I’ve been seeing a weird trend lately – I’m talking three dogs in the last two weeks – of people who have their dogs on choke chains with retractable leashes. I’m not a supporter of either of those tools, but especially not together, so let’s talk about why.
Choke Chains (“slip collar”):
A choke chain does what it’s name implies: it chokes your dog. It is commonly used to help dogs stop pulling, the idea being that it causes your dog pain when they pull, thus they don’t want to pull anymore. It’s no secret that I’m an R+/clicker trainer, so I’m no fan of punishment based training. However, people do what they think is best for their dog, and I’m not here to shame anyone about it, even if it isn’t the most effective method. What I will say is this: unlike the martingale collar, the slip collar doesn’t have a “stop” point; it just keeps tightening as your dog pulls (or you pull on the leash).
there is no way to control how much the choke chain tightens, so it’s possible to choke or strangle your dog. It can also cause other problems, too, such as injuries to the trachea and esophagus, injuries to blood vessels in the eyes, neck sprains, nerve damage, fainting, transient paralysis, and even death. – “Dog Collars” from The Humane Society
I do not think this is the most effective way to teach a dog to walk on a loose leash, but that can be a discussion for another day. For the sake of this post, I just want to talk about how they work, so the take away here is dog pulls or handler pulls, dog feels tightening around neck, dog stops.
I hate retractable leashes for several reasons. First of all, they give dogs up to roughly thirty feet of slack. Anyone who has ever walked a reactive dog has had the experience of working so hard to maintain their dog’s focus and have a dog run up to their dog, either off leash or on a retractable leash, ruining all the hard work they’ve been doing. (What always follows is the other dog’s owner’s inevitable “Oh, don’t worry – my dog is friendly!”, to which the owner of the reactive dog sighs, “But mine isn’t.”) You have a lack of control over your dog’s movement on a retractable leash. But that’s kind of the selling point of them too, right? To give your dog some freedom to explore while still being responsible about keeping them on leash? And I get it, that sounds good.
But let’s talk about other issues: the locks can break. You can be walking your dog on their retractable leash at a reasonable six foot length, and the lock can break (or you can accidentally bump it into the unlock position). Suddenly, at best you have a dog who is far away from you and out of control, and at worst you have a dog who bolts into traffic.
They can also cause injury to you and your pup. I’ve gotten rope burn on my hands from a lock coming undone on a retractable leash, and having to catch the line to avoid an excitable dog running into traffic. I ended up with oozing blisters on my fingers for my trouble. They’re also super strong, so if they get wrapped around a dog’s leg and the dog tries to run, it can cause injury. Lastly, I’m not going to link to it here, but I’m guessing most of my readers have seen the terrifying video of the dog whose leash gets stuck in the elevator door then it starts moving? Yeah, enough said.
And simply from a training standpoint, a dog on a retractable leash is never going to learn good leash walking manners. Because sometimes they get thirty feet to explore and sometimes they don’t, and that isn’t consistent learning. Plus, sniffing trees and meeting other dogs is self-reinforcing behaviour, so every time that dog gets to go sniff or greet something because you’ve unlocked that retractable leash, they’re learning that pulling works.
But, again, for the sake of this post, how they work: leash extends to give dog up to 30ft of freedom to explore.
Using them together:
So, this is just plain baffling to me. I’ve been seeing it more and more, and it just doesn’t make sense. I trust owners to make the best choices they know how for their dogs, so if you are walking your dog on a choke chain or a retractable leash, that’s your decision. But know what your tools do! Together just doesn’t make logical sense. Let’s think it through:
The idea behind a choke chain is that it teaches a dog that if you pull, you get pain, so don’t pull. The idea of a retractable leash is that if you pull, go ahead, and enjoy freedom to explore. If you put them together, you’re getting a dog who sometimes gets pain for pulling and sometimes gets rewarded for the freedom to explore, and dogs don’t do well with inconsistent learning. It isn’t fair on your dog to put them in this situation because there is no way they can be expected to figure out what you want from them.
Know which tools you’re using, and know why. Know how they work, and go from there.
There is nothing I love seeing more than dogs on harnesses. I don’t care if your dog is the best loose leash walker in the world, a harness is a great way to keep any pressure off your dog’s neck. For dogs who pull, front attach harnesses work wonders – a couple of my favourites are Smoochy Poochy front attach harnesses (made in Canada, come in all sorts of colours, and have reflective strips on them!) or the SENSE-ation harness – this is what Athena wears!. If you have a really big dog who is a puller, a head collar, like a Halti, might be a better option. I like the Halti specifically because it is quite padded and can attach to a collar or martingale for extra safety.
For leashes, I like Smoochy Poochy’s waist least, as it gives the hands free option. They also have the standard six foot leash, as well as longer ones for those of you who want that option. You can also get training leashes that are standard nylon leashes but are available in longer lengths, up to thirty feet. If you want your dog to have that freedom the retractable leash provides without the dangers of the retractable leash itself, this is a good one to have. It’s also good for teaching recall outdoors, or to leave as a drop leash for dogs who you don’t 100% trust at the dog park!
PS. I swear I’m not in any way affiliated with Smoochy Poochy, I just really like their products!