that automatically winds itself, owners are usually much less concerned with what Fluffy is doing at the end of the leash and where exactly Fluffy is in relation to them. This causes me a great deal of anxiety and stress because the dogs are only a moment away from a negative dog/dog incident or a leash getting wrapped around a leg and then pulled tightly resulting in rope burns or other injuries such as torn ligaments. When using a retractable leash on a sidewalk or near traffic there are a lot of things that can happen very quickly when your dog is 20 feet away from you leaves little time to correct the situation. The dog is only a fraction of a second from darting out into traffic or encountering a less friendly off leash dog. Remember, a 20 foot leash (radius) means that the dog actually has 40 feet of space (diameter) so the dog can have up to 40 feet of running momentum before coming to a screeching halt whipping the head and neck around so quickly that injury may occur. The other thing that owners should know about retractable leashes is that despite being convenient and comfy for the handler when people use this type of leash, their dog will not learn to walk nicely on a loose leash. The reason being is the physics that allow the leash to operate properly depends on the leash always being tight. In order for a dog to learn to walk nicely with a loose leash, there has to first be a loose leash and retractable leashes do not allow for this to happen. There are, however, certain times when retractable leashes are very appropriate as well as convenient. Once your dog has learned how to walk nicely on a flat leash, you can introduce the retractable leash when walking in open areas that are also away from both traffic lots of people (i.e. fields, rest stops, trails, private yard, etc.) to allow Fluffy more space to roam and stretch his legs while sniffing anything and everything. I specifically say "open areas" because retractable leashes can be very dangerous when walking through wooded areas.
FENCES also come in different styles, colours, materials and heights and there are many different options available depending on the look that you want to achieve and the budget. In this particular blog entry I will focus on the single most frequently asked question about fences.... "What do you think of electric/underground fences?". Here's what I say to people who ask this very question... be careful! There are a couple of things to be aware of before heading out to buy your underground fence. First of all, it's underground. There is no physical barrier preventing your dog from leaving the area OR from allowing other dogs, cats and critters into your yard. Despite being a valued furry family member, dogs are still dogs and they have species specific instincts that may be more instilled in them than the training provided when you introduced the underground fence. This is to say that if your dog is in hot pursuit of the squirrel or deer that was darting through your yard, the "beep" or even the shock from the fence collar might not be enough in that very moment to deter Fluffy from crossing that invisible line. So Fluffy crosses the line, chases the deer and loses the race. Now Fluffy wants to come home but as he nears his own yard, he hears the "beep" of the collar and won't cross that line to come back home. This is a definite possibility.
Underground fences also require training and a lot of it. It's not quite as "one and done" as the instruction manual makes it out to be. It's not just putting flags in the ground and walking the perimeter once or twice. The implementation of the underground fence system requires frequent training of the desired behaviour (staying in the yard) and the demonstration to Fluffy of what will happen to him when he ignores the "beep" (the shock via a static collar). Of course, you can combine this with what you read earlier in how dogs associate what they are looking at that very moment with the pain that they are receiving. Maybe Fluffy always runs out to see your neighbour walking by but it won't be long before Fluffy is no longer so friendly at the sight of your neighbour when he experiences pain every time he sees them. These fences can also create great complacency for the owners who treat an underground fence in the same manner as a physical fence. Putting your dog out for the afternoon to lounge in the treed yard for a couple of hours while unsupervised is simply not as safe and secure with an invisible line versus a physical fence.
And there you have it.... the nutshell on collars, leashes and fences... Oh MY!
I would love to hear your thoughts on our blog entries along with any suggestions for future topics. Take a moment to share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below. Until next time... TAIL WAGS!